Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Mary Oliver.

A poet that made me see truth in the natural world. The depths in the pure animal self.

In the mire of government shut downs and false poets being dropped from their record label I hear a singular voice taking a walk in the woods near her home. Aware. Taking in with the senses of a poet. The bear, egret, and the hawk. These encounters don’t bear headlines but to notice is to live in reality.

The greatest gift we have is our senses. Use them. Use them all. To read our world around us. Power off and power on to the sound of strong winds in rushes, the persistent call of a black phoebe, a red shouldered hawk arcing up to capture its perch, the rush of ants on the forest floor, clouds painting a moving canvas beyond the hands on human.

Mary paints in words, her words. I want to write like her but will never be her.

Her words in one of her most well known poems, Wild Geese, which ends:

Meanwhile the wild geese, high the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting-

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.



Closing Out a Genus

There is nothing like closing out a genus or group of birds. Like seeing all the corvids (jays, magpies, crows, and ravens) that exist in the United States or checking off all buteos (broad winged hawks) that breed within our borders.

This can also go beyond our political borders. Last summer I saw both species of condors: California and Andean, although both birds are placed in a separate genus.

Last Saturday I set out with Dickcissel to close out a genus. In this case Sphyrapicus. I had red-breasted, red-naped, and Williamson’s sapsucker. The only sapsucker missing from my list was the easterner: yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). And one had been spending some time in the south in Santa Clara County.

Sewage ponds, landfills, and water treatment plants may not be a place to spend your Saturday morning but if you’re a birder they can be an avian heaven on earth! In this case it was the Santa Clara County Water District in San Jose and the line of pepper trees that lined the Guadalupe River and the percolation ponds. This is where the shy, juvenile, male sapsucker has been spending it’s time.

We first walked the line of pepper trees, willing the shy woodpecker into being. There was no movement and no woodpeckers to speak of, aside from the distant call of a northern flicker. As we headed upstream, towards the dam, Dickcissel called my attention to a bird in a bush. It was not a woodpecker but a thrasher (not the ghost wraith LeConte’s) but California thrasher. The bird sat in the top of the bush, allowing great looks and a few photos.

California thrasher, Toxostoma redivivum.

We turned right at the dam and birded the path that led back to the water district buildings. That’s when we first heard the harsh trill of our first woodpecker! We soon found the source of the call: a female Nuttall’s woodpecker.

This is not the woodpecker you’re looking for!

After watching 75 robins feasting on pepper tree berries we headed back to the river road and the trees that lined the path. After making the 90 degree turn to head back downstream, I saw a woodpecker in a snag right in front of me! “There’s the bird!” I exclaimed, in a quiet sort of way, in order not to spook the shy sapsucker. Too late. The bird bounded into the closest pepper tree.

We surrounded the tree like the LAPD on an SLA safe house but the sapsucker flew off toward the path where we just where birding. We rushed over and got some diagnostic looks before the bird disappeared into foliage.

The yellow-bellied headed back from whence we came and we where on a wild woodpecker chase to get more looks and photos. The sapsucker perched briefly in the first pepper tree and then disappeared again. I went up the path and Dickcissel tried to flank the bird on the pond-side of the trees.

After a short search Dickcissel was on the bird again and I headed over to his position. This time the young male was perched on a near horizontal branch. I noted that this bird is either extremely active or very sedentary. Pete Dunne notes this behavior in the Birding Bible, the Essential Field Guide Companion, that the bird’s behavior is “bi-polar” and we where now observing it’s still stage, where the sapsucker seemed to be impersonating a tree branch, which gave us exceptional looks.

A typical look at the shy sapsucker, always placing himself between a few twigs.


After spending time with the yellow-bellied sapsucker we headed on a short 15 minute to another location in a residential neighborhood to add another sapsucker to our day.

This was a red-naped sapsucker that was spending time in a sycamore tree on the banks of Guadalupe Creek. Within four minutes of searching I spotted the not-so-shy rep-naped sapsucker on The before mentioned sycamore tree.


King Nemesis: LeConte’s

When I stepped out of the car it was 6:21 AM. It had taken me an hour and seven minutes to get here from La Quinta. The morning air was chilly, very chilly, the temperature was 27 degrees. And here I was, in the high desert, at the Borrego Springs Landfill.

It’s all about a bird of course, not just any bird but a true nemesis that had evaded me, despite numerous attempts at Joshua Tree, Nevada (near Las Vegas), and even the open space preserve just a mile north of my current, cold location. But the view ain’t bad.

img_8739This harsh, sparse, and dry habitat dominated by saltbush and creosote is the domain of the elusive LeConte’s trasher, which is the Sasquatch of the thrashers because it is a pale, drab bird that prefers to run on the ground rather that fly and has the annoying habit of always keeping dense vegetation in between itself and the observer. In other words, it a damn hard bird to see and see well, that is until the pull of defending it’s territory kicks in. This usually starts in January and lasting through March.

The key to finding LeConte’s at Borrego is to arrive before sunrise, walk out west of the landfill and wait for the sun to kiss the saltbush flats and soon you will should hear the distant sound of an unseen male singing. Well hopefully that’s how it was going to happen.

The shoe prints in the frozen desert sands spoke of the other early morning birders on previous days that have come to this location to find LeConte’s. All I had to do, like the Yellow Brick Road, was follow the the footprints that would lead me to the ghost thrasher.

I first hear the rolling-meandering call of a thrasher at 6:41 AM and I rushed to the southwest in search of the singer. But this desert wraith led me on a wild thrasher-case that ended at a dense brush Leaving me gazing into oblivion. Then from my right, I heard another song and I rushed off to the northwest. This time I saw a pale bird with a peachy butt hop to the ground and disappear into a dense thicket. My first, but brief, sighting of this feathered ghost. . . I think.

Off to the northwest I clearly heard another thrasher’s song and as I hurried across the flats (dodging bushes along the way) I could see a distant bird perched up on a snag. Could this be my first good look at a LeConte’s?

I moved closer but the bird was still far off and I didn’t want to flush it off it’s singing perch. I raised my camera and zoomed in and:

no, not a LeConte’s thrasher but a loggerhead shrike. This thrasher really does make you see ghosts and phantoms.

From my left came another thrasher song and like a sail boat tacking across the sands, I set a course toward this new singer.

This time I could she a pale bird singing in a mesquite bush. Again I raised my camera to my eye and zoomed into the singer:

Then I zoomed in some more:

A pale, drab bird with a down-curved bill, peach undertail coverts and a long, dark tail. I was looking at my Nemesis Bird, the LeConte’s thrasher!! Lifer!!! ABA bird number 560! He gave me great views and I was able to capture many images.

As I slowly moved closer the thrasher popped down and out of sight into the bush. I then heard another male singing off to the northwest and off I went.

It was now 7:30 AM, the hour of power! I was able to locate another male perched up and singing on another mesquite bush. This is the bird where I got amazing looks and was able to get some great photographs to document the existence of a desert ghost.


While still in the afterglow of my thrasher experience and once I had returned back home to San Francisco, I checked the pockets of my down jacket that I was wearing on that cold morning, west of the landfill. I pulled out gloves, my scarf, and a figure that I had found, half buried in the sands, just as I was starting my search for LeConte’s thrasher. I have almost forgotten about this figure.

It was a plastic, olive green army action figure, the kind that I used to play with when I was a child. Each figure was in a different pose. There was the soldier crawling on the ground, the solder kneeling on his knee, rifle raised to his eye, the dude with the flame thrower, the guy shouldering a massive bazooka, and the soldier on the phone. But the little green soldier that I held in my hand was none of those, but the solider with left arm raised and in his right hand he held binoculars raised to his eyes, as if shouting out, “I think I see it. . .yes it’s a LeConte’s thrasher!”


And Things

One of the more odd and interesting things that I visited in the Mojave Desert was found north of Joshua Tree. It was a twenty minute drive on a lonely desert country road that led me to the town of Landers. The town’s slogans is “Beautiful Skies, Miles of Smiles”.

My destination was off the main road at the end of a T junction. As I approached the junction, the white dome appeared on my right. This was my destination: The Integratron!

If your first impression of the Integratron is of a flying saucer that has landed on earth for repairs you wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

The grounded spaceship was the cosmic brainchild of George Van Tassel (GVT), who was a ufologist who claimed to have a telepathic connection with beings from the planet Venus.

According to the Integratron’s website, “the structure is based on the design of Moses’ Tabernacle, the writings of Nikola Tesla and telepathic directions from extraterrestrials”. And the building, which was not constructed with a single nail, was funded by donations by Howard Hughes and by hosting UFO conventions on the site in the 1950s through the 1970s. Construction was started in 1957 and was not finished until 1960.

But what was the building built for, aside from returning to Venus? Again according to their website, the building “was designed to be an electrostatic generator for the purpose of rejuvenation and time travel.”

After GVT died in 1978, the building was bought by three sisters and the space is currently being used for “sound baths”. Not sure if this craft will ever make it back to Venus but I might stop by for a bath.


Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things

It was an interesting time to be in a National Park because of the partial government shut down (which at the time of this writing is in it’s third week). Joshua Tree National Park was still open but all the park rangers and maintenance staff where on furlough leave. The advice I received from locals was, “Bring your own toilet paper and trash bags and don’t climb in the Joshua Trees.”

This didn’t stop me from heading into JT (with toilet paper and trash bags) to see and sketch some of the beautiful sights in this high (and sometimes low) desert wonderland.


Located in the southern part of the park where the high Mojave Desert drops down to the lower Sonoran Desert is a grove of interesting desert plants know as the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). These tall plants may look like a type of cactus but they are the sole genus of a Mexican species found the United States, in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. After passing through the incredible Cholla Cactus Garden I stopped at the Ocotillo Patch, pulled out my camp chair and started sketching this amazing desert plant.

The Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park


I sketched a few birds that I encountered in JT. When hiking in the desert you do not encounter very much avian life but when you do, it’s really something special. At first glance a desert seems a harsh and dry habitat, seemingly lifeless, but only after spending some time in the desert to you see the life that is perfectly adapted to this extreme environment.

I sketched three birds that I encountered on the Maze Loop hike (~4.6 miles), located in the northern part of the park. The black-throated sparrow, Gambel’s quail, and phainopepla are all common desert species that are relatively easy to see on a desert hike in the high Mojave Desert.

Black-Throated Sparrow

Gambel’s Quail



Rocks of JT

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings


                                                      A Horse With No Name


I was in the high desert of Joshua Tree National Park for the plants and birds and rocks and yes even the things.

I always enjoyed sketching sculpture and architecture because unlike animals, they ain’t going anywhere soon. The rock formations of JT are nature’s sculptures and sketching them is a desert meditation where you lose yourself in the lines and contours of weathered rock and at the end of the sketch you come away understanding that rock just a little bit more.

On my second visit to Joshua Tree in two years, I focused much of my sketching time on rocks, some famous like Arch Rock and Skull Rock but others that bear no known name. I named these rocks such as Repose Rock (above) but I’m sure other visitors have given it other names. Jelly Bean Rock seems like a likely canidate.

Skull Rock is probably one of the most visited sights in JT. I suspect one reason is that the rock bears an uncanny resemblance to a human skull, the other is that is about 20 feet off the main road and does not require a hike or even a brisk walk to see it.

Here is a self-named rock that I sketched in the popular rock climbing destination called Hall of Horrors. This I call Balanced Rock and in the sketch I also included some of the plants and some of the “things” but no “rings”.