Grinding Rock, Coloma

This May I organized and participated in the biggest event in any fourth grader’s life at my school. Our annual three day, two night trip to the Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS). My school has been part of this program for 23 years and CODS had just celebrated it’s 25th anniversary.

Coloma is the site of the event that changed California’s and the Nation’s history. In January of 1848, a carpenter from New Jersey, named James Marshall, spotted something shining in the tailrace of the sawmill where he served as construction superintendent. This was the “discovery” of gold that led to the Gold Rush of 1849, which is cited as the largest mass human migration in human history. California would never be the same. Just like my Greenhorns would be forever altered in their three day journey from being a Greenhorn to  becoming an experienced Sourdough miner.

The CODS campus  lies on the banks of the South Fork of the American River, just upstream from the site where the carpenter’s eyes fell on the shining beacon of gold. We are literally living in history, in a location that was ground zero for the enormous flood of emmigrants and immigrants that transformed the Golden State.

Each morning I would head out of my digs with my journal and paints. In the early morning, nature returns to the campus. The first harbinger of the dawn is the California towhee, with it’s emphatic “cheep” call. It is soon followed by the contact call of the California quail, then the harsh reprise of the western scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica). Coloma is a place of truly California birds. When I stepped out of my door a covey of quail was to my left and six black-tail deer was to my right. The space in-between was populated with Canada geese and their downey goselings. The “wake-waka-waka” call of the acorn woodpecker was coming from the trees above.

I turned left, the quail scuttled off to the brush and I headed downstream  with no destination but an urge to capture my experience in ink and watercolor. To my right was the American River, the river that Sam Brannan emoralized on May 12, 1848, when he held aloft a bottle of gold dust and announced to the crowded San Francisco street, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

I headed out to the very edge of campus, just shy of Troublemaker Rapids. I saw a pieced of exposed granite surrounded by grass. I had not seen his rock before. Two mortar holes were worn into the granite. These holes were created and used by the native people of Coloma Valley to pound acorns into meal.

Acorns were a valuable food resource to native Californians providing protein and carbohydrates as well as a source of vitamins A and C. The grinding rock was silent now. The ancient grinding songs are gone but the sound of the swollen river working its way through Troublemaker Rapids and the calls of acorn woodpecker and scrub-jay, the other inhabitants of Coloma Valley that use acorns for sustenance, remain.

I set down my paints and journal and walked to the banks of the American and filled my cup with the icy snowmelt. I returned to the grinding rock and I started my sketch.


Sketching the grinding rock on the CODS campus with the waters of the South Fork of the American River.

Tree of Heaven

My second sketch was found much closer to my digs, across the dirt road in fact. Like the thousands that rushed into Coloma Valley in 1848 and 1849 this was an invasive species. It is known by many derivative monikers. My favorites are “stink tree”, “ghetto palm”, and “tree of Hell”. It is known to science as Ailanthus altissima, and it’s common name is tree of heaven. It’s native home is the celestial kingdom: China.

The tree was brought to California in the 1890’s by Chinese immigrants, who sought their fortune in the gold fields. It is commonly found in abandoned Chinese mining camps.

What really interested me was the two active cavity nests that were in the upper reaches of the truck. The bottom cavity was being used by a pair of European starling. Each time the adults returned with food, the begging calls of the chicks could be heard from the front porch of my digs. The upper hole was occupied by acorn woodpeckers.

For me this tree and it’s tenants are a metaphor for Coloma and California since the time of the Gold Rush of 1849. Here was a tree from Asia being occupied by an evasive species of bird, the European starling that has spread in it’s own Manifest Destiny, from coast to coast and north and south. Just when these thoughts get me down, the Acorn woodpecker returns to her nest with a beak full of insects for her hungry chicks. This is the true native Californian, occupying the upper nest cavity. Her brood will ensure that the laughter-like waka-waka-waka call of the bird that the miners call carpentero, will always fill the Coloma Valley.


Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas

It is impossible to believe the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure, classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal, and a piece of scarlet serge draped over a stick.

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

A traveler visits a foreign country to experience a different culture, to see exotic flora and fauna, and sample strange cuisine. And some of us travel to be challenged, to broaden our perspectives, and to see how the rest of the world lives. I can think of few experiences that can be more challenging to a vegetarian nature- lover than attending a corrida at the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas on an Easter Sunday afternoon in Madrid. Why did I attend such an event? I have had an obsession with bulls and matadors from an early age.

It all started with reading The Story Ferdinand written  by Murio Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. This 1936 classic is about a young bull that gets chosen for the bullfights in Madrid because of his supposed bravery and ferociousness, in reality he sat on a bumble bee. Ferdinand really just wants to sit under a cork oak and smell the flowers, instead of charging the matador. Once in the ring, he smells the flowers in all the ladies hair and he could care less with participating in the ancient and brutal art form. The Story of Ferdinand was banned in Spain for its overt pacifist message in a time of brutal world aggression. But as a child I loved the simple black line illustrations and the simple but powerful tale.

A corrida is a odd mix of the strange and familiar. The trumpet sounds and the paseo enters the ring led by the two Alguacils dressed in costumes of the reign of Philip II. The three matadors follow in their suits of light sparkling in the Madrid afternoon sun followed by their Cuadrilla. The Matadors doff their hats to the directors box, and spectacle is ready to begin.


The paseo at Las Ventas, Madrid, the most famous bullring in the world.

The bull that came out of the toril gate on that Easter afternoon was no Ferdinand. This bull was willing to charge the cape and could care less about the few flowers that adorned ladies hair.

The toro charged around the ring and the first matador came out holding his cape in both hands. The bull turned for a pass. The toro caught the matador with his horns and raised him into the air. He landed on his side and bull lowered his head and gored the matador. Toro: 1, Matador: 0. But in this traditional dance of death, the toro seldom wins. And this corrida was no different.


Lesser kes

Many of the villages in the Spanish countryside have a Plaza de Toros such as the ring in Trujillo which was opened in 1848 and closed in 1998. This bullring now provides a habit for a nesting colony for the lesser kestrel. As this agile predator stilled above the red tiled roof of the ring, I reflected on this very different dance of death.

IMG_4349Corvidsketcher, sketching the Plaza de Toros La Piedad in Trijillo, with lesser kestrels flying above.


107 Species

Life bird number one was a wood pigeon sitting in Neptune’s hand in the Plaza del Castillo seen from the bus coming from Barajas Airport to Atocha Train Station in Madrid. I figured this was an auspicious start to my Spanish birding adventure.

The next morning I got common blackbird (Turdus merula) in front of the Prado on a walk from my flat in the Lavapiés neighborhood to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. On the walk I got many house sparrows and rock pigeons, the official species of many American cities. This trickle of life birds, two in two days, was just the opening act of the deluge of aves to follow.

My birding adventure started in earnest on Monday morning. The calls of swifts (the cinematic soundtrack that represents pastoral spring or summer) directed my gaze skywards to the narrow grey window of sky between the buildings of Lavapiés. A lifer on the way back from the coffee shop was not a bad way to start a birding adventure.

Pau picked me up in front of my flat and we left the traffic of Madrid and headed south west for the province of Extremadura. On the drive out of Madrid to Saucedilla these are the lifers seen from the car, without binoculars: grey heron, spotless starling, kestrel, marsh harrier, booted eagle, white stork, red kite, hoopoe, common buzzard, black, and griffin vulture.

We stopped in the small village of Saucedilla to have a bocadillo e una caña in the small cafe. After our repass we walked across the square to the 16th century Church of St. John the Baptist. The church was covered with jawdaws and we circled the church looking for our prize. Three lesser kestrels flew in  and hovered above the church. Bingo! In the area around Saucedilla other highlights included: purple swamp-hen, purple heron, spoonbill, water rail, bearded reeding, Savi’s, Sardinian, fan-tailed, and sedge warbler, black-winged kite, and Iberian grey shrike.

Aves 2

At the close of the day, Monday March 28, I added 42 new bird species to my world list. The highlight at the end of the day was a little owl (Athene noctua) perched a stone wall seen from the porch of our base camp at Casa Rural Las Canteras.

On Tuesday we headed out to Monfragüe National Park where I added 26 new species. See the previous blog post on Parque Nacional Monfragüe.

On Wednesday we explored some reservoirs in Extremadura. Highlights included: red-cresteted grebe, shelduck, lapwing, greenshank, the “blue bullet” kingfisher, great spotted cuckoo, great bustard, bee-eater, and Scops owl. Total lifers: 22 species.

Aves 3

On Thursday we were attempting to find the Eurasian eagle owl with the assistance of a local farmer. We missed out but found an abandoned nest. Highlights included: little bustard, Montagu’s harrier, pallid swifts, and green sandpiper. Total lifers: 7 species.

On our last day in Extremadura we headed to the mountains and the monastery town of Guadalupe. Highlights included: jay, nuthatch, sparrow hawk, and green woodpecker. Total lifers: 6 species.

On April 4th, in San Sebastián I added two more species: firecrest and yellow-legged gull.

My guide in Extremadura was Pau Lucio. I would highly recommend him if you plan to bird this amazing part of Spain. His guiding company is called Birdwatching Spain and more info can be found at their website: