Do You Have a Flag?

Our annual open house always brings out my creative side. This year I had my students create a flag that represents themselves.

This idea came to me late one night, perhaps it was early morning, when I remembered the flag I created with the 5th grade class I student taught in. We all collaborated on the design and we all helped create the flag for Room 18. On Spring Break, I even took the flag to Santa Cruz Island and planted it on the beach at Scorpion Anchorage, claiming the island for Room 18. 

Do you have a flag? Well Room 18 does and we claim Santa Cruz Island in the name of Murphytonia. 

I had 26 completed student flags hanging from the ceiling but there was one thing missing: my flag!

And now for a tour of my flag:

I wanted my flag to be shaped differently from the common rectangular shape so I rounded the fly end off to resemble a red-tailed hawk tail which is one of the most common raptors in North America and is one of my “spark birds”, that is a bird that first got you hooked on birds and birding.

I created a circular emblem to anchor the design. In the emblem is a peregrine falcon looking off to the fly end. The peregrine is one of my favorite raptors and emblamatic of  nature’s resiliency, with a little help from enlightened humans. This is a bird that I frequently see, perched on a power tower on my way home from work.

The field in the upper left features one of my favorite quotes about education:  “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. ” This Yeats quote is always displayed in my room.

The upper right field is about my love for the Word’s Game, which is the true football that is played the world over. There are two quotes featured. The first is by German coach Sepp Herberger, “The ball is round. The game lasts 90 minutes. This much is fact. Everything else is theory.” The second is from my favorite player, Zinedine Zidane who said he would miss “Le Carre Vert (the green of the grass) when he retires.

Fozie de Bear represents many things: the lifeskill of Sense of Humor, native Californians (the grizzly bear), bow tie (traditions and science), and how students should move in the halls (waka, waka, waka).

The last field is a book with the words “Live Learn (Repeat)” on it. It means that I’m a life long learner and I love reading. I have included a quote from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. It is the last two lines of “The Summers Day” as well as important question for my students, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”

And finally the quote, “Do you have a flag?” comes from the Eddie Izzard show Dressed to Kill.


Gather of Gulls

Flying Rats. Parking Lot Bird. Beach Pigeons. A Health Hazard. A Nuissance.

There are many epithets given to the unpopular group of birds collectively known as “seagulls”. These birds are often overlooked, even by birders. 

Gulls are found in most coastal urban areas including parking lots, school yards or perched on the roof of fast food chains, often chasing other birds and sometimes even small children. While the rising human population harms many species of animals, gulls seem to prosper with our desrtruction and altering of the earth’s landscapes.

From a birder’s perspective, gulls all seem to look alike and can be devilishly difficult to identify. Some first year birds look like a Dickensian chimney sweep, covered from head to tail in dark-gray soot. Or you have adult birds that all seem to have the same proportion of white and grey. It’s easy to understand why many birders ignore them altogether. With gulls, the devil is truly in the details.

So it was that on a Sunday morning that Dickissel and I came to be on a bluff above Pilarcitos Creek to observe details.

From our perspective, the creek was directly below us and beyond the water was Venice Beach and further down slope was Half Moon Bay. Directly in front of us were gulls bathing and preening in Pilarcitos Creek while up on the beach there where other gulls that were preening or resting on the sands. In total, the mixed gull flock included about 150 individuals.

This flock  was truly mixed. It included common gulls at different plumages on their three to fourth year journey to adulthood. And none of them resembled each other, hence the importance of observing details (and a scope helps).

The first gulls that stood out were the five adult and one juvenile black-legged kittiwakes, enthusiastically bathing in the creek. 2017 has been a fantastic year for this normally scarce species on the coast. For whatever reason, this winter, these petite pelagic gulls were abundant on beaches and off shore rocks. The kittiwakes kept their distance from the larger gulls in the communal bath that is Pilarcitos Creek.

One juvenile kittiwake would vigorously preen and bath at the base of the main flock and slowly float downstream just below our perch where we could observe it’s bold “M” stretched across it’s wing span and it’s black rimmed tail. Dickcissel christened the young one our “Homie”.

Our “Homie”, the juvenile black-legged kittiwake,  flying upstream to preen in the waters of Pilarcitos Creek. 

Aside from the kittiwakes, the most common gull present were westerns, followed by California, mew, ring-billed, and two glaucous-winged gulls. But we were searching for a large white Artic gem. This would be the largest and whitest gull around, a gull that cohabitants with polar bears and its foragaging portfolio includes predation, this gull was the glaucous gull (Larus  hyerboreus).

A large white gull with a pied bill of black and bubblegum pink appeared amoung the gulls washing in the creek. This gull really stood out. It washed and preened for a good 15 minutes allowing close study thought the scope. After it’s bath, the glaucous flew up to the beach to continue to preen.

A digiscope photo taken by Dicksissel of the 1st winter glaucous gull, bathing in the creek. All other gulls are giving this menacing youngster a wide berth.

What I noticed about the glaucous is that all the western gulls surrounding on the beach, it gave it a wide berth as if they knew the glaucous was different. Bigger, more aggressive, and menacing. All the other gulls stayed outside of pecking distance.

Some beach walkers flushed the gull flock, they took to the air, circled around and eventually returned to the creek and beach. I scanned the flock and refound the glaucous. I then noticed a bird at the upper edge of the flock that stood out. It stood out for a few reasons: first is was standing apart from the flock, as if it didn’t belong, second it’s bill shape was very different from the others, and lastly it’s dark eyes was framed in a broken white circle. This was a rare west coaster, a laughing gull (Leucophaeus artricilla).

A birder on the bluff looking for that needle in the haystack.


Binoculars of the Gods and the Wanderer

Saturday March 11th, 2017 (~10:30)

Standing in the vast parking lot outside the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Novato, clutching my new purchase, packed in a box like a very expensive single malt Scotch, I spotted a black sickle shape, high in the sky, silhouetted against a cloud. The shape stilled in the sky, calmness before it’s storm. I pointed out the shape to Dickcissel. The shape then folded in it’s blades, forming a slick arrow, dropping from the sky. The arrow sped toward it’s moving target, somewhere beyond the plaza’s buildings, only seen by the speeding, feathered arrow.

I fumbled with the green box, removing it from it’s elegant sleeve. I unzipped the dark green soft case and raised my new binoculars to my eyes, picking out the bird that was now flying level, heading to the east, holding a bird in it’s bright yellow talons.

This was my first bird seen through my new Swarovski El 8.5 x 42s, a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)! You can’t get a much better parking lot bird than this!

These binoculars where the fourth pair I have owned. Each new pair got a little better that the previous. Brighter glass, lighter weight, a nice and comfortable feel in the hand. The binoculars I now hold are top of the class, light years ahead of all my other pairs. You can’t get any better than Swarovski. I look forward to a lifetime of lifers and other birds!


Rio Grande Valley and the Coastal Bend

While planning a birding trip to South Texas in April I sketched some  birds on my wish list. I chose to sketch in a woodcut, stylized way that focused more on shape rather than fine detail. The style is that of a preliminary working sketch if I were designing a linocut.

The birds are, from left to right, top to bottom: whooping crane, sandwich tern, fulvous whistling-duck, green parakeet, king rail, ringed kingfisher, red-crowned parrot, white-collared seedeater, bronzed cowbird, green jay, Audubon’s oriole, cave swallow, northern beardless-tyrannulet, and Couch’s kingbird.

Bird notes:

Whooping Crane: One of our rarest and tallest birds in North America. In the 1940’s where were just 21 whoopers in the wild. Since then, with conservation efforts, their numbers have grown. I hope to add this bird to the list on a cruise on Aransas Bay.

Sandwich Tern: A medium-sized tern of the Gulf Coast with a black bill dipped in mustard.

Fulvous Whistleling-duck: I struck out on this duck on my last visit to Texas but am determined to add it to my list in the ponds around McAllen.

Green Parakeet: I should find this gregarious green gem at it’s nighttime roost, about ten minutes from my digs in McAllen.

King Rail: Missed this rail in Florida but I am hoping to hear, if not see it,  at Ticano Lake. This is our largest rail in North America.

Ringed Kingfisher: I missed this kingfisher, the largest in North America, by a few minutes at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

Red-crowned Parrot: Another McAllen specialty.

White-collared Seedeater: Found only in a few places along the Rio Grande. I’m going to search around Falcon Dam.

Bronzed Cowbird: This devil-eyed bird can be found in parking lots in McAllen.

Green Jay: Not a lifer but very common in the Rio Grande Valley. This beautiful jay is a blockbuster bird in south Texas and it’s found nowhere else in the US.

Audubon’s Oriole: Hoping to add this bird to my list near my digs at the McAllen Nature Center.

Cave Swallow: Similar to the cliff swallow. I will keep my eyes to the sky to see this lifer.

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet: This small, drab flycatcher is inconspicuous, until it sings.

Couch’s Kingbird: Almost identical to the tropical kingbird, until it sings.



Friday After Work Lifer

Is there any better way to end a week on a Friday than having an afternoon lifebird on the San Mateo Coast? I was about to find out as I left work and headed west to Half Moon Bay, recently christened, “The Rare Gull Capital of the United States”.

The rare gull in question was the slaty-backed gull (Larus schistisagus). This large four year gull is an Asian gull that is rare in Alaska but is even rarer along the western coast of California. This was my sort of lifer.

The last time the adult gull had been seen was at 5:30 on the previous afternoon at the Pilarcitos Creek mouth as it entered the Pacific at Venice Beach in Half Moon Bay.

When I arrived at about 4, there were over one hundred gulls preening, resting, and bathing on the beach and in the creek and about 10 birders combing through the mixed species flock.

Now which one of these gulls has a slaty back?

I figured patience was the order of the day. I was hoping the gull would appear and we had many eyes trained on the group.

I shared a conversation with Sterling and a non-birder lady that when a little something like this:

Lady: What are you looking at?

Birder: Gulls.

Lady: Oh seagulls! Why are there so many here?

Birder: The fresh water from the creek, they bathe and drink from it.

Lady: Why don’t they drink from there? (she points to the Pacific Ocean).

Birder: It’s the ocean. It’s saltwater.

dsc07389 Another oddly pixilated photo of the mixed gull flock at Pilarcitos Creek. I’d call it art if it weren’t a complete accident.

It was starting to get colder but the mix flocked provided me with many different looks at gulls of different ages and species. But the the large gull with a dark slaty-grey back had not yet appeared.

Then at 5:20, out of thin air, the adult slaty-backed was spotted on the southside of the creek, 20 yards away! Lifer #512!


A rather crappy digiscope of the adult slaty-backed gull.


A great way to end the week: a lifer and a beautiful sunset at Venice Beach.