Elk and Wildflowers

Young male elk in a field
Curious yearling tule elk with his first set of new antlers

It’s spring! It was especially sweet to get out during this bright season after being laid up for a while from a couple injuries. Hiking after being sedentary opened my eyes anew to the beauty of the season in general and to Point Reyes National Seashore in particular.

Tomales Point is a long, narrow peninsula at the western edge of North America, with a trail along the high ridgeline. It’s a place of drama throughout the seasons—biting winds, dense fog, heavy rain, battering waves against the rocks far below. It’s the home of tule elk, a subspecies found only in California, where the bulls battle each other with their giant antlers in the fall breeding season, and the watchful cows protect their calves from coyotes and mountain lions in late spring and summer.

It had been years since I’d been on the Tomales Point Trail and it was a treat to explore with friends. We were bundled up against the wind but savored the clear views for miles—with the rough waves of the ocean in one direction and the calm sheltered waters and cliffs along Tomales Bay on the other—and the colorful pop of wildflowers.

Orange California poppies in grass
California poppy, the official state flower
Purple iris blooming in grass
Field of Douglas iris
White and yellow wild strawberry flower in grass
Wild strawberry

It didn’t take long for us to spot groups of elk, silhouetted against the blue ocean blurring into the sky. This time of year, the adults segregate themselves by gender. The cows with their large bellies were visibly in the late stage of pregnancy, and there were a few of last year’s calves in their herds. Used to hikers in the national park, they watched us from only a few yards away as we approached along the trail, and then returned to grazing when we stopped to gaze at them. I’m guessing they would have been alarmed if we had stepped away from the trail, but they seemed to understand there was an established route that people travel on.

Group of elk grazing in a field
Elk cows and Douglas iris
Purple flower in grass
Douglas iris
Female elk standing in a field with purple flowers
Pregnant elk in a field of iris with the ocean behind her

Along the trail we saw another herd running in the distance, likely a group of males. Bulls don’t have their antlers this time of year and the heads of both genders look similar. but even from a distance, they looked a lot slimmer than the pregnant females.

Elk on the run, probably all males

I have not visited Tomales Point at this time of year previously. I was amazed at how relaxed the elk are in the spring—they weren’t amped up on hormones as they are during the fall mating season.

Female elk lying down in a field
Young male elk

This yearling was quite curious about the hikers walking by. At one point he stood right on the trail. We waited for him to rejoin the rest of his herd so that we didn’t startle him. He will eventually join a group of young males who will spar with each other playfully until they are mature.

I’m thinking I’ll come back to Tomales Point after the calves are born. I’m wondering if the cows will be protective and stay further away. I’m looking forward to exploring in a new season.

What wildlife and flowers are you seeing this spring where you live? Please share in the comments.

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