Cougars of San Francisco

Last week there was proof that the city and county of San Francisco has not been fully tamed. Living in San Francisco’s “wild” west side, I have seen raccoon and skunks threading their way through the Sunset’s twilight streets.  I have even seen coyotes in Golden Gate Park. One at the intersection of Lincoln and Great  Highway and a whole family at Middle Lake. Seeing a family with healthy coyote pups, thriving in the midst of such a vast urban area restored my faith in the power of nature to survive in the absence of  a “traditional” habitat and speaks to me about the resilience of nature in the face of compromised or destroyed ecosystems. And now an even bigger mammal has crossed into the southern border of San Francisco.

An adult mountain lion was captured on a home security camera in the Seacliff neighborhood, sometime on the evening of June 30th. The lion was spotted on two other occasions making it’s way south, the last sighting, on July 3, was at Lake Merced in the southwestern part of the city.

The real question I ask myself is: are mountain lions creeping into our habitat or have we been creeping into their’s? I will let you answer that question for yourself, I know I have an answer.

The anchor for this sketch was a lion mount at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. I was told the lion was shot in the Carmel Valley in the 1970s because it was preying on livestock.

M. Lion Page

I have been lucky enough to see a live mountain lion in the Bay Area. It was on a backpacking trip in Pt. Reyes in April of 2011. I was just heading back from Arch Rock when I saw the large reddish cat with a long tail cross my path about 20 yards away. It was a brief look but I later found out that a motion camera about a mile a way  from Arch Rock capture an image of a lion about once a week.


Noodler’s Ahab Standard Flex 

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered

I’ve seen lots of funny men;

Some will rob you with a six-gun,

And some with a fountain pen.”

-Pretty Boy Floyd,

Woody Guthrie. 

A new month and a new toy: Noodler’s Ahab Standard Flex pen ($18.50).

In the past I have worked with nibs that required frequent dipping into ink (think Shakespeare composing a sonnet). I have always loved their expressive lines caused by the amount of pressure applied to the nib. The downside is that you have to continually recharge the nib which requires an open inkwell. This approach does not lend itself to field sketching. I think of the many times I’ve dropped a pen, pencil, or journal and dropping a 3 ounce open container of jet-black India Ink would be catastrophic.

Into this dilemma comes the Ahab flex pen.  With this fountain pen, the ink is contained in the barrel. This pen sucks up ink like a hummingbird drinking nectar.  I filled up the reservoir with black ink and now I needed a subject for a field test sketch.

Enter the Women’s World Cup Final, the United States vs Japan and a pizza/brew pub on Clement.

I first needed an anchor (not the beer) for the spread and a pint of pale ale did the trick. Sketching with the Ahab is a dream, it is expressive, free flowing, and I didn’t run out of ink. This pen really is three pens in one, depending on how much pressure you apply. No pressure: thin line, lots of pressure: thick line.

I look forward to many more sketches with my new toy!

Noodler's ink

A portrait of my new pen (not done with the Ahab Flex).



Whaling in Boston

“In the long view of history, it will seem a remarkable turn-around: that a century that began by actively hunting whales ended by passively watching them. Animals, too, have a history-although one we can know only a tiny part of-and while modern science has demystified the whale whilst revealing its true wonders, our attitudes to whales also changed when we see them close-up.”

-Philip Hoare, The Whale

On my last full day in Boston I chose to spend the afternoon on a New England Aquarium whale watching trip.

It was fitting that I was departing from a Massachusetts port, for the state has a long history in whaling. New Bedford and Nantucket are two of the most well know whaling ports of the American whaling industry. A whaler named Herman Melville, worked out of New Bedford and  it was here that he wrote his masterpiece Moby-Dick, published in 1851. After this, the whaling industry began to decline with the discovery of petroleum, which replaced whale oil. The last whale boat to head out of New Bedford  was the schooner John R. Manta in 1925.

We headed out of Boston Harbor, under clear, blue skies, on the Cetacea at 14:00. I also had a few target birds on this trip. The first one, the common eider, I picked up to the starboard, on a rocky island.

It was an hour and a half cruise to our destination: Stellwagon Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 25 miles east of Boston. The Cetacea slowed, and I loosened the tie on my hat and wiped the sea spray from by binoculars. We cruised along the underwater plateau, all eyes scanning the water for any tell-tales signs of a whale. The Cory’s shearwaters (another lifer) cutting across the water ridges seemed promising. I eyed every white-capped wave and deep blue trough with interest, willing a whale to appear.

We got word that another boat had a whale six miles from our position. The Cetacea surged forward. I tightened my hat and tucked my binos into my jacket. We soon spotted the whale-watching boat, bobbing on the open ocean and then spotted the bushy spout of a humpback. It dived twice before giving us a good look at her flukes which our naturalist was able to identify the whale as “Scylla”, a female born in 1981. “Scylla” saved the best for last as she gave us a full breach off to the starboard.

We had to return to port and I again tightened my hat and stowed my binos. As we headed back we where given one last treat, a tall geyser-like blow of a whale off to the starboard. The whale folded into the waves revealing a pronounced fin. This was indeed a fin whale, the second largest creature in the world, coming in second only to the blue whale. I had seen blues in Monterey Bay but the fin was a lifer for me!

The fin whale has been called the “greyhound of the sea” because of it’s speed. It was fast enough to avoid the harpoon but with the invention of steam power and the explosive harpoon, the fin finally met it’s match. In the 20th century, no other whale have been hunted more than the fin, with an astonishing 725,000 hunted in the Southern Hemisphere alone.

Humans  have been hunting and killing an animal at least 1,500 times heavier than an average man , in a watery element that is not our natural home speaks to our use of technology and willpower, when there is a profit to be made. Unfortunately it does not speak to our empathy and understanding of the natural world. Whaling stopped because it was no longer profitable not because we thought that it was morality objectionable. For whatever reason, we no longer hunt whales to the same extent and the ocean and these magnificent creates can begin to heal. The fin did not follow the passenger pigeon, the dodo, or the moa down the path to extinction and to see this magnificent creature was a true gift on this trip to Boston.

photo (11)

Looking astern on the Cetacea on our return to Boston Harbor, crossing under the flight path of Logan International Airport.



Harvard Natural History Museum

No trip to Boston would be complete without a journey across the Charles River to Cambridge (“our fair city”) and American’s oldest university:  Harvard (1636). What drew me to Harvard was the Natural History Museum. This museum was founded 362 years after the university in 1998 and was created out of three different research museums: the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard Mineralogical and Geological Museum, and the Harvard University Herbaria. With the price of admission you got three museums in one which also included the Peabody Museum of Native Americans.

I had come to sketch the superlatives, oddities, and extinctions of the animal world, and they were many specimens on display in the museum’s vast collections.

The Superlatives:

The wandering albatross has the distinction of having the largest wingspan in the bird world. It’s wingspan can reach 11ft 6in.

The largest falcon species is the gyrfalcon.

The smallest wren is the winter wren, which also sings one of the fastest songs in the bird world.

The capybara is the world’s largest rodent.

Harvard 2


The Oddities:

The duck-billed platypus is an Australian mammal that is poisonous and lays eggs (one of only five monotremes that currently exist).

The Coelacanth, an ancient fish that was once thought to be extinct, until it was rediscovered on December 22, 1938, off the east coast of South Africa.


The beautiful passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird in North America but is was hunted to extinction. The last living bird,”Martha”, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is very close to being extinct with rare sightings in the southern swamps and Cuba.

The Thylacine or Tasmanian tiger once lived in Australia and Tasmania but the last individual died in the Hobart Zoo on September 7, 1936. Mysterious sightings are still reported.

Moas were large flightless birds endemic to New Zealand. The nine species of Moa were hunted to extinction by the Māori.  All Moas were extinct by the 15th century.

The Dodo has become the poster bird for island extinction. The dodo was endemic to the island of  Mauritius and was first encounter by Dutch sailors in 1598. The last report of a live dodo was in 1662. Why the dodo became extinct is unknown, with over hunting, habitat destruction and the introduction of nonnative species being leading causes.