Point Reyes Walkabout

The Outer Point in Autumn

October 10, 2012

This is part of a year-long effort to hike every trail at Point Reyes National Seashore, which turned 50 in 2012. Learn more.

Some people spend their time just runnin’ round in circles Always chasing some exotic bird I prefer to spend some time just listening for that special something That I’ve never ever heard . . .

—Van Morrison, “You make me feel so free.”

The Outer Point Reyes Peninsula is a Mecca for both birds and birdwatchers during autumn migration. The month of September is the peak of songbird passage and when conditions are right—lack of strong northwest winds, night sky obscured by high overcast—migrant landbirds “fall out” on the outer point. The islands of Monterey cypresses that were planted as windbreaks around the historic settlements attract migrating songbirds (“passerines”), providing cover and refueling opportunities. And birdwatchers are highly attuned to the ideal conditions that will help them find species that are rare in California. The rarest of these are considered “vagrants,” birds off course from their normal migratory routes.

Western flycatcher
This flycatcher (probably a “Western”) was photographed by me on September 15th. Note the similarity of these two birds, yet they are separate species. The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (left) is exceedingly rare on the peninsula; the Western Flycatcher (above) is very common. These two species, and several other Empidonax flycatchers, are notoriously difficult to tell apart, especially when they are not vocalizing. Photograph by Jules Evens.
Yellow-bellied flycatcher
Yellow-bellied flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris), a rare vagrant, made a brief appearance at “Historic A Ranch,” September 7-9, 2012, providing only the second record for Marin County. First found by Rich Stallcup, the bird remained for two days. Photograph by David Wimpfheimer.

Several trails lead past these birding hotspots. The short trail to the Lighthouse (check it out on our Trailfinder!) passes a wind-sculpted row of cypress that have historically attracted vagrants and provided a challenge to even the most experienced birdwatcher. It requires  dogged patience and keen attention to see and identify tiny warblers, vireos, and flycatchers backlit against the gray sky as they flit and flutter through the tangle of branches. When no birds are present, other natural phenomena catch the eye. Especially fetching is the exposed geology here, known as “Point Reyes conglomerate,” and the life it supports.

Orange lichen
The orange wash on the rocks and trees of the outermost point is caused by a filamentous green algae, Trentepohlia. Concentrations of orange pigments (haematochrome β-carotene) mask the green chlorophyll, giving it this characteristic color. It is thought that the pigments somehow protect the chlorophyll. Trentepohlia, also known as “orange-rust velvet” thrives in humid climates and needs no soil, but favors rock, tree bark, especially that of Monterey cypress. Photograph by Jules Evens
This Monterey cypress hosts orange-rust velvet on the underside and north-facing portion of its branches. The ferns growing in the crotches of the limbs are leather ferns (Polypodium scouleri), a species with a decidedly coastal distribution. Leather ferns are epiphytic, that is they grow on another plant. Photograph by Jules Evens
San Francisco gumplant (Grindelia hirsutula)
The fall blooming San Francisco gumplant, or coastal gumweed (Grindelia hirsutula var. maritime) is endemic to California (that is, it occurs nowhere else). Here is grows out of cracks in the concrete of the water catchment basins that were built during the lighthouse-keeper years. Originally distributed only along the coast from Marin to San Luis Obispo County, this gumplant’s continued presence south of San Mateo is unknown. Threatened by coastal development and non-native plants, this variety is included in the California Native Plant Society’s Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants. Photograph by Jules Evens

Another easy trail to Chimney Rock (0.9 miles each way, also on our Trailfinder) at the southern end of the point passes a large grove of cypress that surrounds an old Coast Guard residence perched above the “Fish Docks.” Located on the leeward side of the peninsula, this island of vegetation is one of the most productive vagrant traps on the point. Most of the rare species of small passerines found this fall were in these trees (see list, below).

Even though migration offers the opportunity for surprise, these trees support interesting resident species year-round.

Great Horned Owl
This Great Horned Owl seemed unimpressed and unconcerned with our presence on this foggy morning. Present year-round, Great Horns nest in these trees and hunt the surrounding grassland and prairie at dusk and dawn. Photograph by Jules Evens.

Farther along, the trail crosses a narrow swath of coastal prairie grassland before ending at the headlands above Chimney Rock. Although few wildflowers are blooming in fall, this is a premier spring wildflower hike, especially near the outermost headlands. Marine mammals and seabirds are likely anytime of year and often a Peregrine Falcon will be roosted on the sea stack known as Chimney Rock. This spot is also one of the best places on the peninsula to see nesting seabirds—common murres, pigeon guillemots, pelagic cormorants, and occasionally tufted puffins—in late spring and early summer months.

A short trail from the Chimney Rock parking lot to the “Elephant Seal Overlook” (0.2 miles each way) affords distant but reliable looks at the elephant seal colony that hangs out on the inaccessible beach below the Drakes Bay cliffs. The guttural, flatulent sounds of the “e-seals” will greet you before you arrive at the overlook and actually see these behemoths of the beach. Hear here:

First the males: http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/523/files/twomales.wav

Then the females: http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/523/files/harem.wav

Although unmelodic to human ears, these vocalizations are important recognition signals between individuals, especially between mother and pup.

Northern elephant seals
Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris), mostly females their pups and subadult males, lollygagging on Drakes Beach. The smallest individuals are pups (“weaners”) born this year. Note the gulls ready to clean-up the e-seal’s fecal contributions. Photograph by Jules Evens.
male elephant seal, more than a ton of fun
Subadult male elephant seal, more than a ton of fun. Full grown females can weigh nearly a ton, and the adult males may reach twice that size. Photograph by Jules Evens.

Since recolonizing Point Reyes in 1981 after more than a century’s absence, the population has grown impressively. In 2012, 330 pups were weaned in the Drake’s Bay colony alone. Like tule elk and old school Mormons, elephant seals practice polygyny, a mating strategy that allows the largest dominant males to attract harems and excludes the smaller and younger males. But by September, the adult males have left their harems on the beach and ventured far offshore where they’ll spend the summer and autumn months foraging at depth before returning to battle for their sister wives. The natural history, and the remarkable recovery of a species that was thought extinct a century ago, is too complex for this posting, but is thoroughly covered in two of the U.C. Press California Natural History Guides:



As we walk back from the overlook, a critter of an entirely different scale is crossing the path, the familiar banded woollybear searching (migrating if you will) for a protected place to overwinter. Another reminder that the autumnal equinox has passed, the days are getting shorter, and the life histories of all animals are tuned into the changing season.

Banded woollybear (Pyrrharctia isabella)
Banded woollybear (Pyrrharctia isabella), the larva of the tiger moth, is one of the most widely distributed caterpillars in the U.S. In New England, where I grew up (and where the winters were much more severe than here), we paid attention to autumn woollybears because folk wisdom taught us that the wider the rusty red band, the longer winter would be. Then we’d wait for groundhog day to see when spring would come. This woollybear seems to have a rather wide band, portending a long, wet winter.


Trail notes: Each of these three trails—Lighthouse, Chimney Rock, and the Elephant Seal Overlook—is an easy stroll for anyone who can walk a mile or two. Most challenging are the 400 or so stairs leading to the lighthouse, especially on the return trip uphill. In addition to these three trails, there are several overlooks between Chimney Rock and the Lighthouse that afford stunning views of the outermost headlands, the rocky shore, and the vast Pacific.

List of unusual and rare birds reported from the Outer Point, September 2012

American Redstart
Baird’s Sandpiper
Blackburnian Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Black-throated-blue Warbler
Broad-winged Hawk
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Clay-colored Sparrow
Connecticut Warbler
Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Phoebe
Harlequin Duck
Lark Bunting
MacGilliivray’s Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Orchard Oriole
Palm Warbler
Pacific Golden-Plover
Pectoral Sandpiper
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Tennessee Warbler
Tropical Kingbird
White-winged Dove
Willow Flycatcher
Yellow-belied Flycatcher
Yellow-headed Blackbird

About the Author

Naturalist and writer Jules Evens has lived near Point Reyes for over 30 years. He is the founder of Avocet Research Associates and the author of The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula and An Introduction to California Birdlife (both UC Press).

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