Sketch Poetry

Poetry frequently makes it’s way into my journal.

One afternoon I was listening to one of my father’s Duke Ellington CDs, a CD that I had gotten him for Christmas a while ago. My father loved big bands and he saw Ellington, Basie, and Ella as well as west coast greats Brubeck, Cal Tjader, and Vince Guaraldi. It was one of those beautiful February afternoons where the trees have blossomed early and the White-crowned sparrows were singing at the tops of trees to mark out their patch. It seemed to me, and the sparrows, that it was a spring day. As I was listening to Ellington the white-crown in the backyard seemed to be singing with the band so I wrote a poem about it and created a spread.

Duke and White-crowned

Duke takes the intro

as Cootie floats above

muted horns below

Hodges leans into his solo

squeezing every ounce of joy out of his horn

White-crowned counters

and the Rabbit responds

while Sonny Greer keeps time

Long after the strains

of Mood Indigo had ended

and the curtain of dusk has fallen

White-crowned is still singing

the only song he knows

at the top of the berry bush

just outside my window

defining his place in the band

as the day’s heat turns to blue.

I added two illustration as “bookends” to the text, one was sketched from the Ellington CD cover and the other was from a photograph of a white-crowned sparrow.


This spread was about my experience watching California condors at Grimes Point in Big Sur. it was a magical day with about ten condor perched by Highway One. The drawing is based on a photograph that I took and the condor’s massive wingspan seems to span the coastal hills in the background. I wrote a poem about the condor, included underneath it’s wings.


This poem is about my philosophy of nature, that we should not fear nature but embrace it. The poem is dedicated to three of my students as I taught them not to fear the honey bee. During recess on day, I found a bee on the blacktop and I picked it up and showed my students that they had nothing to fear. I then let the bee crawl on their hands and they learned that if you treat nature with respect and acted with confidence the bee will not cease its life by stinging you. I don’t think that lesson is a California State Standard!


This spread was created to illustrate a poem I wrote shortly after my fathers passing in October. It’s really about accepting what life has dealt you and coping with change.


Life List

We all seem to like making lists. Ingredients for a new recipe, the starting line for a football match, our favorite books or records (a top ten list) or the list of friends we want to invite to a dinner. The list goes on for ever.

And birders are absolutely obsessed with lists. Life list, country list, state list, county list, backyard list, room list, car list, bike list, or walking list. I have never been too obsessed with lists and the list that is most important to me is the number of species of birds I have seen in the United States, because birds do not recognize country, state or county lines. I am currently one bird away from 500 North American birds. I wonder what No. 500 will be?

I have recently kept a school list, that is, all the species of birds seen from my school site. The birds could be on the green field, in the trees and bushes, or high above. The only criterion is that I have to see the bird with my feet firmly planted on campus in order to put the bird on the school list.

Let me give you an example of a bird that I was not able to put on my list. One morning as I pulled off the freeway and turned left over the overpass, I spotted a raptor circling off to the south. I pulled off, grabbed my binoculars from the trunk and focused on the raptor catching the warming air off the roadbed. The bird came into focus: adult bald eagle!

I rushed back to the car and headed up the hill to school. Pulling into the parking lot I scanned the horizon for the eagle. My view was obscured by houses and trees. Despite my search, I could not add bald eagle to my school list. But I tired.

What drives a man to want to put a bird on a list?

One of the main problems with listing is that birding becomes more of a sport than an encounter with nature. It becomes simply ticking off a name on a list rather than a celebration of recognizing a bird, that bird, turning on that branch above my head. A birder might say, “It’s just a robin.”  And master birder Rich Stallcup would reply, “ Yes but have you seen that robin?” There is much that is lost with listing and I have been guilty as any birder.

My current school list sits at 28 species. Bird 28 came one morning before school. I was on the yard asking a colleague a question when I looked up, as I am prone to do when I am out doors, an I saw the helmeted flying crossbow. I pointed skyward  and yelled to any students that were within earshot, “Peregrine!” School list bird #28. Can I get an witness, Amen?

Once you travel outside the United States, the world of listing takes on a whole new, a massive, perspective. Now you are in the realm of World List! There are currently about 8,669 bird species on planet Earth. So I have a lot of  birding to do.

My first experience birding outside of the States was a 2008 trip to Japan. I was not really birding because I left my binoculars at home but there was a freedom in birding with my brown one by ones. I was not on this trip to bird but once you start to bird you can’t take your eyes and ears off of birds. On this trip I, for the first time, used a Moleskine watercolor sketch book, and I have fallen in love with the format ever since. The following three sketches came from the life list that I kept in my Moleskine.

AW Magpie

The azure-winded magpie has a very odd distribution. It is found in Japan, where I saw it, and it is found in eastern Asia and there is an island population in southern and central Spain. I will see the bird again at the end of March as I will be going on a birding trip to Spain.

Bush Warbler

There was one bird which I desired to hear more than any other bird in Japan: the bush warbler (Japanese nightingale). This bird is celebrated in Japanese poetry, prose, and film as the harbinger of spring. I finally heard the bird in Kyoto at the beautiful Fushimi Shrine on my final morning in Japan. I first heard the unmistakable call and I rushed over the where I finally spotted the drab bird calling in a tree.

I added that bird to the world life list!Tree Sparrow

The tree sparrow was an ubiquitous bird in Japan.



“No flesh-eating creature is more efficient, or more merciful; it simply does what it was designed to do.”

-J. A. Baker

On one Saturday I was birding Natural Bridges State Park when I saw a bird in direct flight. Stiff wingbeats, with prey clutched in it’s talons. It perched in the top of a Monterey pine at the back entrance to Natural Bridges. I knew what the bird was and I headed closer to affirm my hunch and see what it had taken for it’s mid afternoon repass. Dark helmet with sideburns, a bird that is affectionately called “Elvis” by hawk watchers on Marin Headlands Hawk Hill. Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus, the fastest animal on planet Earth.

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The Butcher Watchman and the Cackler

It is not often that I get two life birds in California in one day but bird migration in the winter can always bring surprises.

A very unusual songbird had been found on January 12, in remote Napa County on the northern edge of Lake Berryessa. The bird was unusual for two reasons. First that it vacates it’s northern breeding grounds and winters in southern Canada and northern United States. A few strays wander into California making it a rare winter visitor. The second reason this bird is unusual is that it is a predatory songbird that preys on large insects and small birds and rodents. Its scientific name is Lanius excubitor, which translates to butcher watchman. It is also known by the nickname, “butcher bird” for its habit of impaling its prey on thorns and barbed wire fences. In North American this bird is call northern shrike and in Europe it is the great grey shrike.

In any case this was a bird I had struck out on for years and now early on a Saturday morning I met my fellow member of the Shrikeforce Expedition 2016 and headed to the beautiful curvatous, oak-studded hills of north eastern Napa County.

Our destination was the Eticuera Creek Day Use Area. The shrike had been seen from the parking lot. Upon arrival there were three birders scanning the area. They had just had the bird which was good news but it hadn’t appeared in the last ten minutes. It had been seen in a  pair of valley oaks that crowned a low green hill. We searched the bare branches without success. I then followed the line of the hill downslope, pausing at every snag and branch to look for the shrike. I stopped at a lone small tree, nothing. Then I was distracted by a kestrel and a crow, dive bombing a red-tail in an oak across the road. I returned to the scanning the hillside starting again from the twin oaks down towards the small tree, and that’s when I saw a bird. It looked like an oversized paler version of a western scrub jay perched in the upper left hand side of the small tree. I pointed the bird out to the other birders and their scope view confirmed: juvenile northern shrike! Life bird No. 497!

To commemorate this life bird  I created a spread which I started in the parking lot with a field sketch (lower left). Once at home I needed a font that would be menacing enought to represent this predatory butcher bird. I found the font in my much used Dover book Rustic and Rough-Hewn Alphabets by Dan  X. Solo. I chose Personality Script because the shrike has a killer personality. I then wanted to sketch an image of the shrike, which I found on ebird, taken on the day it was found by the birder who found it. I included a quote from the Bible: Pete Dunne’s Field Guide Companion. I also included a map (not to scale) of Northern Lake Berryessa and the parking lot area.


My second lifer of the day was picked up on the way back at Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds (see previous post). This lifer I have seen before but prior to 2004, it was considered a subspecies of the Canada  goose. It is now recognized as it’s own distinct species and given the name cackling goose.


As if the Avian Gods hated my car enough I returned to Marin to find that a large flock of American robins and cedar waxwings gave my brand new car a new “paint” job. But in the end it was worth it for a northern shrike and a flock of cacklers!



A Needle in the Haystack

The haystack is the lupine and coyote brush of the southern shore of Abbotts Lagoon in Pt. Reyes National Seashore. The needle is North America’s smallest sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii). A bird that Pete Dunne describes as “secretive bordering on clandestine”. It was this needle that brought me to this lagoon on the inner reaches of the Pacific Plate on a Saturday morning.

The directions were simple: from the parking lot, head down the Lagoon Trail, past the second bridge the trail peters out. Keep the lagoon to your left, the beach to the right. Walk counter clockwise around the third lagoon, past the dead cow, cross the small creek bed and the Le Conte’s was seen at the base of the lupine ridge about 200 feet from the creek.

Forty minutes later I stood before the lupine ridge. Among the lupine was song and savannah sparrow and a house wren but no Le Conte’s. There were plenty of turkey vultures waiting on fence posts for their turn at the cow . I followed the ridge back and forth, willed the needle to appear at the top of a lupine bush. Was that it moving through the lupine like a feathered mouse? No just a song sparrow.

After about twenty minutes into the search a small flash of orange shot out of a lupine bush into another bush. I looked at the far bush, the sun at my back. A bird appeared at the top of the lupine bush, long enough to go through my checklist: bold striped head pattern, orange buffy wash and white belly, dark streaked sides. Le Conte’s Sparrow, Lifebird No. 499!

A note on the sketch: this sketch was heavily influenced by the line work of R. Crumb. I recently rewatched the documentary Crumb and I completed all the line work with my Noodler’s fountain pen, adding cross hatching and contort lines, before I added any paint.

Le Contes, B&W

Le Conte’s spread without paint, just the line work.