Notes to a Student

Six years ago I opened Pandora’s paintbox when I started writing illustrated notes to all 30 of my fourth grade students. Little did I know that this would become a tradition and when I finished my last notecard this year it would be my 180th card that I had written and illustrated. My right hand grows sore just from thinking about it.

Starting the process often begins with many false starts and pauses, much questioning and reflecting. Each card waiting for the creative thermals to lift each paper bird into the air.

Every illustration and each word is personalized and is as individual as all of my students. Some lift off the ground with ease while others are in need of a breath of wind.

For me, creativity does not come on command. It can be a feral cat rather than an obedient dog. When it comes, it will come. When I have finished a few illustrations the process gains momentum and it becomes a joy to create. This artistic zone is what I strive for!

The key image of this post is a collection of this year’s illustrations. They range from Sasquatch as a sourdough miner to a Toco toucan, to my favorite baseball player when I was a fourth grader to a rabbit from Watership Down to a Fender Stratocaster to a narwhal.

All of these cards were a joy to create. And some were more of a challenge than others. But as our 4th grade Soughdough miners are taught to say to a challenge, “Bring It On!”


Search for the Great Grey Ghost

6:45 AM.

It is said that the early bird always gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.

I know I didn’t want to be the worm nor did I want to be the first mouse. I did know that I wanted to get good looks at a great gray owl and Dickcissel and I where going to do our damnedest.

This mission involved an early start and a three hour road trip to the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a meadow with a high concentration of great grays.

About three hours later we where near the western entrance to Yosemite National Park walking the meadow trying to find a large owl roosting in the trees, or if we were really lucky we might see a great gray hunting in the daylight.

But owling, even in ideal circumstances, does not always produce an owl. Owls always seem to maintain their air of mystery and elusiveness. We are creatures of the day and owl are active in darkness and we feel lucky just to see a motionless roosting owl or hear their nighttime calls. But the night, the night of nature, is really not our realm.

While we did not find an owl we had a lovely morning ramble through a Sierrian meadow.

Corvidsketcher scanning the trees across the meadow for any unusual shapes. He found none.

After the morning search we set up camp chairs under shady pines with the persistent call of mountain chickadee as our lunch soundtrack.

We had one last little treasure on our way out of the meadow, a bit of unexpectedness that put smiles on our faces. A lone rock wren singing away amongst the woodpiles. Like this wren’s name implies, it is found in close proximity to rocks but there were no large rocks in sight. We were looking for the great gray owl that turned into a great gray ghost but we saw a small, diminutive “wood” wren instead and this was just fine with us.


Spring Birding

I took young Grasshopper Sparrow to one of my favorite birding locations in Santa Cruz County, the Old Cove Landing Trail, at Wilder Ranch State Park.

Birding in the spring is a pleasure as you see returning migrants and signs of newborn life. Males are defending their territories in song and are frequently seen perched on prominent singing perches giving a birder great views!

One lifer on Grasshopper’s list was a pigeon guillemot, an alcid that is not a pigeon but a bird of the near shore. Once we hit the coast the guillemots were an easy tick with many on the water or resting on cliffs. We had sensational views and we moved on down the coast in search of more signs of spring.

The spring pleasures are not only reserved to the avian world. As we were about a mile down the trail which follows the contours of the coast, a long-tailed weasel crossed our path! Perhaps an adult hunting to feed its growing kittens. We watched as it’s black-tipped tail disappeared into the green grass.

My young acolyte, Grasshopper Sparrow’s spread about our brief encounter with a life mammal.

We continued on and were rewarded with a black phoebe nest with a near fledgling. Grasshopper thought the chick was dead but I suggested it was just in instinctual frozen mode at the sight of two large bipeds approaching.

We then headed back, adding more lifers to Grasshopper’s growing list and I wanted to check in on another sign of spring just south on Highway One at Natural Bridges State Beach. The eucalyptus grove here is known for the 150,000 wintering monarch butterflies. Most were gone now. We were here for owls!

From the butterfly viewing platform we easily spotted the two adult great horned owls with their recently fledged owlet. These owls start their breeding cycle early as the don’t construct their own nests. Instead they borrowed a red-shouldered hawk’s nest.

As we headed out, the local male Bewick’s wren was perched up, proclaiming his place in the world.