Spotting Spotted Skunks & Going for Gophers: Bay Area Trip Report

Botta’s Pocket Gopher, Thomomys bottae

I returned to California last month for a brief visit and some targeted mammal watching around the Bay Area. Northern Fur Seals and Western Spotted Skunks were top of my hit list, but I was also looking for Narrow-faced Kangaroo Rats, Pacific Jumping Mice, Salt Marsh Harvest Mice, Western Red Bats and Botta’s Pocket Gopher (surely the most embarrassing gap on my US list).

Killer Whales, Orcinus orca. Farallon Islands.

There are reliable – in theory at least – sites for all of these species within three hours of San Francisco.

The Farallon Islands

Humpback Whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, cruising past the Farallons

I visited the Farallon Islands on one of the Oceanic Society’s day trips back in 1998. I saw my first Blue Whale on that trip but, back then, Northern Fur Seals were still very rare on the islands. They were extirpated from the Farallons in the early 1800s by the fur trade. In the mid 1990s a couple returned and their numbers have since soared. They are now pretty much guaranteed on a Farallon trip.

Harbour Seals, Phoca vitulina

The seals may be guaranteed. But calm seas are not. I tried to do this trip in 2018 but it was cancelled because of the weather. And as trips usually book out weeks in advance it isn’t the sort of thing you can arrange at the last minute when the forecast looks good. Fortunately the sea was like glass on my trip and so we had near perfect conditions for cetacean spotting. We were also able to get out to the edge of the continental shelf.

Humpback Whales, Megaptera novaeangliae

We saw several Harbour Porpoises as well as Harbour Seals as we travelled under the Golden Gate Bridge.

California Sea Lions were everywhere further out to sea and there were good numbers of Humpbacks. We saw several pods putting on a spectacular show of co-operative lunge feeding.

Fur Seal Point

We circumnavigated the islands. After seeing hundreds of California Sea Lions, and fewer Steller Sea Lions and Harbour Seals we passed the Northern Fur Seal colony.

Northern Fur Seal, Callorhinus ursinus

These smaller, heavily whiskered seals were confined to one point, but there were a thousand or so animals there, hauled out on the rocks or swimming close to shore. Their long whisker are probably the easiest way to tell them apart from the sea lions when you see them in the water. Later that day we saw an animal far offshore that was striking the species characteristic “jug handle pose”: the seal floats on its side, with one fin stretched up high over the water to touch its upturned tail: they look like a floating letter “P”, or how I would swim if I had to carry a cooler of beer back to the beach. Its a distinctive pose. I had wondered how people spotted occasional fur seals during the Monterey pelagics among the thousands of sea lions. Now I know.

Northern Fur Seal, Callorhinus ursinus

The calm seas meant we could drive a few miles further off shore and visit the edge of the continental shelf. There was not a great deal going on other than a lone Fin Whale (something of a rarity in these waters).

Fin Whale, Balaenoptera physalus

On the way in we ran into a pod of four transient Killer Whales. Always wonderful animals to see.

Orcas, Orcinus orca

Tassajara Zen Centre

The Tassajara Zen Centre, hidden in the beautiful Big Sur hinterland, is about an hour from Carmel Valley. The centre offers “monastic training periods during the fall and winter months” Tourists can stay from from May to early September. All well and good but – more excitingly for a spiritually challenged mammalwatcher – the centre is home to a healthy population of Western Spotted Skunks, one of North America’s most beautiful mammals and a tough one to see.

I have looked for spotted skunks several times without luck. There use to be plenty of them on the Channel Islands, but by the time I visited in 2010 their numbers had declined in parallel with the rise of the Island Fox. They were rumoured to be common around the Hole in the Wall campground on Rialto Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. I struck out there too. Ten years ago they were said to be many around the Phantom Ranch on the floor of the Grand Canyon. And there are reports on of them from Point Reyes in California, and Portal in Arizona. The Eastern seems equally hard to see. Jeff Beck’s Hi Ho Silver Lining was surely about spotted skunks with its “you are everywhere and nowhere baby”.

Zen Centre

Last year Venkat Sankar got a hot tip: the skunks can often be seen foraging around the kitchens at the Tassajara Zen Centre. He visited for an evening and saw one. Charles Hood stayed overnight in June and also scored during a visit I had planned to join him on. Naturally I had to get there fast.

You will need to make arrangements in advance if you want to visit. The centre’s accommodation – dorms, shared rooms and private rooms – usually sell out in advance. You can also arrange for a day visit, which entitles you to stay until 9 p.m. I suspect that check out time would not be strictly enforced so long as you aren’t making a nuisance of yourself. But in any case I opted to spend the night.

The creek behind the cabins: skunk habitat

I was several miles out of my comfort zone visiting a Zen retreat. I had no idea what to expect but I actually liked Tassajara a lot more than I thought I would. The setting is beautiful, the people were friendly and everyone was quiet. Really quiet. If this quietness is something that goes with Zen Buddhism then I think the religion ought to be made compulsory. I even ate a “beetburger” and survived.

After dinner I discretely walked the trail that runs past the cabins and parallel to the creek. This is not a place to go spotlighting: that would not be fair to the guests who have come here to get away from noise, cell phones and even bright lights. But I was able to wander the paths well enough using a small flashlight and a thermal scope. I saw my first Spotted Skunk shortly after dark on the deck next to the dining room (by the coffee and tea). It clambered over the creekside fence, ran right past me and across the deck. It ended up squeezing through a crack under the door of the cupboard that housed the fridge. I tried to get a picture but the skunks do not like having a light shone at them and I couldn’t get my camera to focus in time.

I saw animals again three or four times over the next two hours. I saw them several times on the same deck, and also had a pair of animals on the steps of one of the cabins near the vegetable garden. In the end I got onto all of them by sound so there really is no need to even think about spotlighting. I heard the skunks rather than saw them with a thermal scope or a flashlight. They are absolutely beautiful. An American Zorilla.

California Pocket Mouse, Chaetodipus californicus

I also saw a few California Pocket Mice feeding near the dining room and this one posed obligingly for photos. Elsewhere on the property I saw Black-tailed Deer, hundreds of California Ground Squirrels, a Western Gray Squirrel and a Striped Skunk by the compost. And I saw all of them without disturbing anyone I hope. But I can imagine it will take just one complaint about an over eager mammal watcher to stop anyone from skunk spotting again there.

California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi

The last 16 miles of road into Tassjara are dirt. No problem in a small SUV and they would have been fine in a saloon car I suspect (especially a rental), though not after rain. This road runs through Narrow-faced Kangaroo Rat habitat. Venkat suggested I look around Chew’s Ridge – at the top of the hill about 8 miles before Tassajara – for this species. I drove up there around 11 p.m. and saw a single Narrow-faced Kangaroo Rat on the road about 2 miles before I got to Chew’s Ridge. This is one of the more distinctive kangaroo rats, with prominent facial markings, and it is also the only kangaroo rat in the area. I had a good look at my lifer but couldn’t take any photos. I also saw a Gray Fox up here as well as dozens of bats – I am unsure which species – skimming very low over the road.

Other Sites, Other Mammals

Botta’s Pocket Gopher, Thomomys bottae

Half Moon Bay

Despite 20 or so trips to California I had never seen a Botta’s Pocket Gopher. I’d seen thousands of mounds but not their makers. Not that I had tried all that hard to see one it is true, but this had to change. So on Venkat’s advise I strolled Pillar Point Harbour Beach at Half Moon Bay. Venkat said the pocket gophers are more active in the spring, but while the animals inland were spending most of their time underground they were still active on the cooler coast. I strolled the scrub at the top of the beach at midday for 20 minutes before I saw my first gopher. I turned around and saw another four over the next 10 minutes on the way home (do they perhaps coordinate their above ground time or was it just a coincidence?). They are very habituated here.

Brush Rabbit, Sylvilagus bachmani

Point Reyes

I visited Point Reyes looking mainly for Pacific Jumping Mice after dark, and hoping for a Long-tailed Weasel in the day. I saw neither. I did see numerous Striped Skunks and Raccoons after dark as well as two or three Gray Foxes. In the morning I saw several Brush Rabbits at Abbot’s Lagoon including the wonderfully grumpy looking animal pictured above as well as Black-tailed Deer. When I got to the dunes at Abbot’s Lagoon a couple told me they had just seen Orcas from the beach. I didn’t see them but – if their report was correct – they must have been in very close. It was hard to see more than 50 metres out because of the fog.

Black-tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus

The Central Valley

I met up with local mammalwatcher Ameet Zaveri for an evening and we looked for Western Red Bats around Knight’s Ferry Recreation Area, where they are supposedly quite common. Bad traffic meant we arrived much later than planned and perhaps too late for the bats. We saw several animals flying and recorded them on my Anabat but none seemed to be Red Bats. I also went batting with Venkat at the George J Hatfield Recreation Area. We arrived just after dark and recorded several Desert Red Bats, and had good views of animals flying through the spotlight: a definite orange glow to this species. I personally don’t count bats on my life list that I have seen and recorded in flight unless I also see some distinctive feature of them (e.g the particularly large size and audible call means you know when you are looking at a Western Bonneted Bat). The reddish colour of the Red Bat passed this test. Lifer number five.

Venkat and I also stopped in at the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge on San Francisco Bay, which has Salt Marsh Harvest Mice. The NWR is closed after dark, but there is a small patch of pickle weed just outside the reserve behind a car park. We saw several mice in here with our thermal scopes in a half hour of effort. Presumably they were all harvest mice. Seeing them properly – through binoculars – was a different story. I only got a good look at one animal and that appeared to be a Western Harvest Mouse on the basis of its pale belly. But both species ought to be there. This is a spot to return to when I have a bit more time to spare.

So five lifers in all, and plenty left to look for in this beautiful area. Special thanks to Venkat and Ameet for their help, hospitality and company, and Charles Hood for his skunk spotting advice.

Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, feeding in front of the Farallons

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