Last weekend I witnessed, and sketched, one of the minor miracles of bird migration in the Bay Area: the Vaux’s swifts of McNeer’s brickyard in Marin County. Every September or early October these bat-like birds arrive in, first hundreds and then thousands, to roost for the night in the three abandoned brick smoke stacks at the brickyard. They (or perhaps other birds) stay for a few weeks and then disappear, their next destination is still a mystery. We know that they winter in Mexico and Central America.
We arrived at around 7:00 PM and the persistent calls drew our eyes skyward to pick out the high flying birds that covered the sky like floating ash. The ash cloud spiraled downward into the left smoke stack and nature was giving us a truly wonderful sight as the birds replicated watching a film of smoke rising from the stack but being shown in reverse. We joined the crowd of birders, biologists, and locals. The previous evening, biologists had counted an incredible 19,685 swifts! Tonight the count was slightly below that but just as impressive at 16,300 birds, 15,700 of which were roosting in the left stack alone (which is the stack I sketched). We missed the peak of migration by one day.
My previous visit to see the swift migration was September 25, 2012. The count on that day was a measly 8,200, almost half of the total seen this evening. In this journal page I noted that Roger Tory Peterson called these swifts “a cigar with wings”.
The Pilot “ultra fine point permanent type” pen is a beast. It is the antidote for invisible ink, a black stick of dynamite ready to explode into a growing deep, dark pool if you spend to much time in one place. You must work fast with this pen, it is more unforgiving than watercolor, and when it reads “permanent” in bold gold letters along it’s length, its not a suggestion but a statement of fact. The expressive dark lines of this pen almost bleed through the pages of my Moleskine Journal, the key drawings are visible from both sides of the page.
I can not think of a better choice of weapon to capture this bold, unpredictable beach, where San Francisco ends in sand dunes, slowly being eaten away by the unyielding tides of the Pacific. The beach that has yielded the lives of unsuspecting swimmers, the rip currents at Ocean Beach are legendary.
But on a day like today, Ocean Beach is simply beautiful. The sun is out, for once, in the Outer Sunset, leaving the fog-shrouded streets an almost distant memory of a San Francisco summer. It’s a day in the Tsunami Zone when folks are having a driveway cookout, a time when you can see your neighbors.
After I worked quickly to capture the Big Blue as the sun crept towards the horizon, I worked on the tightrope without a net as I kept my pencil and eraser in my tool bag. I also covered the key ink sketch with a brash,wet on wet, wash. I let colors clash into color and added at bold Permanent Blue Violet (van Gogh) for the shadowed stretch of beach in the foreground. I add in my left boot for scale. A record of a Sunday afternoon walk to Ocean Beach.
Some journal entries capture a landscape or a natural experience but this spread simply records the time of a favorite Santa Cruz Mountains hike. This serves more like a daily diary entry than anything else: went on a hike at Fall Creek- took about 4 hrs. I sometimes draw a map (never to scale) but this time I used the trail map (gluing it into my journal with rubber cement) and recorded the time I reached each destination. On the right side of the vertical spread I added a few highlights from the hike. Including something I had never experienced before, an aggregation of thousand upon thousands of lady bugs covering a stump on the banks of Fall Creek. These beetles mass in large gatherings when it gets colder to conserve warmth. A sure sign that summer is drawing to a close. Again its about noticing the little things that paint a big picture.
The ladies gathering on a tree stump on the banks of Fall Creek in the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell State Park.