The Narrows

The Narrows is one of the ultimate hikes in Zion, if not all the 59 National Parks. In this hike, there is no trail, the Virgin River is your trail. You spent much of the time hiking in water with cliffs rising up to neck-aching heights. This is best exemplified in a part of the Narrows called Wall Street, where the width of the Narrows narrows to 30 feet across. It is in this part of the Narrows that I worked on two sketches.

Sketching with watercolor in the Narrows is problematic because you are constantly wet and you have to protect your sketchbook and paints from the river, in my case I used two, two gallon zip lock plastic bags. Also because of the dampness and the lack of direct sunlight in Wall Street, paintings dry at a glacial pace.

For the feature sketch I went out on a wire, without a net. Yes I sketched in pen and not pencil. I used a combination of Staedtler Lumocolor pens, both permanent and non-permanent. I used the non-permanent as a dark wash in the river. I wanted to keep this sketch monochrome and focus on the shapes and rock forms of the Virgin.


A boy and his toys, The Narrows.

I had the feeling that a photograph or sketch cannot truly capture the experience of being in the Narrows and sometimes it pays to put down your camera, put down your brush and sketch book, and just take in the world around you and be in the moment. The dipper floating downriver taught me that lesson.


Taking in Wall Street while letting my water logged feet dry out.


In the Narrows I found a good rock perch and sketched Floating Rock in  Wall Street. As when I’m near any water, I used the Virgin River to add water to my watercolor sketch.


“The Humming-bird of Blooming Waters”

One of my constant companions on my walks along the Virgin River and into the Narrows was the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus). On purely external appearances this just looks like a dumpy, drab, short-tail bird that flies like a sinking piece of lead but sketching and birding forces you to stop and notice.

I can watch this aquatic song bird for hours as it bobs up and down along the river bank, floats like a leaf downstream, and disappears under the turbulent waters of the Virgin. On one hike up the River Walk Trail I paused at the sound of the whistles and trills of a dipper song, rising above the sound of the river. I finally located the juvenile bird, perched on a branch, close to the water. I sat near, the only audience member to one of nature’s concerts. Here is how John Muir described the song of the dipper:

The more striking strains are perfect arabesques of melody, composed of a few full, round, mellow notes, embroidered with delicate trills which fade and melt in long slender cadences. In a general way his music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of mosses and falling into tranquil pools.

As I was listening to the dipper, many people passed on the trail, none pausing or noticing the wonderful music emanating from one of Zion’s most amazing creatures. I then composed a short poem, really just the same poem that I have composed before, only the words were different. The gist of the theme can be summed up as: People in nature, shame on you for not noticing.


The always enjoyable dipper on the banks of the Virgin River, Zion National Park.

In all the majesty and marvel of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite, John Muir focused his attention and writing this small, drab bird, which he called the water-ouzel. He writes so poetically about this bird in The Mountains of California:

He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, –none so unfailingly.


A field sketch of the juvenile dipper, singing on it’s perch above the Virgin River.


Zion National Park

For my fall break I thought a visit to a National Park was in order. My first choice was American’s first National Park, Yellowstone. But after further research I found out that most of the lodging options within the park were shut down by late October, so I headed south. And the one park that immediately came to mind was Southern Utah’s Zion National Park.

I was most interesting in a park that would lend itself to my sketchbooks and Zion, with itself vertical landscapes, provided it’s own challenges. I brought a Stillman & Birn Beta Series 9 by 12 spiral sketchbook. In retrospect a panoramic watercolor sketchbook would have suited Zion’s landforms better but I had to make due with what I had. (I did bring a Stillman & Birn Gamma Series landscape book but the paper was not up to take multiple watercolor washes.)

One pleasurable Zion sketching experience was sitting on the banks of the Virgin River, with an American dipper as my companion, sketching the Pulpit at the Temple of Sinawava. In the morning the sun was just hitting the golden cliffs in the background leaving the Pupil in rich, velvety shadow.


A little behind-the-scenes in the making of a sketch. Here perched on the peaceful banks of the Virgin River, with an American dipper at my feet (more about these amazing birds in another post).

I later took a drive out on the scenic Zion-Mt Carmel Highway (Highway 9) in eastern Zion. I sketched the Checkerboard Mesa.



A Very Rare Lifer

In the early morning my dreams were full of birds. I was in a marauding flock of birders searching the canals and side streets of an unknown seaside town for an unnamed rare shorebird. The dream ended before I saw the bird. I looked over at my bedside clock, it was just past 5 AM.

I left by 6:45 on this Saturday morning, in an attempt to make it a two life bird week. My destination was outer Pt. Reyes on the Pacific Plate. There was a very rare plover, that was spending some time with the local snowy plovers on Point Reyes Beach, between North Beach and Abbotts Lagoon. The lesser sand plover (Charadrius mongolus) breeds in Asia and winters in southern Asia, Australia, and Africa. In the fall, a rare few make it to Alaska, and an even smaller number make it down the west coast to California. When I arrived at 8:00 there were already a fair numbers of cars and a few birders heading north with their scopes slung over their shoulders for the 40 minute hike, in sand, to the stretch of beach were the lesser sand plover that been seen on the past few days.

I hit the beach at 8:15, hoping my early morning sand-hike would be fruitful.


Corvidsketcher on route to the very rare sand plover on Pt. Reyes beach, with great viewing light to my back.

30 minutes into my hike I passed a birder returning to North Beach and he told me to follow the other birders and he pointed up shore to the north. On the horizon I could see a group of tripods with around ten birders standing in loose groups. This was indeed a good sign. I approached the group at 8:58 and I scanned the beach to the west, finding many snowies hunkered down in the sand. I was looking for a larger plover with a brownish nape. At 9:00 I spotted a plover that stuck out like a sore thumb, standing next to some bull kelp and to the right, the much smaller snowy plover. Bingo, Lifebird # 505! I watched the bird feeding around the snowy plovers for 20 minutes and then headed south, back to my car. That was well worth the hike.


After adding lesser sand plover to my lifelist, I birded a few other sights in outer Pt. Reyes. In the trees of Drakes Beach I found another tropical kingbird and two palm warblers.


Lifer #504

The Blackburnian warbler had been seen on October 11th in Ft. Mason just before the rainy weekend and I didn’t get a chance to add it to my North American list. I assumed the storm would have washed the bird out of the city and I didn’t see any postings of a continuing Blackburnian so I didn’t venture out during one of the rain windows.

It appears that the storm didn’t wash the warbler out of the city limits completely. A Blackburnian, very similar in appearance to the Ft. Mason young male, was found at 11:45, Monday morning at South Lake Merced, within a few wing beats of the San Francisco/ Daly City border. And just south of the Bufano penguin sculpture, very near where I had a black and white warbler in October of 2012.  Now if the warbler could satisfy itself in the trees of South Lake Merced and stay around for another few hours, I might have an after work lifer.

And so it was that I found myself, a little bit before 4 o’clock, in front of some myoporum trees full of  yellow rumped warblers and cedar waxwings, scanning the green for a flashing flame. A local birder had just seen the bird and now it was just about patience. The patience paid off as the Blackburnian appeared at eye-level, right in front of me at 3:57!

The Sketch

I started this spread with the lettering: Blackburnian LB# 504. To create the lettering I used a Parchment 1” plastic stencil and a black Faber-Castell PITT big brush pen. The anchor for the spread is the adult male warbler in the lower left. This sketch was started with pencil and then layered in watercolor. I intentionally avoided using pen, instead attempting to define and contain shapes with brush work with a Winsor & Newton Series 7  number 3 brush. This is not the warbler that I saw but I think sketching a bird at it’s absolute apex (male breeding plumage), I am able to understand and internalize the bird’s appearance. The breeding male’s foil is a loose, Chinese brush style, fall male, based on a photograph of the bird that first seen on October 11 at Ft. Mason. The overall color scheme of the sketch of black, white, and yellow-orange is dictated by the breeding male’s plumage.


I saw this life bird on October 17, the  27th anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake that rocked the Bay Area, which I experienced when I was a senior in high school. To crown this sketch I included a quote by John Muir that I re-read in the book I am currently reading, Landmarks by Robert Mac Farlane. Muir wrote:

The strange, wild thrilling motion and rumbling could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, near Sentinel Rock, both glad and frightened, shouting, ‘A noble earthquake!’ feeling sure I was going to learn something.


Bird on a Wire

After two long weeks of parent-teacher conferences and a worn out typhoon bearing down on the Bay Area, I had a surprise as I drove up Moraga Street, one block from my home. I took a different route home because of some road work. And as I was heading up the hill, I saw a bird on a wire.

Any bird on a wire that looks a little “off” is bound to catch my attention and this bird did. At first it looked like a really light colored scrub-jay. But as I moved closer I knew it could only be one bird.

The bird’s location in the middle of the wire, it’s bright yellow breast, and its menacing ever vigilant gaze signaled that this was a tyrant flycatcher. And it’s brown, notched tail and heavy, violent bill, seen through by car binos, confirmed that it was the rare but regular visitor to the west coast, the tropical kingbird, Tyrannus melancholicus.

This is an apt name for the genus that shares part of it’s name with the tyrant lizard king, Tyrannosaurus rex. The tyrant moniker is given to the genus of kingbirds (another link with T. rex) because of the aggressive nature of these flycatchers, especially directed towards much larger birds (hawks, eagles and falcons) during the breeding season. The tropical kingbird’s species name, melancholicus, comes from Greek, meaning of a melancholic temperament. The Greeks believed that one was guided by the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) and if you were out of balance, in this case by being over loaded with sullenness or violent anger, then it would contol your demeanor (by being full of black bile). That’s the long way of saying that the tropical kingbird gets really pissed when intruders are in it’s breeding territory.

A kingbird on a wire, looking for a winged meal. I was able to do three field sketches of the flycatcher.

I watched the kingbird sally forth from it’s wire perch returning each time with a flying insect in it’s beak. On one such attack, the yellow-breasted tyrant launched itself 60 feet into the air, returning with a yellow butterfly, which the hawker dispatched in two deft gulps. The bird worked it’s way up and down the power wires of Moraga Street, eating as it went.


On my after dinner stroll, as the harbingers of our first winter storm filled the sky, there was the kingbird, taking the highest perch. It sat, resting from it’s travels and it’s high energy aerial hunts, where it now sang, to no kingbird that was anywhere near.


Lifer #503

After striking out on three separate occasions on the ultra rare dusky warbler in South San Franciso, I was in need of a life bird. Once you have crept into the 500s, a completely new North American species can be very hard to find. But with time and patience, anything is possible.

Nicasio Reservoir in western Marin County has always been a great place to bird. In September of 2012, DICK and I had great views of a pectoral sandpiper on a fall afternoon. What brought me back to this reservoir, just across the channel from where I first saw the pectoral, was a small twitcher of a bird with a streaky back and a buffy wash. It was a rare red-throated pipit. This Eurasian pipit has a very limited breeding range in Alaska and a few red-throateds make their way down to the California coast each fall.

When I arrived I scanned the eastern shoreline from Nicasio Valley Road. The first birds to catch my attention were two killdeer and then I noticed smaller birds working their way among the grass, American pipits. This was a promising sign. The red-throated tends to associate with Americans during migration.

I scampered down to the shoreline and headed towards the channel off to the northwest. There were at least 15 pipits on the shoreline ahead. I scanned the flock for the one that looked different, the one with the streaky back. No luck.

I returned to the shoreline where the pipit had been seen over the past few days. I sat  on a boulder and waited for the bird to come to me. Slowly small groups of pipits returned to work the shoreline. I carefully examining each bird, trying to turn the plain back of the American into streaks.

Then at 12:20, a pipit seemed to appear out of the grass, directly in front of me. This was a pipit of a different sort, bluff wash, white wing bars, and a streaked back. Bingo, North American life bird #503, red-throated pipit (Anthus cervinus).

I called DICK to coax him out to western Marin, which was not hard to do. While I waited for him to arrive, I sketched the shoreline of the reservoir. He arrived half and hour later with containers of golden hoppy celebration. He raised glasses, then we raised glasses, toasting to a new life bird.

A fellow birder on the beach commented, “You guys sure know how to bird!”

And indeed we do!