This is my favorite oak tree in Yosemite Valley. I’ve photographed it from every angle, in every season. It’s an old tree with a unique shape and undeniable character. It stands alone in Sentinel (Chapel) Meadow just east of the boardwalk. From Southside Drive you can photograph it with Yosemite Falls in the background. Viewed from the other side its top curls like an ocean wave. This image, taken from the “back” side, shows its intricate branches etched with snow, and olive-green moss covering its trunk.
Yosemite is justifiably famous for its large granite cliffs and spectacular waterfalls. But its special character is created by the juxtaposition of all that naked, vertical rock with the meadows, meandering river, and stately groves of oak trees on the valley floor.
The large, spreading oaks in Yosemite Valley are California black oaks. While common at middle elevations in the Sierra Nevada, large, pure stands of black oaks are rare. Yet Yosemite Valley has two such stands, in Cook’s Meadow and El Capitan Meadow. It’s a privilege to walk through these groves and look through the arching limbs of oaks toward Cathedral Rocks or Yosemite Falls.
Black oaks are deciduous; their leaves turn gold in late October or early November, and their branches become bare in winter. The new leaves that sprout in late April are often orange or red when they emerge, reminiscent of autumn, but then turn deep green within a few weeks.
While beautiful in spring and fall, to me these trees are most exquisite when their dark trunks and limbs and are outlined by fresh snow. Their branches form intricate patterns that provide endless photographic subjects.
One such subject, another favorite tree of mine, grows at the western end of El Capitan Meadow. This one lives at the edge of a grove, so under normal circumstances it doesn’t stand out. But after a snowfall its leaning trunk becomes coated with snow and forms a striking centerpiece to its splayed branches. This design only becomes apparent when viewed at a particular angle, and only when it’s covered with snow, so few people notice this tree. But I’ve photographed it over and over, drawn to its unique beauty like a moth to light.
But oaks aren’t just pretty subjects for photographers—they’re homes. Great horned owls don’t build their own nests; they use abandoned hawk’s nests, cliff ledges, or tree cavities. In Yosemite Valley they find plentiful nest sites in the cavities of old black oaks. These birds are early nesters; they lay their eggs by late January or early February, and they’re now quietly incubating them.
In the late ‘80s and ‘90s a pair of great horned owls nested in trees right next to the road at the edge of Cook’s Meadow. Each year they alternated between two nest holes about 100 feet apart. By late April or early May their owlets would be old enough to move around, and they would perch on the edge of their nest cavity in the mornings and evenings, watching the cars and pedestrians below. Most of the time they went unnoticed, but when someone spotted them a crowd quickly gathered. The owls seemed unperturbed, blinking and staring back at the spectators.
Soon after that the owlets would fledge, first hopping onto branches near their nest, then taking short flights to nearby limbs or other trees. During the day they roosted quietly in the foliage, but each evening they started screeching, begging their parents for food. Eventually, when they were able to hunt on their own, their parents would drive them off and they had to find a territory of their own.
While great horned owls are already incubating by now, smaller birds will soon take up residence in the oaks and begin nesting. Woodpeckers of many species will peck and drill holes in dead branches, hollowing out cavities in which to lay eggs and raise their young. Old woodpecker holes, as well as natural cavities, will be occupied by other species, including tiny saw-whet owls and pygmy owls.
But it’s still winter, and before all that—before the small birds return, and great horned owlets fledge—the oak limbs will be outlined again with fresh snow. I’ll be out there walking through the oak groves and photographing my favorite trees—or finding new ones.