Yes, I did steal the title from the Hobbit, but I almost named this “Beauty and the Beasts” which would have been an even more blatant rip off. I hope I don’t get sued by Tolkien or Disney because both titles are perfect for this story. You see, I have just recently gotten hooked on nature wildlife photography and I have already found out two very important truths; you do often have to go “There and Back Again” to get the right shot, and there is plenty of beauty, and more than a few beasts to photograph when you do.
I have to preface this story with the news that Rochelle and I just picked up two new lenses. For Rochelle, who is a bit of a speed freak when it comes to glass, the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 fit the bill perfectly. I, on the other hand, wanted a bit more range, so I went for the 70-400. So my lens is a bit slower than Rochelle’s, but covers more distance. They are both Sony G lenses, which mean they’re ultra-quiet and super sharp. So we both got what we really wanted, and of course, being married, we share both lenses equally. Right. Sure we do.
Before we went on our first wildlife photography hunt, I decided to do a little practice shooting at home. Luckily for me, there is plenty of wildlife right outside the door. This young buck was my first conquest. I was happy with the shot, but I realized right then that I wouldn’t have a front porch railing to brace the camera on out in the field. And I would need some kind of a brace because my new lens is very, very big and heavy. So, I made sure to pack both the tripods and the monopods for our first trip.
California offers so many wonderful scenes to photograph, and many of them are relatively unknown. So, we decided we would visit two of our favorite nature preserves in one trip, and then share our little secrets with you. So we loaded up Charley, our Roadtrek Class B motorhome and headed for the Coast.
Our first stop was the Merced Wildlife Refuge, and it is located way, way out in the country, in the center of the San Joaquin Valley. The easiest take-off points would be to head west from Merced, or East from Los Banos. The Refuge is located on most maps and GPS systems, but its location on Sandy Mush Road doesn’t really have an address.
Once there, you’ll find a five-mile, one-way road around the perimeter of the park. It’ a dirt and gravel road and it can be a bit bouncy, especially in a small motorhome, so drive as slowly as you can. Of course, you won’t mind the slow drive, because there are plenty of birds to admire as you go. There are ducks, cranes, hawks, egrets and more, but the main attraction for most of us are the geese.
Every winter, both Snow and Ross’ Geese stop at the refuge to enjoy the abundant water and food. Now you’re probably thinking “Why in the world should I go so far out of my way to see a couple of geese?”, and if it was only a “couple of geese” you’d be right to wonder. But when you turn a corner and come face-to-face with thousands upon thousands of snowy white geese, you’ll wonder why you never went there before.
Unfortunately for us, while the geese were there in large numbers, they were too far away from the van, even with my big 400mm lens, to get a good shot. And the morning fog made matters worse by cutting down the available light and softening the scene to an extent that made our photographs dull, soft, gray and well, boring. We thought about waiting for the fog to lift, or the geese to move closer, but as we were coming up on late morning, we decided to leave right then.
So it was on to the Coast. We had just visited the Central Coast last month, but with our new lenses on board, we decided we wanted another crack at the Elephant Seals of Piedras Blancas. As a reminder, or if you didn’t catch my last post, Piedras Blancas is the winter home for a giant herd of Northern Elephant Seals. It’s just a mile or two north of Hearst Castle on Hwy 1.
We checked into the San Simeon Campground, just north of Cambria, put up a little hand-written “Reserved” sign on our chosen spot (they aren’t really very organized at this campground, and if you don’t leave something on your site, it’s open for anybody else to grab) and quickly headed off to Piedras Blancas. We were visiting on the three-day Presidents’ weekend and knew we would face a crowd, but I wasn’t expecting the number of people who were there that Saturday. Luckily, the Roadtrek Agile can fit into a spot designed for a large car, so parking wasn’t a problem.
With our new lenses and monopods at hand, we headed down the path towards the Seals. And this is when our lens choices really paid off. Rochelle’s 200mm zoom was more than adequate to reach the majority of the seals, and her fast aperture allowed her to capture some wonderful scenes. She fell in love with this “pup pileup” that was located right next to the boardwalk.
My longer lens allowed me to “reach out” to some of the further seals, and it gave me the ability to isolate my subjects. Piedras Blancas is a wealth of marine mammal riches, but with all of those seals, it’s hard to compose an isolated scene. But with the long lens, I could photograph one or two seals which helped me “tell a story” with my photographs. It was a great day of shooting.
The next day started off perfectly. One of the things we do that helps us get out of our warm and cozy bed in the morning is knowing that we can drive Charley over to the most scenic place in the area for breakfast in the van. This time, we parked directly above Moonstone beach in Cambria. We set up our little table and enjoyed a 180-degree view of the ocean with our coffee and breakfast. Owning a mini-motorhome has its perks.
We spent the day driving and exploring the area, but made sure to head back to Piedras Blancas in time to get in lots of late afternoon photography. Why did we go back? It’s simple – nature is not predictable. You never know what animals will do, and you never know how slight changes in the weather will affect your photography. In this case, we were treated to some awe-inspiring battles between the male elephant seals. And Rochelle was thrilled to have a wonderful sunset to end the day. We were so happy we went back for another day of shooting.
The next day we headed back home early, with a great breakfast stop at the highest point of the route 46, looking out at the Pacific Ocean, including a view of the impressive Morro Rock. We left early so we could get another crack at the Merced Wildlife Refuge and those wonderful geese.
We arrived at the refuge a little bit after noon, which normally would be a terrible time for photography. However, a layer of high clouds helped to diffuse the harsh sunshine, and provided nearly perfect light to capture birds in flight. We hoped our return would be rewarded with some good photo possibilities, but we were never expecting the airshow that greeted us that day. Tens of thousands Snow and Ross’ Geese (you really can’t tell them apart) took to the air in a show that was like nothing I have ever seen before. I wish I could describe the gigantic whoosh of air as they all took wing, but how in the world do you describe something that is unlike anything else? It was all-encompassing loud, and seemed to come from every direction at once. It was hard to keep looking through the camera’s viewfinder, because my initial reaction was to just stare at the sky in wonder.
The whole flock of geese took off twice while we sat in wonder. Later, a park employee gave us her opinion that the geese were spooked by a passing eagle. But it left me wondering how an entire flock of geese, thousands strong, could take to the air at the same, exact moment? Nature simply amazes me sometimes.
We decided to stay for the rest of the day to see what else would happen. And while the whole flock didn’t return to the sky all at once, small groups of geese would often fly within the reach of our cameras. And finally, a wonderful warm evening light came over the refuge, providing us with a unique opportunity to capture a much quieter mood.
So there’s our story of the weekend. Two amazing places, full of rarely seen wildlife events, shot on two occasions each. It pays to go back. Hmmm, maybe I should have called this story “There, There and Back Again and Again.” That ought to satisfy the lawyers.