Sketching Touchstones or What’s That Man Pointing At?

Coloma, Ca

This Spring marks my sixth journey to Coloma with my fourth graders.

Here, on the banks of the South Fork of the American River, just upstream from the long gone tailrace where James Marshall discovered gold in January 1848, is the Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS) campus.

Here my fourth graders are on a journey themselves, as they arrive as inexperienced Greenhorns and leave Coloma as seasoned Sourdoughs. This is a powerful experience for my nine and ten year olds and witnessing this change is the reason we keep coming back to the banks of the American River and the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park at Coloma. Our school has been part of this excellent outdoor educational program for the past 27 years!

This Spring we were greeted by very wet weather which was a bit unusual for the middle of May. The American River was in full flow and the long rain season was not done yet. I wondered how my charges would take to the wet conditions. Well like ducks to water was the answer I was soon to find out!

On Thursday, rain was forecast for the afternoon. This was to be our hike day when we head into the State Historic Park and hike up to the Monroe Ridge. There was heavy rain the night before and we had a short window before rain would return again. We would not be hiking up to the Monroe Ridge but we would get a hike in before heavy rain set in.

Our naturalist, Raven, had the keys to the kingdom so we where able go into historic buildings which I had never seen the interior before including the Monroe House, the Thomas House, and the the Coloma school house.

A pervious sketch from June 22, 2016 of the Chinese store and the Coloma school house. It was great to finally be in the inside.

While we didn’t make it up to Monroe Ridge, because of the inclement weather, we did make it to the James Marshall Monument. This 41 foot monument was created to commemorate the man who is credited with starting California’s Gold Rush. The monument was unveiled on May 3, 1890 and the column is topped with a ten foot tall statue of James Marshall. In his right hand he is holding the flecks of gold that he discover in the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill and his left hand is point down to the valley floor near the banks of the American River where he first laid eyes on the gold that made the world rush in to the Coloma Valley.

This monument is a touchstone in my sketching universe. I have sketched this statue many times from different angles and in different conditions.  Each time I sketch this statue I learn a little more about it. And there is a certain comfort in sketching the same object over a period of time, in this case six years.

This June 17, 2014 sketch of the James Marshall Monument is noted for a glaring mistake. As I was so focused on the shapes and contours of the monument I neglected to spell the man’s name correctly. He is immortalized in my journal as James Marsall.

The key sketches are quick impressions of the Marshall statue, finished before the first drops of rain signaled a wet but delightful return to the CODS campus.


The Vocal Yellow-Breasted Sulker

Water Lane, Pescadero.

This was my second attempt to see the yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens) in the green riparian tangle of Water Lane. In my first attempt I was looking in the wrong part of Water Lane and so finding out where the bird was actually being seen improves chances immensly. Go figure!

The last time I’d laid eyes on a chat was June of 2003 at the Ukiah Water Treatment Plant. So it was about time that I added one to my San Mateo County List.

Always a good sign for a birder.

It is actually much harder to lay eyes on a chat than it is to hear one. The yellow-breasted chat is a verbose songster than unlike other birds remains well hidden when singing. Pete Dunne defined the bird this way, “Both a histrionic showoff and a shy skulker.”

As I walked up Water Lane at 10:30, I heard the chat, chatting away. But seeing the singer was a whole different challenge. A challenge that would take time and patience.

A group of three birders were peering into the tangle. They had been there since 8 and had seen the chat in fleeting glimpses. But it had been singing up a storm interspersed with moments of silence.

Now it was a matter of picking a spot and waiting.

Like the chat, the Swanson’s thrush is more often heard than seem. It’s ethereal call is part of the summer soundtrack of my childhood.

I filled my time by watching the other birds in the riparian tangle, the fleeing flight of a yellow Wilson’s warbler giving a false sense of chat.

A white-tailed kite perched briefly above the tangle.

It was 45 minutes into my wait when I first spotted the chat. Previously I had felt sure the chat was in the bush right in front of me but the chat seemed to be a skilled ventriloquist. This time the bird in the bush was in plain sight and I was able to watch it singing away, it’s yellow throat pulsing with each liquid warble.

And when I mean plain sight, it was in plain sight to me and the birders on my left and right could not see the sulker thought my leafy window.

This reminded me of birding in the tropics where the birds can be sulky and your field of view is very narrow. Getting a quality view is a struggle as you are often looking at bird parts and not the whole.

But here I put all the parts together. The yellow throat and breast, the white spectacles, and the large size and long tail. This was a yellow-breasted chat! County lifer!


Right Time and Place: Black Terns

A lot of birding is dumb luck.

It about being in the right place at the right time. You happen to be there, the Davis Water Treatment Plant, at the right time, ten minutes before noon on May 4, 2019. If you were here ten minutes too early or ten minutes too late, the birds would have been missed.

Black tern is bird that I have wanted to add to my lifelist list for a long time. It is a bird seen in transit in the Central Valley as it heads north in the spring to the small ponds and lakes of its breeding grounds in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Canada.

It does seem to be a matter of luck and being in the right time in the right place and May at the Woodland Water Treatment Plant was the right time and place. Black tern had been seen here in the previous days so Dickcissel and I reckoned our changes were pretty good.

After a two and a half hour search, it seemed pretty clear that black tern was not here and whatever birds that had been seen on the previous days had headed on north.

So we decided to head over to the nearby Davis Water Treatment Plant and try there. That morning a rare ruddy turnstone and two black turnstones were being seen. These birds are normally seen on the coast and can be common on the California coast. And if we were persistent enough, we could pick through the dowitchers to find a lone Baird’s sandpiper.

As we pulled up there were already four birders scoping the ponds, no doubt looking at the wayward turnstones. We pulled up to park when we noticed two dark, long-winged short-tailed terns. Black terns!!! Once parked we got out our bins on this much sought after species that had alluded me in California, Texas, and Central America.

The two terns past back and forth over the ponds for about five minutes and then unceremoniously disappeared from our lives. If we had dilly dallied five minutes longer at Woodland, we would have completely dipped on these terns. Such is birding.

After getting our fill of dowitchers, turnstones, and the lone Baird’s, we headed further down the road to scope the avian life on some other ponds.

We were entertained by a pair of killdeer that wandered around the road way, looking at us with their large, inquisitive eyes and calling their eerie call. I though it odd that they were hanging around and the broken-wing display should have really been a hint but I had black tern on the brain.

A quick killdeer field sketch.

A quick search of the opposite side of the road explained the killdeer’s behavior. There were four very camouflaged eggs among the rocks on the side of the road in a rocky scape that is a killdeer’s “nest”. We were way too close for the killdeer so we promptly headed back to the car and hightailed it out of there.

Just like the two black terns!



Travel Sketching Kit

(Warning: this post is a bit of a sketching geek out)

Refine, refine refine.

That is the keyword when it comes to travel.

Each time I travel I want to pack lighter and bring even less than my previous trip. Travel experts say to lay everything out before you pack and then get rid of half. And I try to follow that advice with varying degrees of success.

This also applies to my sketching kit for this trip-of-many-sketches. I wanted to bring fewer things. Fewer sketchbooks, pens and pencils, and paints. I was hoping that limiting my sketching gear would encourage me to sketch more and make it my daily practice when I was on the road. I wanted to see if traveling light would be more freeing and more productive in a sketcher’s paradise like Barcelona.

First I needed to find the right bag.

If your sketching supplies are not easily assessable you don’t sketch as often. So I knew access was a key feature in choosing a bag.

I have previous used a lighter weight Chino bag which has one pocket and a larger main pocket which you wear around a shoulder like a murse (a man-purse) but for this trip I was looking for something more rugged and functional with more internal organization.

I also wanted a sling bag and not a backpack for two reasons. First I wanted easy access and a sling bag could be easily moved from my back to my front meaning that the zippered compartments would be almost right under my chin. Secondly I would be traveling to the “Pickpocket Center of the Universe”, Barcelona. A sling bag can be easily adjusted from my back to under my arm up front if I was in thick crowds in tourist zones or riding the Metro (both hot spots for petty crime). This meant that the sling bag had many advantages to a backpack.

After doing a little research I settled on Patagonia’s Atom 8L. This seemed to have all the features I was looking for. It was a compact sling bag with a divided main compartment for sketch books and a smaller zippered pocked for paints and an even smaller pocket that could hold my Escoda travel brushes. The exterior had two compression straps to keep things tidy and which also could be used to hold a rolled up lightweight jacket (such as my Patagonia micro puff). The bag comes in many colors but I went with a classic black.

Once I decided on a bag it put limitations on the size and number of sketch books I could bring with me. This was a good problem to have. The three sketch books I brought were:

  1. A Hahemuhle Nostalgie Sketch Book (5.83” X 4.13”). This is a true sketch book that was small but could take a light watercolor wash.
  2. A Pentalic Aquabook (5.5” X 5.5”), this is a medium sized book with quality watercolor paper, good for sketching in a perfect square or a 5.5” X 11” panorama. (One downside with this book was that due to an manufacturing flaw, the pages started to fall out).
  3. A Strathmore Watercolor Book (5.5” X 8”). This book contains quality watercolor paper and was great for cityscapes and birds. This book was the true workhorse of the trip.

To hold my pens and pencils I brought a simple flat pencil case that I could easily fit into the main compartment of my pack. I attached a small carabiner to the loop so I could hang the bag from my pack while I was field sketching.

Inside were my favorite assortment of pens, pencils and a water brush. For this trip I favored two pens: Staedtler permanent Lumocolor sizes S and F.

My paint palette that I normally use would prove a problem because it was too big (it was really designed for studio and not field work). So I knew I needed a major downsize for my palette. I found the solution at California Arts Supply. They carry a small MEEDEN painting tin that holds 12 pans in a box about the size of an Altoids box.

This palette was the perfect size and could easily fit into a shirt or pants pocket. Now the really hard decision was, which paints would I put in the 12 pans? I settled on: Payne’s gray, violet shadow (Daniel Smith), burnt umber, burnt sienna, sap green, olive green, Quinacridone Gold, cobalt blue, ultramarine, violet, Winsor red, Winsor yellow, and a smudge of sepia. Yes I know I couldn’t resist sepia.

For brushes you can’t beat my Escoda Prado travel brushes which I originally bought for a trip to Madrid. The faux sable hairs retain water and keep a sharp point. The tip seats into the handle but when the brushes are put together, they are close to the size of a full brush, which is a huge advantage over other travel brushes.

The other advantage is that Escodas are a Barcelona brush maker. Escoda have been making brushes since 1933 and it is a family owned company now run by a third generation.

Did this new set up help me sketch more? Well the proof is in the drawings. Over the 14 days I was in Spain, I completed 63 sketches. Not a bad haul.


Greater Flamingo in the Ebro Delta

Ebro Delta.

This was our last stop on the birding tour and one of the most sought after birds for me was the greater flamingo. I wasn’t sure if we would see any or even, how many, but within a few minutes of being in the proper habitat I saw one of these beautiful birds flying low over the water. Almost like a pink golf club with black and pink wings.

A “lawn” flamingo in a drought resistent Sunset District “lawn”.

The flamingo it truly an iconic bird. Iconic because I think that most of the world could identify a picture of a flamingo without every seeing one in real life. It’s is also a common bird in many zoos and in some parts of North America it is a common lawn “bird”.

This trip was already full of birds that only lived in field guides and BBC nature documentaries and it was amazing to see this flamingo being a flamingo in its native setting. This was no zoo and the flamingos wore no tags on their long legs. Here on the southeastern coast of Spain, these beautifully odd birds were free flying.

Flamingo group with a young one, Ebro Delta.

There is something beyond mere words to seeing natural behavior in a natural habitat. Watching the flamingos “swanning” was incredible. The flamingo could exploit so many food resources because of its long legs and neck.

A group of “swanning” greater flamingos. Their long legs allows them to wade into much deeper water than any other bird giving the impression that they are large pink swans floating on the water’s surface.



We stayed in the Hecho Valley for three nights. This was because we might need that time to look for two of the seminal birds of this area: the lammergeier and wallcreeper. We had been very lucky to get lammergeier on our very first day of the tour. So that left us to find the little pink-winged gray moth-like cliff dweller.

We left our dwellings in the Hecho Valley and within 20 minutes we were at Boca del Infierno, a known hotspot for the wallcreeper.

Hecho-Room View

A sketch from my room balcony in the Hecho Valley.


Boca del Infierno, one of the hotspots for the sometimes elusive wallcreeper.

Bird life was just starting to become active in the cold early morning and we looked at an avian world that was just stirring from the roadside. We had not been at the pullout for more than ten minutes when our guide spotted a wallcreeper, working the cliff on the opposite side of the road!

The cryptic-colored wallcreeper at Boca del Infierno.

Here was a bird that I thought, if I were lucky, might see on a distant rock face, only with the aid of a scope. But here was the prize of the Pyrenees no more that 30 yards up a rock face! What a lifer! The wallcreeper was easily observed with the naked eye. It was really that close!

We headed down the road in search of dipper, which we didn’t dip on and when we returned to the van, we spotted another wallcreeper on the opposite side of the gorge. A two wallcreeper day is not a bad haul!

A few days later, while birding at Mallos de Riglos, sight of our first lammergeier, we found an unexpected avian delight. Another wallcreeper which we assumed would be up at elevation in April but here was the bird standing out against the burnt Sienna cliffs of Mallos de Riglos.

A wallcreeper showing up a bit better on the cliffs of Mallos de Riglos.

Wallcreeper 2