Long in the Tooth

In late May, something interesting washed up on Rio Del Mar Beach in Aptos on the shore of Monterey Bay. It was not your standard bit of driftwood, a dead marine mammal, or a piece of flotsam from Japan.

In fact the jogger who found it did not know what she found, so she took a picture of it and did what most of us seem to do nowadays: she posted the picture on social media. Someone who did know what it was saw the post and that person was Wayne Thompson, the Paleontology Advisor for the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. He identified the object as a tooth from an extinct mastodon!

When they returned to the beach the tooth was gone. So a search was begun to find where the molar tooth has gone through national and even international media. The efforts soon turned up the tooth. A local man saw the tooth on the beach and took it home. He saw that this was being sought after and he called the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

The tooth was put on display at the museum for three days on the first weekend in June. And that is where I saw the tooth and sketched it.

The recently found mastodon molar in a box, on display for three days at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. I sketched it on the second day.

When I first stepped into the museum, it was much busier than usual. In front of the mastodon display stood the man himself, Wayne Thompson, being interviewed by a local news station. He told the reporter that the tooth was probably washed down Aptos Creek during the record rains of 2023 and then washed up onto the beach. This was a big story. I was told that NPR would be visiting the museum on Monday.

Mastodons are related to the wooly mammoth and the modern elephant. The Pacific mastodon (Mammut pacificus) once roamed the land that became California between five million to 10,000 years ago. So the tooth was an incredible and rare find. In fact the name mastodon comes from ancient Greek meaning “breast tooth”, referring to the nipple-like appearance on the crown of the molars.

Mastodons disappeared from North and Central America about 10,500 years ago. It believed that the mastodon was driven to extinction by early human hunters.


Daypack: Osprey Daylite Plus

I wanted an Osprey daypack to compliment my suitcase/backpack: the Osprey Farpoint 40. This would give me a total of 60 liters of carrying capacity.

I chose a 20 liter all-rounder, a pack suitable for travel as well as hiking and trekking. This pack needed to be versatile and able to be small enough to slide under an airplane seat but roomy enough to to carry my binoculars, camera, sketching kit, and a water bottle. This is the Osprey Daylite Plus.

When I got the pack home, I loaded it up when above said items and was happy to see that they all fit with room to spare.

I decided to take the pack out on a test hike on the Old Cove Landing Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park on the Santa Cruz County Coast. This is one of my favorite coastal hikes and it is also a great place to bird.

The Daylite Plus in Wave Blue at Wilder Ranch.

The Daylite Plus, loaded up, felt good on my back. I used the sternum straps but I didn’t need to use the waist belt. This pack will do nicely for my Icelandic rambles.

Spring was in the air on the Old Cove Landing Trail. Here are a few highlights.

An unexpected surprise was a singing male lazuli bunting. This is one of the most beautiful songbirds of spring.
This sign has seen better days but it provides a perfect singing stage for the verbose Bewick’s wren.
Two pigeon guillemots greeting each other. I assume this is a mated pair. Another sign of spring.

Backpacking Iceland: The Osprey Farpoint 40

In 1990, right after high school graduation, I headed over to Europe with my best friend Erik and his older brother Pete on a backpacking, hitchhiking, Eurorail adventure.

I was kitted out with a Eurorail Pass, a youth hostel card, and an REI black and red external framed backpack. This was the type of old school backpack you never see anymore. The pack where you would attach your sleeping bag to the bottom with bungee cords. The type of backpack that makes you look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, especially when you are wear a poncho to fend off the English rain.

I remember at SFO watching my checked pack get stuck on the roller belt and seeing the buckle of my hip belt rip off. This is the worst part of the pack to lose because you carry the weight of a pack not on your shoulders but your waist. (My dad had to send a replacement buckle to me in England).

Times have changed and materials have improved becoming lighter yet stronger. While I have used a backpack for, well, backpacking, I have favored a carry-on roller bag for airplane travel.

As the European travel guru Rick Steves notes, no one ever returns from a European trip and wishes they brought more. The same applies to my past travel experiences. I always wonder why I brought that shirt or sweater I never ended up using. I’m always fine tuning my travel kit to find the right balance.

Iceland was a time to return to backpacking. Could I do it after 30 years? I was not 18 anymore. But the packs, clothing, and packing accessories are so much better than when I first backpacked Europe three decades ago.

After some research, I decided on an Osprey pack. I have an Osprey daypack and it is one of the most comfortable packs I own. Osprey was founded in 1974 in Santa Cruz (nice local connection) and well, the osprey is a cool bird! The original business was called Santa Cruz Recreational Packs on River Street. The building now is Down Works.

The Osprey pack that I chose was the Farpoint 40 which is the company’s most popular travel backpack. This tics all the specs to fit in an overhead compartment while providing a large main compartment to hold together your life on the road. How is this done?

The Osprey Farpoint 40.

Because the main compartment has no dividers, compression packing cube are essential for organizing items and compressing them to fit. In one medium cube I can fit one pair of pants and six shirts. In a small cube I could fit one pair of thermal underwear, five pairs of socks, and five pairs of underwear.

The main compartment of the Farpoint 40 with two Thule compression packing cubes and an REI dopp kit. The large mesh pocket to the left holds a rain jacket and pants (average rainfall in Iceland ranges from 50 to 100 inches per year).

Now how does this work on a 15 day trip? Most of my clothing is made of synthetic material which means they are quick drying. So every few days I wash clothes in the sink or bathtub and then dry them on my Sea to Summit travel clothesline and they’re dry in the morning. This saves a lot of space in my bag.

And it sure feels great to travel lightly and not be encumbered by a heavy, unwieldy roller bag.

Iceland here I come!


Birds of Iceland

Before going on any birding trip I like to sketch the avifauna I would be seeing. This helps me pre-visualize the birds I hoped to be seeing as well as putting my excitement onto paper.

Iceland straddles the line between North America and Europe and as such contains birds of the North Atlantic and Northern Europe as well as Arctic breeders. Some of these birds can be seen in the northeastern coast of Northern American but many of the European birds would be considered rarities on this side of the Atlantic.

For the featured spread I created circular icons of birds of Iceland; some of them I had seen but others would be lifers. I took inspiration from the beginning animation of the wonderful film Watership Down, where animals were stylized in an aboriginal form. I also created an Icelandic map that is also very stylized. The birds featured are: Arctic tern, northern gannet, gyrfalcon, snow bunting, think-billed murre, white-tailed eagle, razorbill, Atlantic puffin, common raven, rock ptarmigan, common redpoll, and the outline of a bird which I would never see.

The bird of Iceland that I would never see is the great auk. This large flightless alcid, the largest of the family, was once abundant around the northern Atlantic. This was the penguin of the Northern Hemisphere, although they are not closely related to the two toned flightless birds of the southern hemisphere.

The auk was a breeder to Iceland. The seabird was hunted for both it’s meat and warm down. This aggressive hunting dwindled the populations of a bird that could not fly away from it’s pursuers. It seemed like destiny that the largest alcid would be written into the pages of natural history oblivion.

Ironically enough when the last colony of about 50 auks was discovered in 1835, museums in Europe wanted skins to display which hastened the auk’s ultimate demise.

This happened on Eldey Island, 10 miles off the coast of Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, where the last two existing auks where killed on June 3, 1844. In the struggle the capture the birds, the last great auk egg was stepped on and crushed. This is such a shameful chapter of human’s history in it’s interactions with the natural world. Shame on us that we will never see a great auk again.


The Land of Ice and Fire

I was planning where to go on my summer vacation and was leaning toward a domestic trip, but wasn’t sure I wanted to go on a lengthy South American birding tour. My pre-pandemic Peru trip was cancelled and I haven’t travelled with passport since.

I am limited by work for more of the desirable birding tours throughout the year, which limits my travel window to just two months during summer: June and July. (Yes I can hear the sound of the tiny violins).

There was a tour in the Northern Hemisphere that caught my eye: Iceland.

This was the land of puffins, razorbill, and murre. The white-tailed eagle, gyrfalcon, and snow bunting. Home to one of the largest seabird colonies on Earth.

Iceland: the land of fire and ice, home to the midnight sun and Nordic winds. Of the dancing Northern lights and Viking blood.

Sign me up!

And I did sign up with a ten day tour run by WINGS Birding Tours. Most of the tour will be focused on the western side of Iceland.

While this tour wouldn’t produce a treasure trove of lifers (I estimate between 20-25 lifers), I would have the opportunity to see many birds in breeding plumage because Iceland was their breeding grounds. I looked forward to seeing Harlequin and long-tailed duck, Barrow’s goldeneye, black-legged kittiwake, red-throated and common loons in their breeding finery. One bird I really looked forward to seeing on solid ground is the arctic tern. The only time I had seen this long distant migrant was on the deck of a pelagic tour boat. This tour really is about spending quality time with the amazing avian culture of Iceland!

My two Iceland journals. I decorated the covers with stickers in case anyone didn’t know these were Icelandic journals!

Before going on any great saga, I must first obtain a watercolor journal. For Iceland, I chose two Stillman & Birn Beta Series journals. One is hardbound 5.5″ by 8″ journal and a soft bound pocket journal. On the first page I sketched a symbol of Iceland: the Atlantic puffin (featured sketch). Seeing this bird would be a lifer for me. The alcid can be seen in the northeastern part of North America but when I was in Maine in October, all the pelagic puffins were far out at sea (they come ashore in the summer to nest in large breeding colonies).

I like to start my travel journals with a map and drawing the outline of Iceland seemed to be like tracing the undulating lines of a Rorschach test. This map was really not to scale!

A trip is always an excuse to add some new gear to my travel set up, and then do a spread about it. In this case I wanted a new stuff daypack that could stuff down to almost nothing and then be used as a daypack to carry my sketching kit and rain gear. I chose the Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack. This stuffs down into a 4″ by 4″ bag yet has a capacity of 18 liters while weighing in at just 3 oz. The pack features zipper pulls, padded straps, a water bottle pocket, and an easy access top pocket with a key clip.

I just couldn’t resist drawing an Osprey on a puffin.


Shoe Trail Test: Marin Headlands

I wanted to put my new Solomon X Ultra 4 GTX hiking shoes to the test; well beyond walking around the shoe department of REI, so I took them out on a test hike in the Marin Headlands.

These hiking shoes have been the top rated hikers on multiple websites and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. A few things about the specs interested me. First they are waterproof and these shoes were incredibly light at 360 grams. This means less fatigue and more foot happiness!

Putting steps in on the Miwok Trail.

I planned to do a favorite five mile loop, the Coast Trail to Hill 88 and then the Wolf Ridge Trail and completing the loop on the Miwok Trail. This route has a 1,076 elevation gain so the shoes and I would get a workout.

I started the loop at the Rodeo Beach parking lot. From here, it was all up hill to my rest/sketch destination: Hill 88 at 905 feet above sea level.

Good lengths of the Coast Trail are along a paved road with a modest grade. As I climbed higher, the views of Rodeo Lagoon and Beach got better and better. As I kept climbing I could see most of the westside of San Francisco and Pacifica beyond. Climbing more, I turned back to see the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge with the skyscrapers of downtown behind.

So far the Solomons felt great and I couldn’t beat the setting with the sun shinning, a gentle breeze, wildflowers in bloom and wrentits, spotted towhees, and Bewick’s wrens in full song.

Part of the Coast Trail becomes a steep single track staircase and my new dogs provided the support and grip to handle the task of summiting Hill 88 with ease. It took me 55 minutes from the parking lot to the top of Hill 88, a distance of 1.9 miles.

The view from Hill 88 is amazing and I had to do a quick panoramic pen-brush sketch looking down on Rodeo Lagoon, the beach and Bird Rock (featured sketch).

I was up on Hill 88 for about ten minutes. Marin Headlands was once a military base and Hill 88 was covered in radar towers and the site still has military era buildings, now in semi ruin and covered in graffiti.

Looking west atop Hill 88 with the gatehouse on the right.

I headed down the entrance road to Hill 88 and turned off to the right to make my way east on the Wolf Ridge Trail towards the junction of Miwok Trail.

This is the real test of the Salomons, how did my feet feel on a long downhill, would my toes be smashed into the toe box? The answer was no, the shoes where comfortable all the way down the Miwok Trail.

California poppy blooming through Radiolarian chert on the Miwok Trail.

The Murres of Egg Rock

On Easter Sunday I walked west on the former Highway One at Devil’s Slide on the San Mateo County Coast. My destination was the common murre success story that is Egg Rock. This somehow seems appropriate, given the day.

I remember driving this white-knuckle stretch of Highway One. The current roadway is routed through a tunnel to the east. Peregrine Rock is on the left.

As I passed “Peregrine Rock“, so named because of the nesting peregrine falcons on the cliff face, two juvenile rock wrens were perched out on the retaining wall. I took a few photos of the obliging wrens and then headed down the road to the Egg Rock lookout.

This juvenile rock wren was very accommodating.

Egg Rock is a collection of rocks just off the coast of Devil’s Slide. It is the scene of an alcid success story. Egg Rock supported a breeding colony of about 3,000 common murres. A murre is a seabird that superficially looks like a penguin. They spend much of their life at sea but come ashore to breed.

In the early 1980s the colony saw a rapid decline due to gill netting, a change in weather patterns, and pollution. The colony collapsed altogether and no murres nested on the once populous rock. In the middle 1990s a murre restoration project was started. By 1996 just 12 murres where observed on Egg Rock. The restoration project employed murre decoys, mirrors, and broadcasting murre calling in order to bring murres back to Egg Rock. And it slowly began to work.

By 2005 there were 328 murres and by 2014 the murre population reached 3,200 birds. The murres of Egg Rock had finally recovered to their pre-1980s numbers.

Road cuts are a geologist’s gift. Here is the sedimentary uplifted rock of Devil’s Slide.
A sign of spring: a Bewick’s wren in song.

Meteor Crater

High on my sketch list is a landform 30 miles east on Highway 40 from Flagstaff, Arizona. This is, as writer Bill Bryson says, “the most famous impact site on Earth and a popular tourist attraction”. It is known simply as Meteor Crater.

I left my digs in West Sedona at a quarter to eight for the 90 minute journey to the big depression in the middle of nowhere.

As I headed up Highway 17, from Sedona at 4,350 feet to Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet, the temperature dropped. As I neared Flagstaff the temps hovered just above freezing. This journey was the reason I packed my puffy jacket, gloves, and beanie. It was cold up here with plenty of snow and ice on the ground.

I grazed the outskirts of Flagstaff and then turned east on Highway 40 toward Winslow and New Mexico. Within half an hour I turned south, towards the Meteor Crater.

As you approach the crater, the road is lined with witty signs. Others say, “Four Miles Until Impact”.

Once at the crater I had to find the crater through a maze of admissions, stairs, a gift shop, two theaters, a museum, more stairs, and a corridor or two. But finally I found the observation deck on the rim of the 4,000 foot in diameter crater. It was breathtaking (or maybe just out of breath with all the exertion finding the crater).

What caused this massive 560 foot deep crater? Well scientists surmise that about 50,000 years ago in the Pleistocene Epoch, the Earth was struck by a meteor traveling at about 26,000 miles an hour! The iron-nickel meteorite was about 150 feet wide and weighed several thousand tons. The impact generated a force greater than 20 million tons of TNT. That’s 20,000 kilotons. As a comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons of TNT. Most of the meteorite vaporized during the impact, but a few pieces of the meteor have been recovered.

It’s not everyday that you get to touch a meteor!

At the museum it is noted on the crater’s vastness and size: “The Crater is large enough for 20 football games to be played simultaneously on its floor, while more than 2 million people could watch from the side slopes.” If there were sporting events occurring in the crater, you would need some good optics to see what was happening down below. And I found some:

Reading about the crater in Bill Bryson’s excellent book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” was the impetus for my Spring Break Arizona trip and it rekindled my interest in Astronomy.

A pen brush sketch from the upper observation deck.

The Search for the Bendire’s at the Thrasher Spot

The Trasher Spot in Arizona is famous in the birding world as the location to see four thrashers: sage, crissal, Bendire’s, and Le Conte’s. It is also known as one of the best spots in it’s range to see the notoriously sulky and ghost-like Le Conte’s thrasher.

I had seen the Le Conte’s thrasher, after many, many attempts, just west of the dump in Borrego Springs, California in January of 2019 so this illusive thrasher was not my target bird for this visit, but the Bendire’s thrasher was.

Spring flowers and a tire at the Trasher Spot.

I wandered around the spot and I found no thrasher. A few horned larks and western meadowlarks lifted away as a red-tail circled above. In the taller trees I spotted a bird perched up but as I got a better look it was just a mockingbird. Well that was looking and sounding like a good omen.

Off to my left a bird was perched up on some sagebrush. Could this be the Bendire’s? I needed to get closer to get a positive identification. As I got closer, the bird flew farther away to another sagebrush perch. I circled round to get the bird in some better light. This was a thrasher alright, not a Bendire’s but a sage thrasher.

After searching for just over an hour and only seeing one thrasher species, the sage thrasher, I decided to pack it in for the day and return again in the morning, my last full day in Phoenix, to add Bendire’s to my life list and I hoped it was not going to be as hard and laborious as the Le Conte’s thrasher.

I headed west on West Salome Highway, making my way back to Highway 10. When I slowed near the intersection of the impossibly named 339th Avenue, I saw a mimid-type bird perched on the roadside announcing the intersection of 339th Avenue.

I immediately pulled over and cursed myself for packing my bins and camera in the trunk. As I stepped out of the car, the bird dropped down and disappeared from sight before I could identify it. I was not going to give up now!

Now I was armed with the instruments of a birder. The mystery mimid flew across the highway and landed in a tree of sticks. The hunt was on!

I managed to scuttle across the highway without becoming a grill ornament on a pick up truck (the state vehicle of Arizona) and bushwhacked ( they were short bushes) and made my siege on the tree-bush.

All I needed was a brief glimpse. Give me the shorter beak with a pale base, the yellow eye, or the arrow shaped markings on the breast. Then I would close out all the North American thrashers! Oh and a photo would be nice.

In typical thrasher fashion the bird put a load of branches between itself and myself. But I did get enough pieces of the puzzle that added up to Bendire’s Thrasher. Lifer and the final thrasher on my list! We played a game of hide and seek as I tried to get a photo, the Bendire’s not giving a fig about me and my selfish wants.

This Bendire’s looked a bit odd. It was something about it’s bill. When I put bins on the bird, I noticed it was carrying a butterfly. Was this a snack or a gift?


Lowell Observatory

The Lowell Observatory is legendary in the history of astronomy.

It was at this Flagstaff, Arizona observatory that a high school graduate and amateur astronomer discovered Planet X, later named Pluto, the ninth planet in our solar system.

This sign at the entrance to the visitors center holds true for looking to the heavens but it certainty is the mantra for sketching.

The former farmer and the first American to discover a planet was named Clyde Tombaugh. He built his own telescopes from discarded farming machinery parts and made astronomical drawings that he sent off to the Lowell Observatory. They were so impressed with Tombaugh’s drawings that they hired him as an observer in the search for Planet X.

Tombaugh used the 13-inch astrograph to take photographs of the night sky. An astrograph is a telescope that has a photographic plate holder where astronomers can take photographs with exposures than can last up to an hour.

The 13-inch astrograph that Tombaugh used to discover Planet X, later renamed Pluto. The boxing glove was added by a later astronomer after hitting his head on the counterweight.

The method Tombaugh used To discover the ninth planet was as follows: Tombaugh would aim the astrograph to a section of the night’s sky and make a one hour exposure onto a glass plate. Five or six days later he would make the same exposure in the same location and then he would compare the two developed plates. The stars, which are far beyond our solar system, did not move but Tombaugh found a small spec that moved from left to right. This was a planet orbiting our sun. Tombaugh had discovered Planet X!

Tombaugh later went back to school to earn his masters (Can you imagine his professor asking the class on the first day: “What is your experience with astronomy?” Tombaugh replies, “I discovered Pluto.”) He went on to a long career in astronomy and he died in 1997. He was lucky not to live long enough to see his discovery demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet; Which happened almost ten years after his dead.

In this observatory, Tombaugh discovered the planet Pluto. Err, I mean the dwarf planet Pluto.

Another historic telescope at Lowell Observatory is the 24-inch Clack Refractor. This is the telescope that Percival Lowell used to explore the planet Mars as well as starting the search for Planet X.

It was with this telescope that Lowell made many of his Mauritian observations that raised some eyebrows in the scientific community. Lowell observed “Mauritian Canals” on the surface and he surmised that these were signs of intelligent life. Lowell thought that the canals were used to carry water from the poles to the desert like equator.

While these speculative observations didn’t help Lowell or the Observatory’s reputation, his theories provided fodder for early Science Fiction writers.