“Write what should not be forgotten.” -Isabel Allende
While my journals are filled with landscapes, urban scenes, and birds, I sometimes use my journal to simply take notes. Such was the case when I attended a talk by bird guru Kenn Kaufman at the Monterey Bay Birding Festival. Kaufman is the author of Kingbird Highway, an autobiography about his quest on a shoestring to see as many birds in one year (a big year).
As I was waiting for the talk to start I began sketching the black oystercatcher that was displayed on the screen. I placed the sketch in the far corner of the page. As I looked at the shape of the bird and concentrated on its beak, what happened then is what always happens when I sketch, I lose sense of time and I don’t seem to realize what’s going on around me. I am just focused, seeing. A meditation in public. Sometimes when I pause, I sense that I’m being watched. The odds that someone would be looking at me in a room full of perceptive birders is very high. But I sensed that someone to my right was watching my progress. That never really stopped me from sketching. I didn’t look up from my work.
When I did look up from my work, I met the woman sitting next to me. It turns out that she is the editor of the Albatross, the newsletter of the Santa Cruz Bird Club and she took an interest in my note taking. There are times like this, these serendipitous moments, when life provides a fork in the trail. A time when the right person sees my work and as a result my note taking page, which was done for no other reason than self knowledge, is published in the November-December issue of the Albatross.
You can find the article here:
Having grown up in the Valley of Heart’s Delight with my bedroom window looking out towards Mount Hamilton and the flight path of airplanes on final approach to Moffett Field, I developed a love of aircrafts and all things that fly. I built scale models of the P-3C Orions that where stationed at Moffett and the drone of their four turboprop engines where part of the sound track of my youth. The monotony of P-3s passing by my bedroom window, returning from submarine patrol, where occasionally disrupted by a C-130 or the largest airplane in the air, the C-5 Galaxy and occasionally, the far sexier F-16 Falcon. No aircraft was more eagerly awaited than the Blue Angels, the blue and gold A-4F Skyhawks arriving for the annual air show.
My fascination with military grade planes and the Blue Angels has waned over the years like my interest in Star Wars action figures. I have left the Valley of Heart’s Delight ( now known as Silicon Valley) and moved north to the city of St. Francis. In 1994, Moffett Field was closed as a navel air field and the Blue Angels followed me up north to San Francisco and Fleet Week.
San Francisco has a love/hate relationship with Fleet Week and the Blue Angels. With the increased traffic and deafening roar of supersonic jets overhead I can understand why. I got out of Dodge during Fleet Week and retreated to the peace of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I did return to the City on Sunday, in time for the last Angel show of Fleet Week. I climbed to the highest point within a two block walk: Sunset Reservoir. I look north towards Golden Gate Park, the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Mount Tamalpais.
I have also had the same reservations about the Blue Angels and the use of taxpayer dollars as I look out across the crumbling infrastructure of San Francisco’s streets, not to mention the underpaid and overworked teachers, the true homeland security of the United States. But waiting up on that hill for the first sighting of the F/A-18s, I am brought back to my childhood, eagerly waiting at my bedroom window for the blue and gold gashawks to appear. While I scan the skies the costs and my mixed feelings about the military fades away as the the blue diamond appear over the City.
Blue Angels taking off at San Francisco International Airport in 2010.
The sketcher on the tarmac of SFO with Blue Angel F/A-18 H number 1.
The other day a student brought in a nest that he found in his grandparent’s backyard. I suppose it really was just a matter of time that a student brought some sort of bird biofact into the classroom. I do talk about birds quite a bit in class and I was thankful it wasn’t an old owl pellet or a dead bird. And of course I did what any sketcher would do, I took the nest home and I drew it. The more I sketched the nest, it’s twists and curves, the more I was able to see its architecture and design. I began to see things I hadn’t noticed before, like the petal-less flower stems that ringed the base and the variety of materials used. At first I though the nest belonged to a scrub-jay but upon further measurements and research, including looking at Maryjo Koch’s wonderful book The Nest, I determined that the nest was made by a California towhee.
I like it when the detective work is taken out of the equation when it comes to identifying a nest. Such as seeing a scrub-jay fly into a rose bush at a community garden or a steller’s jay nesting in a potted tree on the patio of a busy restaurant (See the bottom sketch in the Mission #1 post). One nest discovery that made it into my journal was from an experience hiking around the alien landscape of French Meadows Reservoir in the Sierra Nevadas. While hiking among the rocky shoreline I startled a spotted sandpiper who limped away from me with a “broken” wing. I had seen this mock behavior with other ground nesting birds like the killdeer and I know that I was very close to it’s nest and the bird was trying to lead me away. I was careful not to step on the nest and I found it after a short search. The sandpiper’s nest contains four blotched eggs. An interesting fact about the spotted is that the males broods the eggs instead of the female.
I have always believed that if you’re patient and wait, the birds will come to you. It also helps that I live in a city that is surrounded on three sides by water and is situated on the western edge of the North American continent. I am also aided by the small army of birders that prowl their patches and report their sightings, both mundane and unusual, on the internet. Birds frequently get lost during migration and head west instead of east on the journey to their tropic wintering grounds. There has been times where I have contemplated travelling to the North Midwest to see the mystic snowy owl only to find that one appears only an hour and a half drive from San Francisco. Or a large seabird, which has never graced the west coast, has taken up residence on Alcatraz Island, or that a rare warbler is spending some time in Golden Gate Park, fueling up for it’s epic migration. This is exactly the bird I spotted, early one foggy Sunday morning, sipping nectar from the monkey hand tree in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. This magnificent bolt of sunshine was the prothonotary warbler. This oddly named bird with the nearly unpronounceable name gets it’s moniker from the Late Latin word: protonotarius (according to Dictionary of Birds of the United States) which refers to a Vatican notary who wore a yellow robe. I think this is my sort of Sunday worship!
After the horde of binocular wheeling and zoom lens canon bearing vikings moved off into the arboretum, having checked this bird off their life list, Lecy and I lingered to spend some time with our visitor. It paid off as the the warbler paused near a monkey hand tree blossom, ten feet above our heads. I lower my binoculars and and looked at the bird with 1x magnification. It’s not often that we simply have the time to look at a bird, to notice it’s feather patterns and the rich tones of it’s plumage, the shape of it’s beak, and color of it’s legs.
One of the strangest San Francisco life birds has to be the Northern Gannet that was spending time on Alcatraz, displaying to the resident cormorants. One morning I strolled out to the end of Aquatic Park Pier and was helped by a birder with a scope. The East coaster was easy to spot, it was the largest white bird on the island. This gannet was the first record on the west coast and it was fitting that it was taking up residence on Alcatraz, a Spanish word meaning “pelican” or “strange bird”. This gannet was a strange bird indeed.