On Christmas morning, with a temperature of 25, I headed down from the foothills of the Gold Country to the flats of the Central Valley. My goal was to practice digisketching: the act of sketching with the aid of a spotting scope. I also wanted to experiment with digiscoping, which is the art of  capturing an image with a camera through a spotting scope. I failed and succeeded in equal measures.

The area around my mother’s house offers many sketchable vistas. The epicenter is Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, just north of the Sutter Buttes. I headed there with scope, tripod, journal, watercolors, and pencils.

The advantages of using a scope for field sketching are numerous, including bringing wildlife much closer than binoculars, providing richer details, and  creating the ability to sketch animals in  a more “natural”, relaxed posture (because you are so far removed from your subjects).

As I neared the wildlife area, the fields and skies filled with birds. As the the retort of shotgun blasts punctuated the soundtrack of the mew of tundra swans and the bugle of flying Vs of snow geese, I attached my scope and tripod on a turnout of a two-lane country road.


Winter skies above Gray Lodge are filled with snow geese.


Thousands of snow geese over-winter in California’s Central Valley. It is estimated that a million ducks and half a million geese spend the winter in the valley. This is a mixed flock of snow and Ross’s geese at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.


Digiscope shot of an adult bald eagle at Gray Lodge. The field sketch of this eagle is the featured image of this post. The spotting scope brought the far off eagle close so I could add the bird to my sketchbook.


Practice makes perfect. Digiscope shot of a group of sandhill cranes in fields south of the Colusa Highway.

Wildlife field sketching is really about letting go of the pretty picture. These are drawings that are not intended to be framed and displayed or even shown to friends. The end goal of these sketches are self knowledge and improving the eye and the hand when representing an animal in real time. It is a pursuit where mistakes are an opportunity to learn and improve. As I tell my students, “Always make new mistakes”.



Digiscope shot and digisketch of a juvenile bald eagle seen and sketched on Matthews Lane.  It was later joined by another juvenile for a little duck hunting. They both returned empty-taloned. The vignetting on the left is a downside to the process but this image provides great visual notes that can be used to create studio sketches.


An easy lesson learned, sketch a bird at rest, they make obliging subjects. This is a common merganser resting on a pond near my mother’s house.



The stunning tundra swan overwinters in flooded fields in the Central Valley. The top sketch was of a bird off Matthews Lane and the digiscope shot was of a swan off of Jack’s Slough near Marysville.


The Making of a Linocut Christmas Print

For the past ten years I have created a holiday linocut (linoleum) print and given it out during Christmas. This has been a turning away from the pervasive commercialism of the holidays and creating something from the heart and by the hand. This year I sketched out designs before carving the final lino block.

The inspiration for this year’s print was an image that kept reappearing in my thoughts and journal pages. It stemmed from my summer’s visit to Portland, Oregon and the beautiful streamlined 1941 steam engine, a Southern Pacific GS-4 , numbered 4449. This engine I strongly connected with memories of my father and the time we spent chasing the engine on rail excursion across the Golden State and once were even passagers on an excursion from San Francisco to Los Angeles.


The iconic hood of 4449, which appeared in many sketches since seeing the engine for the first time again. The typhoon air horn on the upper right, was used to cut throught the thick coastal fog on the Coast Daylight’s route. 

4449 no1

The first field sketch I did of 4449 at the Oregon Heritage Railway Center in Portland. I knew that I wanted to do a linocut print featuring the unmistakable profile of this engine.

It took a few months to decide how to represent the engine in a wintery theme. In reality the engine, which was in service on the California Coast, was more likely to encounter a fog bank rather than a snow bank, but that’s why I have an artist license.

Relief printing is the opposite of field sketching. In the field there is a sense of spontaneity, of whimsy and surprise. With relief printing, everything is planned out and there is very little room for improvisation. And to top that, you have to think backwards. So it is a medium that takes patience, planning, and vision. 


Daylight in Winter. This was one of the first really polished sketches, with color, of the lino cut design.  With this sketch, I hit upon the element of the pine tree in the background.


This is a pre sketch with notation as I was finalizing my design before carving the lino block. You will notice that it sketched as it would look on the block, the engine going left to right. When the block is printed the image is reversed, the engine going from right to left.

The linoleum key block and the final hand tinted relief print (in watercolor) above. 


The Long View

I finally took a great leap forward in my birding by purchasing a scope and tripod. This way I could  observe faraway birds without disturbing them, discern  minute feather patterns, and also it would allow me to sketch, hands-free, in the field.

Now it was time to field test the scope and I could think of no better place to use the scope than the country roads north of Highway 12 near Rio Vista. This area is collectively known as Robinson Road and is a hotspot for wintering raptors, burrowing owl,  and mountain plovers. This was the wide open openness that was made for scoping far off birds.

After scraping ice off my windscreen I headed north and rendezvoused with Dickcissel and Brown Creeper. It was one of the coldest mornings of the season and the sky was crisp and clear, a perfect day for the long view.

We arrived about an hour later and headed off 113 on Robinson Road. We scanned the fields to the north, trying to pick out the cryptic ground plover. A far off tawny bird caught my attention and I lined up my scope to capture the first bird to be seen through my new optics and it was a good one, a ferruginous hawk, Buteo regalis.

Our next target birds were mountain plover and rough-legged hawk. Robinson Road turned to the south and we willed a far off perched raptor to turn into a roughy but not even the scope could give a positive id.


The beautiful call of the western meadowlark was our constant soundtrack on Robinson Road.

Further down the road we had an outstanding  overhead view of a light adult ferruginous hawk that seemed to appear out of the warm winter sun.

To our right was a freshly plowed field, ideal habitat for mountain plover. The road turned to the south, keeping the field to the right. I saw a large group of birds on either side of a farming road that bisected the plowed field. A scope view revealed a large group of killdeer with horned lark and western meadowlark mixed in. This was a very good sign. I scanned to the left of the mixed killdeer flock and that’s when I got our target bird, a flock of about 30 mountain plover; a real ponderous of plover! We had great views of these birds whose entire population is estimated to be at 11,000 to 14,000 birds.

After watching the plovers disappear simply by turning their brown backs to us, thereby melting into the plowed field, we headed south to the intersection of Robinson and Flannery Roads. This intersection always produced burrowing owl. And without fail, Brown Creeper spotted one, crouching on a roadside berm. The scope revealed the owl’s piercing eyes and swivel head.

Heading west on Flannery the raptor activity increased with harriers, red-tails, and ferruginous. One bird, rising in circles above the road caught my attention. It turned towards me and its bold carpal patches screamed rough-legged hawk! Lifer for Dicksissel and Brown Creeper. A toast was in order!


That little dirt claude is the much sought after Robinson Road specialty, the poorly named, mountain plover. From a digiscope photo.


Two birds, ferruginous hawk and mountain plover, which where identified with the aid of the scope.


Setting the Table

Before a journey, I use my journal to put the destination into existence.

On my winter break, I will be in the desert and one of the mystic locations that I will be visiting is the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea is an accidental inland salt sea, the second largest in the United States after the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The “sea” is accidental because on a dam  and canal breaches in 19o5. The over flooded waters of the Colorado River filled into the Salton Sink to create the largest lake in California.

For a time this lake was a recreation destination with marinas, yacht clubs and hotels, but the lake has been receding and the waters, more polluted, leaving ghost towns ringing it’s shores.

The sea is currently a refuge for thousands of birds, including 400 different species and it was these birds that draws me an hour and a half south from Joshua Tree.