Kit Fox

Kit Fox

Blue light fills the cab of my pickup as lightning crashes into the ground all around me. In the midst of a fierce desert thunderstorm, I am watching an animal that hasn’t been documented in Colorado for nearly 20 years – Vulpes macrotis, commonly known as the kit fox.

The kit fox is an arid land fox inhabiting the sagebrush and shrubland west of the Rocky Mountains. It has a slim body with a grizzled yellow-gray coat, long slender legs, and a bushy tail. Its exceptionally large ears are the biggest of any North American canine relative to its size. The kit fox is well adapted to life in the desert. It needs to drink little or no water, utilizing liquid from prey to stay hydrated. The pads of its feet are insulated with tufts of course hair for protection from scorching sands. During the day, the kit fox rests in its multi-entrance den to stay cool and conserve water. By night, it forages for prey, which primarily consists of jackrabbits, cottontails, and rodents, including prairie dogs and kangaroo rats.

The kit fox is listed as a State Endangered Species in Colorado. The eastern margin of its range just barely extends into the state in Mesa, Garfield, Delta, and Montrose counties. Although it was probably never common in Colorado, historical records suggest that populations have declined since the mid-20th century. The reasons for this decline are not well understood, but likely factors include climate variability, use of poisons for predator control, and competition with coyotes and red foxes. The last kit fox recorded in Colorado was in 1996 during a study by J.P. Fitzgerald.

Swift Fox

The swift fox is similar to the kit fox, but has smaller ears and inhabits the grasslands of the eastern plains.

Beginning in 2008, ecologist Melissa Reed-Eckert began an extensive search for kit foxes in western Colorado as a master’s student at the University of Colorado. Baited stations consisting of track plates and wire brushes to snag hair samples were strategically placed at 136 sites throughout the kit foxes historical Colorado range. As part of her thesis, she sought to demonstrate how variations in climate affect species like the kit fox at the margins of suitable habitat. The effort of surveys such as this are commonly measured in trap-nights. That is to say, the number of traps deployed times the number of nights the trap is left out in the field. Reed-Eckert’s study resulted in a total of over 3,800 trap nights in Colorado. The stations detected red foxes, dogs, raccoons, and skunks, but no confirmed kit foxes. Only a questionable, but probable, track at one station hinted at the possibility of a kit fox existing in the study area.

After reading Reed-Eckert’s thesis, I felt the odds of photographing a kit fox in Colorado were abysmal. It appeared that the kit fox may be gone for good from the state. Nevertheless, I wanted to roll the dice myself and spend some time exploring Colorado kit fox habitat. I’ve had success finding swift foxes on the eastern plains by driving the backroads at dawn and dusk and watching for the tell-tale glint of golden fur on the prairie. I knew I couldn’t top previous efforts by the likes of Fitzgerald and Reed-Eckert, but I decided to spend a few days using this approach on my way to and from photographing known kit fox sites in Utah.

Kit Fox

A young kit fox explores the outside world near Moab, Utah.

I was astonished when my tactics worked in short order. Was my sighting a one in a million occurrence? If not, how many more kit foxes might be living in Colorado? Perhaps climatic conditions have been favorable in the years since Reed-Eckert’s survey, promoting the survival of both prey and predator.

In 2005, 12 man-made dens and 42 quick escape tunnels were installed by Rocky Mountain Wild and the Bureau of Land Management. With openings that are large enough for a kit fox, but too small for a coyote to pass, these dens help protect future kit foxes against predation. To avoid extirpation in Colorado, kit foxes need suitable contiguous habitat, away from human build up and the associated red foxes, coyotes, and domestic dogs that follow. Additionally, they need an abundant prey base of rodents, rabbits, and hares. Finally, they need suitable den sites with the proper soil for digging, undisturbed by development and recreation. Additional measures are currently needed to identify and protect critical habitat to promote the kit foxes future in Colorado.

The storm barrels east and a rainbow appears. At its end is a kit fox, and for me, that is better than a pot of gold. The fox stretches, yawns, and then disappears into its den for good. I return several more times over the coming days, but never see it again.

Kit Fox Rainbow

A kit fox at the end of the rainbow.



Madera Canyon and the Santa Rita Mountains

This spring, we returned to the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona.  Tucked away on the western side of the range, about halfway between Tucson and the Mexico border is the quaint oasis of Madera Canyon.

Madera Creek

Madera Creek provides an oasis for wildlife surrounded by the vast Sonoran Desert.

The Santa Rita Mountains are known as “Sky Islands”.  Rising abruptly from the Sonoran desert floor, these mountains reach heights of nearly 9,453’ at their highest point, the summit of Mount Wrightson.  This dramatic topography creates a climate that provides habitat for a rich array of wildlife.

On our previous trip, we had hoped to see a white-nosed coati.  The coati (co-AH-tee) is a member of the Procyonid (raccoon) family.  Their range extends from Columbia through Central America and just barely reaches the United States in southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Although we struck out on the coati in 2014, we had a wonderful time and decided to return for another chance.

Elegant Trogon

Madera Canyon is probably best known as a birdwatching destination.  Every spring, birdwatchers travel from around the globe for a chance to see the elegant trogon when it visits southern Arizona to nest.  The trogon is a beautiful and exotic bird.  It is also rare, with less than 50 nesting pairs estimated in the United States.

My trogon sighting came one evening while I was photographing a stretch of Madera Creek flowing over some rocks.  Off in the trees, I kept hearing a noise that sounded a bit like a barking dog.  There had been no cars at the trailhead when I left, so I knew it was unlikely to be a dog.  Not knowing exactly what it was, I set off to investigate.  It didn’t take long to locate the source of the noise – a brilliant male elegant trogon was perched high in a juniper tree.  I would have been content just to see this sought after bird under any circumstances, but after ten minutes or so, he caught a caterpillar and landed about 20’ away, granting me a wonderful photo opportunity.

Elegant Trogon

An elegant trogon about to enjoy a caterpillar.

White-nosed Coati

Coatis are one of my favorite animals. Between their long tails and flexible snouts, there is an animated characteristic about them. Since they are diurnal and I had seen some photos on the internet taken in Madera Canyon, I felt like my odds of seeing one were pretty good.

White-nosed Coati

A white-nosed coati visiting the Santa Rita Lodge.

Between my two visits, I’ve hiked over 50 miles of trails in Madera Canyon, culminating in a hike to the summit of Mount Wrightson.  I really enjoyed the trails and the views, and saw lots of neat things, but no coatis.  Ironically, on the last day of our trip this spring I spotted my first coati out the back window of our cabin as we were packing up to leave.  It was the same cabin we stayed in on our first visit and I remember on our first day commenting on how cool it would be to see a coati right out our back window.

The coati eventually found his way to the bird feeding area where he rooted around for a bit and then took a nice long nap in a nearby tree.  It was a great ending to a great trip.

More Mammals

Antelope Jackrabbit

The antelope jackrabbit is among the largest of hares.

Coues’ white-tailed deer are commonly seen in Madera Canyon, particularly around the Bog Springs Campground and near the White House Picnic Area.  The Coues’ is a subspecies of white-tail adapted for desert survival and are much smaller than their corn-fed Midwest cousins.

Antelope jackrabbits, one of the largest hares in North America, can be seen along the road between the mouth of the canyon and Continental.  The best time to see them is at dusk – keep an eye out for their enormous ears.

The pig-like collared peccary, also known as javelina, can also be seen through this area.  Both times I have seen them, they have been crossing the road within an hour or two after dark.  They tend to sleep off the hottest part of the day somewhere in the shade.

Madera Canyon is home to a multitude of other mammal species, especially the nocturnal variety. Ringtails are known to patrol outside the cabins during the night.  Four species of skunk – western spotted, striped, hooded, and hog-nosed, are all known to occur in the Santa Rita Mountains and sixteen species of bats have been recorded in Madera Canyon.

Tropical Cats

Elegant trogons and white-nosed coatis aren’t the only tropical inhabitants of the Sky Islands.  The jaguar, native to Arizona, was believed to be extirpated until being rediscovered in 1996.  Since then, up to six male jaguars have been documented in southern Arizona, including in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Ocelots also roam the Santa Rita mountains.  The ocelot is a small tropical cat with a beautiful spotted coat.  Like the jaguar, it is native in Arizona, which makes up the northernmost extent of it’s range.

Both jaguars and ocelots are federally endangered species.  Looking down from the summit of Mount Wrightson and pondering the thought that I may be sharing its slopes with an ocelot or even a jaguar is a thrill.  These species require large tracts of unbroken habitat to thrive and face increasing pressure from development, mining, and other forms of fragmentation.  Hopefully, they will continue to find their home in the Sky Islands of southern Arizona.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

A broad-billed hummingbird, one of the many hummingbird species frequently seen in Madera Canyon.

With spring around the corner, it will soon be peak season for visiting Pawnee National Grassland.  The Pawnee is one of Colorado’s best destinations for wildlife and nature photography. The vast tracts of seemingly endless shortgrass prairie are a glimpse of days past, before much of the Great Plains was converted to agriculture and center pivot irrigation.

Pawnee Buttes

Spring is a great time to hike the trail to the iconic Pawnee Buttes.

Pawnee may be best known as a bird watching destination, and if it is your first visit, the self-guided birding tour is a great place to start.  Driving the 21 mile loop, you will have a chance to get oriented while passing through some prime habitat.  The Colorado State Bird, the lark bunting, is commonly seen here, as are horned larks, burrowing owls, and Swainson’s hawks.  The complete checklist tops 300 species, and includes the mountain plover, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, and many more.

The prairie also supports many species of mammals, including the swift fox, American badger, coyote, black-tailed prairie dog, black-tailed jackrabbit, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, mule deer, and pronghorn.  Most grassland species depend on underground burrows for shelter.  You will need a bit of patience and some luck to spot them above ground, but with persistence they can all be seen on the Pawnee.

American Badger

Photographing a badger at Pawnee took me many days of effort, but I was finally rewarded.

I highly recommend a visit to Pawnee National Grassland.  It can seem a little overwhelming at first, but just as likely as not, you will find yourself returning year after year.  Here are some tips to make your visit a little smoother.

Get the Map

A good map is essential for navigating the hundreds of miles of dirt roads on the grassland, as well as for steering clear of private property.  Cellular reception is spotty, so don’t count on using your phone.  The DeLorme Colorado Atlas is a good start.  Additional maps are available from the United States Forest Service website, or visit the Pawnee National Grassland office in Greeley.

Use a Beanbag

Driving the grid roads is a great way to cover a lot of ground, but it means you’ll be shooting from your vehicle much of the time.  Pronghorns, jackrabbits, raptors, and many other animals will bolt the instant you step out of the car, so keep your camera ready and use a beanbag over the door for stabilization.  My favorite is the NatureScapes SkimmerSack.  You can fill these with birdseed, rice, buckwheat hulls, or whatever else you’ve got.

Take a Siesta at Crow Valley

The best times to view wildlife at Pawnee are at dawn and dusk.  Escape the heat of the day and save your gas by taking a siesta at the Crow Valley Park.  This little oasis features a nice picnic area to escape the sun and the only bathrooms for miles.  If it’s especially hot, run up to the AgLand Gas Station in Briggsdale for a cold drink.

A short, shady birding trail follows the river behind the picnic shelter.  This riparian zone in the middle of the prairie attracts some of the more sought after bird species.  I’ve seen white-tailed fawns nestled in the grass here, and it is also a good spot for cottontails.

Eastern Cottontail

A cottontail finds refuge at Crow Valley Park.

Mind the Gates

There are a number of public access roads on the Pawnee where ranchers lease adjacent land to graze their cows.  You may encounter closed gates, and in cattle country, the rule is if you open a gate, close it behind you.

Give the Pronghorn Room

The pronghorn is the fastest mammal in North America, and one of the fastest animals in the world.  Even though their speed can rival the cheetah, they have no jumping ability.  On a western landscape partitioned by miles of four strand barbwire fence, this is a significant impediment.  With no “hops”, the pronghorn are forced to crawl under the lowest strand of barbed wire, often incurring injury.  You can help by driving slowly when you approach pronghorn near the road and allow them to find a comfortable place to duck under the fence.

Pronghorn Crawling Under Barbed Wire

Pronghorn lack jumping ability and can only navigate barbed wire fence by crawling under the bottom strand.

Watch your Step

Last year while hiking near the Buttes, I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake crossing the trail.  Luckily, the prairie rattlesnakes found at Pawnee are not particularly aggressive, but it is either a very long drive or an expensive helicopter ride to the nearest hospital, so take care where you place your hands and feet.

While you are unlikely to encounter a rattler, the instant you step off the trail at Pawnee you will realize your true foe: the prickly pear cactus.  Pawnee is carpeted with them, and their spines will go right through street shoes and leave you hobbling for days.

Any way you look at it, a good pair of boots are a must at Pawnee.

Stay Out of the Crossfire

Unfortunately, irresponsible gun use is far too common at Pawnee.  The newly built range on County Road 96 gives responsible shooters a safe venue, but be wary of those shooting at the many roadside pullouts littered with “trigger trash”.  Once, while photographing a swift fox den, I heard the distinct buzz of a ricochet bullet zipping past me.  While I was preoccupied with photographing the foxes, some knucklehead had arrived and was firing a rifle at a buried steel pipe from point blank range.  Watch your back and don’t assume that others have bothered to check what is behind their target.

Trigger Trash

Trigger trash, shell casings and other debris left behind by irresponsible shooters, blankets many of the pullouts at Pawnee.

Keep an Eye on the Sky

Pawnee National Grassland lies in Weld County, Colorado, which claims the title “Tornado Capital of the World”.  From 1950-2011, Weld County has recorded 252 tornados, more than any other single county.  Severe thunderstorms with lightning and damaging hail are common throughout spring and summer.

There is virtually no shelter on the prairie, so it is best to monitor incoming weather before it arrives.  One of my favorite tools is an iPhone app called RadarScope, but again cell phone reception is poor out there.

Lightning at Pawnee National Grassland

Lightning strikes the prairie at Pawnee National Grassland. I photographed this from a safe distance!

Bring a Spare Tire

The Pawnee is to blame for a disproportionate number of the flat tires I have had in my lifetime.  I swear, those prickly pear spines can go right through a sidewall. Even off road tires are not immune to the sharp rocks and metal debris that you will inevitably drive over.  Be prepared, help may be a long way away.

Enjoy and Respect

Every year I see bad behavior ranging from swarming (i.e. spotting someone photographing an animal and joining them uninvited; often this is a chain reaction involving multiple parties), trespassing on private land, feeding wildlife, and stressing nesting birds or nursing mammals.  Enjoy the Pawnee and protect it.  Enough said!

Swift Foxes at Pawnee National Grassland

Swift foxes are one of my favorite species to photograph at Pawnee and I look forward to seeing them year after year.

Canada Lynx

Somebody pinch me.  Did this really happen?  I just returned from visiting Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and photographing not one, but two, Canada lynx in the wild.

The Canada lynx is a Colorado state endangered species.  For the protection of these animals, details regarding whereabouts have been omitted.

You may wonder, how does one go about photographing a Canada lynx in the wild?  When I set out on this project three years ago, I had no clue.  “It’s nearly impossible”, people insisted.  Even researchers dedicated to studying lynx rarely, if ever, encountered one outside of a trap.

Search the web and you can count the number of wild lynx photos from Colorado on one hand.  One of the most recent photos, taken in 2013 by retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife employee Steve Chaney, went viral and was picked up by the Huffington Post.

The Canada lynx was reintroduced to Colorado beginning in 1999 after being wiped out by predator poisoning, over hunting, and loss of habitat.  Prior to the reintroduction, the last verified sighting of a lynx was in 1973 near Vail.  Between 1999 and 2006, just over 200 lynx were released into the Colorado high country.  Since then, the reintroduction has been declared a success and researchers are working to monitor the size and potential expansion of the lynx population in Colorado.

Bobcat in Colorado.

The bobcat (above) and Canada lynx are often confused.

“Oh, I saw a lynx once”, people often tell me.  “Lynx, or bobcat?” I reply.  Nine times out of ten, after paging through fuzzy iPhone photos, we will determine that their lynx was, in fact, a bobcat.  Bobcats are constantly misidentified as lynx.  Although secretive, bobcats are common on the Front Range, and if you spend enough time here, you have decent odds of seeing one.  Lynx are rare, elusive, and typically live in remote stands of high altitude forest.

Lynx and bobcat can be difficult to tell apart because they are closely related.  Last year, a photo of a bobcat made the rounds in the media under the headline “Rare Mountain Lynx Spotted, Photographed near Wild Basin Lodge in Estes Park Area.”  Everything about a lynx is larger than a bobcat, but especially its massive feet.   If you are unsure, a foolproof way to tell a lynx from a bobcat is to get a good look at its tail.  The black tip on a bobcat’s tail only goes halfway around; the underside is white.  A lynx’s tail is black all around, like it’s been dipped in paint.

But back to the question at hand – how does one go about photographing a Canada lynx in the wild?  I’m still not sure I can answer, but my story begins on a wintry morning in the San Juan Mountains.

We woke up to heavy snowfall and the kind of avalanche danger that sends normal people fleeing to the patrolled boundaries of the ski resorts.  I was glad to be with experienced friends who know the local terrain.  On our way to the trailhead, we decided to make a detour to check a nearby site for lynx activity. “Nearby” in the San Juans is a relative term.  As the crow flies, it was just a few miles, but it would mean an extra hour and a half in the car. As the snow continued to fall, the risk of an avalanche burying the road and leaving us stuck loomed in our minds.

It’s funny how the subconscious works.  During the drive, my friends told me about their encounter with a pine marten last summer.  In the predawn twilight, their brains had picked up on the shape of the marten as it clung motionless to the trunk of a tree, even before they knew exactly what they were looking at.  Buried deep inside, we still possess those abilities that meant the difference between a meal and starvation to our ancestors ages ago.

Canada Lynx Tracks

Fresh Canada lynx tracks in the San Juan Mountains.

“Stop!” I called out as a set of tracks whizzed by the passenger window.  A buzzer was going off in my subconscious cave man brain.  We had seen hundreds of tracks crisscrossing the fresh snow all morning, but there was something subtly different about these.  Jumping out to investigate without bothering to lace up my boots, I struggled to identify the tracks as they filled in with snow beneath my nose.   I knew they were something I had never seen before – a short list of possibilities.

I couldn’t follow the tracks.  The hillside was too steep, the snow too deep, and the brush too thick.  My feet were getting soaked and my friends were ready to move on before the roads worsened.  I crawled back into the truck and we drove off, exhilarated and a more than a little befuddled.

The story just as easily could have ended here.  But it didn’t.  Just up the road was a trail heading into the woods, and with some luck, the trail might intersect the tracks.  Perhaps, sheltered beneath a canopy of pine boughs, I might be able make out more details in the tracks.

We put on our skis and started up the trail.  About a hundred yards in, a snowshoe hare played hide and seek with us in the undergrowth.  As we stopped to watch it, I saw the mysterious tracks crossing the path just ahead.  This time, I was able to follow them, and under a spruce tree, I could see the prints clearly in the snow.  Cat tracks.

My friends remained to watch the snowshoe hare as I followed the tracks down the hillside. They were fresh and looping right back towards our truck.  The animal must have been sneaking down as we were headed up.  We had missed it by a matter of minutes.

This could have been the end of the story.  But it wasn’t.  Today was a lucky day.

As I lingered, trying to piece together what had happened, not one, but two Canada lynx appeared out of the forest and casually traversed the road.  With my camera handy, I snapped off a few dozen shots before they disappeared into cover again.  I had just had my first look at a Canada lynx in the wild!

A Pair of Canada Lynx in Colorado

Double lynx all the way!

I felt a little guilt.  My friends were still up the trail.  When they caught up, they were trying to tell me something about the snowshoe hare.  “C’mon!” I prompted and we huffed and puffed in the thin air back to the location where the tracks disappeared into the woods.  I told them about the lynx and showed them the photos on the back of my camera.

Once again, the story could have ended here.  But once again, it did not.  Today was a very lucky day.

We decided to stick around a bit longer.  We knew what direction the lynx were headed, and there were some nice clearings that might offer another chance to see them.  As it often does, the persistence paid off.  After perhaps fifteen minutes, my friends got their first glimpses of the lynx between the trees.  We could hear them calling to each other in short growls.  It was something I had only heard in zoos until now.

Then, the grand finale.  The first lynx emerged from the woods halfway between me and my friends.  We stood dead still and held our breaths as it crept to the shoulder of the road.  It cautiously looked both ways and stepped out.  The second lynx followed behind and together they crossed before disappearing once again.  Two ghosts of the boreal forest had just granted us a front row seat.

Canada Lynx Crossing Road

A front row seat for a Canada lynx crossing.

Honestly, this is never how I thought the story would go.  In my mind’s eye, I pictured cold, lonesome days in a blind.  Winters of couch surfing in the San Juans, missing my wife and questioning my sanity.  Just waiting for a chance at a grainy, distant photo of a lynx through the pine trunks.

Maybe it was a very lucky day. Maybe it was providence. Or maybe I’m still dreaming.

Canada Lynx

Just wow.

Ermine Tracks

The short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea) is Colorado’s smallest native carnivore.  In summer, this diminutive weasel sports a chocolate brown coat with a light underbelly.  In winter, it transforms to pure white except for a black tipped tail. In this white phase, the short-tailed weasel is often referred to as an ermine.

Long-tailed Weasel

A long-tailed weasel in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I have now photographed 56 species of the 70 species in my Colorado Mammals Project.  Of the 14 species that remain, ten are incredibly rare, if they even exist in Colorado at all.  The other four include the recently reintroduced Canada lynx, the Virginia opossum (our only marsupial), the invasive feral pig, and the short-tailed weasel (a.k.a. ermine).  It is the winter white ermine that I have set my sights on this winter and hope to photograph next.

Despite its tiny size, the short-tailed weasel is a formidable hunter and its slender body allows it pursue small mammals into their burrows. The majority of its diet consists of mice, and voles, but it is capable of taking larger prey including cottontail rabbits when given an opportunity.  Like other mustelids, the short-tailed weasel hunts daily to fuel its high metabolism.  Contrary to popular belief, weasels do not kill for fun and in the wild surplus food is cached for later consumption.

Holarctic Short-tailed Weasel Distrubiton

The Holarctic (circumpolar) distribution of the short-tailed weasel.

The short-tailed weasel ranges across the northern latitudes of North America, Europe, and Asia in a Holarctic distribution.  In the late 1800s short-tailed weasels were introduced to New Zealand by European settlers in an attempt to control the rabbit population (also introduced).  The impact on New Zealand’s native ground nesting bird populations has been disastrous.

In Colorado, the short-tailed weasel can be found throughout much of the state, particularly in mountainous regions.  Data from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Natural Diversity Information Source (NDIS) suggests that the short-tailed weasel is most abundant in Douglas, Teller, Gilpin, Summit, Lake, and Routt counties.

Colorado Short-tailed Weasel Abundance

Abundance of the short-tailed weasel in Colorado by county.

Colorado is home of two species of weasels: the short-tailed weasel and the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata).  Short-tailed weasels have short tails, and long-tailed weasels have, well, you know.  Technically, the length of a short-tailed weasel’s tail is 44% or less of the length of its head and body.  Anything longer than 44% and you are looking at a long-tailed weasel.  Long-tailed weasels are also about 50% larger, but both species can vary greatly in size and males are significantly larger than females.

DMNS Specimens

Mustela erminea specimens at Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

I have encountered and photographed several long-tailed weasels in the wild.  They are most easily seen in the summer months hunting pikas and rodents amongst the talus in locations such as Rocky Mountain National Park.  When I have encountered them, I have always been impressed and amused by their boldness and curiosity.  I have yet to lay eyes on a short-tailed weasel in Colorado or elsewhere but I have recently observed tracks at several locations that give me hope.

Because of their slender body and high surface to weight ratio, weasels easily lose heat to the elements.  During the cold and windy Rocky Mountain winter, the ermine spends much of its time tunneling in and under the snow hunting rodents beneath the snowpack.  This allows the ermine to save energy, but makes them even harder to observe.

Hiking Niwot Ridge

Just another windy winter day on Niwot Ridge.

Still, they can be seen ducking and diving in and out of the snow, and with time and patience I believe that I will be able to photograph one.  A promising number of skiers I have talked to have seen an ermine while on the slopes or from chairlifts.  Arapaho Basin Ski Area even has a run called “Weasel Way”, although I didn’t see any sign of weasels when I was there in December.  Nevertheless, I plan to continue my ski based ermine search until I succeed or the snow melts.

Sea Otter Raft
California Coast

Coastline near Monterey, California.

Monterey Bay, California is a hotspot for marine mammals. Noisy sea lions jockey for position on jetties as harbor seals laze on the rocks.  Sea otters form rafts in the kelp, nursing their young and cracking mollusks.  Pods of Dall’s porpoise, harbor porpoise, and bottlenose dolphins patrol the bay, while further offshore, humpback whales breach in dramatic surges and colossal blue whales migrate to summer feeding grounds.  Depending on the time of your visit, you could also see orcas, minke whales, fin whales, northern fur seals, or gigantic elephant seals.


Kayaking on Monterey Bay.

Paddling the Bay

Kayaking is a great way to see wildlife, so for our first day we took a trip with Monterey Bay Kayaks.  Being closer to the water gives you a unique perspective, and moving slowly and quietly means less disturbance to the animals. Leaving from the Municipal Beach in a tandem sea kayak, we paddled out to the first pier where we were greeted by a cacophony of California sea lions.  Just beyond, we spotted our first wild sea otter.  Soon, we were surrounded by otters as we continued past the docks of Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  On our return trip, a harbor seal greeted us with a blast of air and playfully followed for a few hundred feet.  That is the kind of experience you just can’t appreciate in a bigger boat.

On Safari in Elkhorn Slough

Elkhorn Slough is a 7 mile long tidal slough just up the coast from Monterey that provides habitat for sea otters and hundreds of species of birds.  The best way to see the slough is by water, so on our second day we took a boat tour with Captain Yohn Gideon of Elkhorn Slough Safari.

Within minutes of leaving the dock, we were treated to an unexpected glimpse of a humpback whale spouting beyond the mouth of the harbor.  As we continued our journey, dozens of riotous sea lions occupied every available dock and harbor seals ducked and dove around the boat. Elegant terns zipped in and out of the water.  We passed nesting Brandt’s cormorants, great egrets, and countless brown pelicans.  Of course, sea otters are the star of the show in Elkhorn Slough, and we saw over a hundred during the course of the morning – a considerable proportion of the approximately 3,000 total wild sea otters living in California waters.

Sea Otter

A sea otter on Elkhorn Slough.

Moss Landing

By-the-wind Sailor

This curious organism is called a Velella velella, or by-the-wind sailor.

After returning to land and eating lunch at Phil’s Fish Market, we had a front row seat for an incredible display of humpback whales feeding.  Some of the whales were only a few hundred yards offshore.  For over an hour we watched whales spouting, breaching, smacking the water with their massive pectoral fins, and raising their tail flukes high as they dove.

After the whale activity quieted down, we took a walk up the beach.  We encountered an octopus in the surf and many curious creatures called by-the-wind sailors, or Velella velella.  These alien looking relatives of the jellyfish float at the mercy of the currents catching plankton in their tentacles.  Sometimes the winds blow them to shore in great numbers and they were washing up by the thousands during our visit.

Sea Lions

Sea lions hauled out in Elkhorn Slough.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Ocean Sunfish

An ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

No visit to Monterey is complete without visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Here you can view over 600 species of plants and animals.  The kelp forest exhibit provides a close up look at species native to the Monterey Bay, such as the peculiar looking ocean sunfish, leopard sharks, and California sheephead.  The aquarium also features a sea otter exhibit.  Behind the scenes researchers work to protect and better understand the species.  Besides being ambassadors, some of the otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium serve as surrogate parents for orphaned pups.

Kayaking with Whales

After seeing the whales feeding from shore, we knew we had to find a way to get in the middle of the action.  Fortunately, Kayak Connection in Moss Landing had a trip going out the next morning.  We signed up on the spot and were so excited that we could hardly sleep that night.

The whales were further offshore the next day.  For the first couple of hours we paddled straight out into the open ocean until we were several miles from shore.  We had only seen distant spouts and for a while it seemed like we were going to be skunked.  I began to wonder if we had made the right decision by choosing to go whale watching by kayak.  We were having fun, and we had seen other wildlife, including a lion’s mane jellyfish, but of course we wanted to see whales.

Whales Breaching

Whales breaching offshore from Moss Landing.

Finally, a whale spouted just a few hundred yards away.  It was a humpback whale bubble net feeding.  When bubble net feeding, a whale will dive below a school of fish and create a wall of bubbles to confuse and force their prey to the surface.  Then, the whale will lunge upward with mouth open, capturing hundreds of fish at a time.  When the whale dives, it may disappear for five or ten minutes at a time.  The Marine Mammal Protection Act and common sense both dictate that one keep a respectful distance from whales, but it can be anyone’s guess when and where one will surface next.  Bubbling water and leaping anchovies are a good sign you are above a whale.  Suddenly, we found ourselves in precisely that spot.

“Don’t go near the bubbles”, our guide said.  I looked over my shoulder to see him back paddling.  We hastily did the same and then witnessed as the great whale surfaced in front of us.  It was the moment we had paddled all morning for. Seeing a massive humpback whale from a tiny kayak was a thrilling experience, and one of my greatest wildlife moments ever.

Hanging with Sea Otters

On the last day of our trip, I wanted to dedicate more time to photographing sea otters so we met up with Captain Yohn for another morning on Elkhorn slough.  For this occasion, I brought the 600mm lens and anchored my tripod to the railing of the boat with a super clamp.  The 80-400 stayed mounted on a second body for closer action.

With good light, and the slough essentially to ourselves, we saw lots of otters and behaviors like grooming, clam cracking, and even some mothers with pups.  The Captain did a great job of getting the boat into position and avoiding any disturbance to the animals.  Although it is possible to photograph otters from shore, you are depending on a fair bit of luck getting them in the right place. Shooting from a boat is far more efficient and improves your chances for success.

James Beissel at Elkhorn Slough

Photographing sea otters on Elkhorn Slough.

Planning Your Trip

We had a fantastic time in Monterey and can’t wait to return.  I highly recommend a visit to anyone interested in marine wildlife.  If you want to watch humpback whales, kayak with sea otters, or maybe just relax by the ocean, you’ve got to go!

Come back and tell me how it went. I bet you’ll have an adventure to share!

Monterey Photo Gallery

Crittering Reboot

Gray Fox

Last year was a memorable year full of fun and accomplishments. In March, Lana and I travelled to Arizona to visit Saguaro National Park, Madera Canyon, and Chiracahua National Monument. We struck out on finding a wild coati, but we did see a few new species including collared peccary, round-tailed ground squirrel, and Botta’s pocket gopher. A few weeks later we were back to Arizona to help out with another round of black-footed ferret spotlighting in the Aubrey Valley. In May, we made a trip to northwest Colorado in search of the cliff chimpmunk. After failing twice to photograph cliff chipmunks in 2013, I learned of a good site from a researcher and this time had success. The Franklin’s ground squirrel was the next rodent on the list and we visited Omaha, Nebraska to find these, which also gave us a chance to visit the world renowned Henry Doorly Zoo. In July, we dared the heat of the Mojave desert to radio track desert tortoises outside of Las Vegas.  On the way home, we visited the iconic spires of Bryce Canyon National Park and spotted some rare Utah Prairie dogs. We visited beautiful Monterey, California in August and had an incredible time watching sea otters and kayaking with humpback whales.  In September, I was thrilled to witness the return of black-footed ferrets to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area near Fort Collins.  And finally, last fall I photographed three of the most challenging Colorado mammal species yet – gray fox, western spotted skunk, and ringtail.

At the beginning of 2014 I was courting one of the big name networks for a blogging position and put a bunch of work into my photography website. I didn’t get the job, but as a result I ended up mothballing for most of the year. The blog on my photography site uses WordPress, but it is a custom installation and theme. Doing this has advantages in flexibility, but also some downsides. Because of the increase in the proportion of visitors coming to my site on mobile devices, one of the biggest headaches has been ensuring that the theme behaves properly on all shapes and sizes of phones and tablets. Another big issue has been email subscriptions, and the third party options I tried for my custom installation all left something to be desired. Fortunately, hosting makes this easy. Even though I’m fully capable of doing this kind of work, at the end of the day I’d rather spend my free time outdoors instead of styling CSS for the latest iPhone.

Going forward, look for more posts here on Crittering. I apologize to those who missed out on my posts from 2014 – they will remain up on my personal site for awhile. I may import some of them here over time. If you receive posts via email, please bear with me as I get the site back up and running. Hopefully there will be minimal disturbance, but if you find you are getting too many emails use the preferences link in the email footer to reduce the frequency you receive updates.

I am excited for 2015. In continuing on my quest to photograph the mammals of Colorado, I’m currently focused on photographing short-tailed weasels, or ermine, in their white winter coats. Other species on my radar for the coming year are Canada lynx, Virginia opossum, and feral pigs. I hope you’ll continue to follow along.

Happy New Year!