The Masked Night-Bird

“I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay”

(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay

Otis Redding (written on a houseboat in Waldo Point, Sausalito)

It somehow seems appropriate that a masked night-heron was seen on the week of Halloween. It was found among the house boats in Sausalito and it took me two attempts to add this to my Marin County list. I first had this bird as a lifer in Florida.

The common black-crowned night-heron is easy to find on the west coast but the yellow-headed night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) has only been seen two other times in Marin County.

When I heard that the bird had been reported, I made my first attempt after work with only about an hour and a half of daylight to try to find this heron. It was very problematic because they were many places amongst the houseboats which the heron could hide and were privately owned in a lot of places I could not explore. I had to depend on the heron choosing to perch out in the open on a wooden pylon, like have been previously reported. Sometimes you go to where with the bird was seen last, but after all, birds have wings, and may not be where they were last seen. Such was the case on Tuesday and I looked for a good hour and a half without any success.

On Wednesday it has of been seen earlier and I tried to leave a little early to give myself more daylight for a longer search. This proved to be very frustrating because I went to all the places that the heron had been seen, a few hours before, as I did the day before but without success. It was very frustrating to know that the bird was somewhere but just in some location where it could not be seen clearly.

I kept researching the same areas, willing the bird into existence. I walked out on a public path, between the marina and the northern most row of houseboats. I check and recheck every wooden pylon between each houseboat, again.

On my way back I spotted a bird, perched on a pylon, tucking in between two houseboats. Black mask, white cheeks, and yellow crown. This was the bird I was looking for! Yellow-crowned night-heron!

The heron flew out to a pylon in the open as if announcing itself to the world. Now I was looking at the bird is superb light. It appeared that the heron would be there for a little while, warming itself before its nocturnal forage. So I pulled out my sketch book and did two field studies.

Field sketch in my Delta Series Stillman & Birn softcover journal.

The heron stayed in view for about 15 minutes before flying off to the west to another pylon at the edge of the mud flats. It was time for dinner, for both of us.



The House of King, Happy All Hallow’s Eve

“Abruptly he started the car and put it in gear and drove away, trying not to look back. And of course he did, and of course the porch was empty. They had gone back inside. It was as if the Overlook had swallowed them.”

-The Shining

Stephen King

On my way out to Acadia National Park from New Hampshire, I made a little detour to Bangor, Maine. With a population of 33, 039, it is Maine’s second largest city, losing out to Portland (population 67,067).

The landmark I wanted to visit was just off the interstate on a tree lined residential neighborhood. The houses that were set back from West Broadway were large, speaking of the wealth that once created these mansions, most of them built by lumber barons, the  once key industry of this area.

I was here to see the house of a millionaire that made his name in paper goods. Both writing paper and printing paper. All trees at one point, so a lumber baron of a different nature.

As I drove up, there were already eight people standing in front of this Maine landmark. They seemed to be holding guidebooks in their hands, or sometimes clutched them between armpit and arm as they took pictures of the house. All were smiling and excited to be there. One couple had come all the way from Italy.

But these were not guidebooks they were holding but the paper products that the owner produced. Not lumber, or furniture or boats but books. Just books. And this literature major loves books!


This was the house of King, author Stephen King. He is one of the most popular and prolific writers of the last 40 years. He has sold over 350 million copies of his books! Many of his books have been made into popular films including Carrie, The Shining, Stand By Me, and The Shashank Redemption, to name a few.

This was the best time to visit the King of Horror’s house in the autumn, the time of the dying of the leave as October paced towards All Hallow’s Eve.

Happy Halloween!


West Coast “Snow Day”

PG & E gave me a gift by cutting off power in the Highlands neighborhood because of high winds and dry conditions. I found out late Sunday afternoon that we would be without power and school was cancelled. Call it a Bay Area “snow day”.

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County was making San Francisco smell like a camp fire so I planned to get out of Dodge and head south, on Highway One, and bird some of my favorite places in San Mateo County: Devil’s Slide (it was closed), Fitzgerald Marine Preserve, Pillar Point, Tunitas Creek Beach, Pigeon Point, Pescadero Beach, Ano Nuevo, and Gazos Creek Road. I have birded some of these locations for almost 20 years and they are always points of solace and repose. And some amazing birds and wildlife!

I started the morning with breaking the fast at Java Beach, across from the San Francisco Zoo on Sloat Boulevard. My first planned stop was Devil’s Slide. The gates to the parking lot were closed. Driving through Pacifica told me why. The power was out and all hands where helping to direct traffic at intersections where traffic lights where down, which meant all of them.

I drove on to Pillar Point and walked out to the point. Highlights where common loon (I just saw this species on Squam Lake in New Hampshire), red-breasted nuthatch, spotted sandpiper (which I’m always surprised to see, not sure why), and brown pelican. Brown pelican is such a common bird on the west coast but we should never forget how close to extinction this species was (because of DDT). This is such an amazing bird to see in flight. Let’s not forget the power of the commonplace.

I sat back against the rocky levy and did a loose sketch of the hills (the Coast Range as I teach my students).


The view from Pillar Point, looking northeast.

My next stop was Tunitas Creek Beach, where a week ago I have seen the Bar-tailed godwit. This rarity had flown but was now replaced by the Hudsonian godwit that was associating with a group of marbled godwits. I was joined by four other birders from the Sierra Nevada who were out on the coast to see a west coast rarity. And I was happy to point it out to them.

IMG_6882The Hudsonian godwit (left) and two larger marbled godwits on Tunitas Creek Beach.

S Plover

Pen brush field sketch of a snowy plover on Tunitas Creek Beach.

I headed further south and my main focus on the open plains of the San Mateo Coast was raptors. I found red-tailed hawks, American kestrel, northern harrier, white-tailed kite, but no ferruginous or rough-legged hawks. I  had seen a roughie  on October 18 at this location.

IMG_6315I found this rough-legged hawk as I was driving south to my cabin in Santa Cruz. This is an infrequent bird for San Mateo County and I’m glad some birders got to add it to their county list. On my return visit, I did not see the hawk.


Up Back Cottage

A refuge from the masses of one the the East Coast’s most populated National Parks, especially with fall foliage at it’s peak, was my rented cottage, 30 minutes away in Lamoine. The cozy dwelling is what we would call a cabin on the west coast. And the “Up Back Cottage” certainly made me feel like one of the East Coast “rusticators”, albeit on a much smaller scale.

All of the lumber used to construct the cottage was milled from trees on site, leaving the exposed beams and paneling with a rugged roughness.

Downstairs was a framed in porch which was not used much considering the fall temps creeping into winter.  The living room was  furnished with a cozy couch, a reading light, and was stocked with books. A few favorites:  Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds, You Need Help, Charlie Brown by Charles M. Shultz, Abolition Democracy by Angela Davis (I am a Slug after all), and The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. The kitchen was fully stocked and fitted with a four-burner, gas range which was perfect for cooking and staying healthy.

The bedroom was in a loft, accessible by a ladder. Under the A-framed roof, windows filled the space with light, setting nature’s alarm clock. Get up and get out and see the world! (And to find parking at any of Acadia’s most popular sights.)

If there is one thing that stood out in the “Up Back Cabin” it was it’s only source of heat. I was the last guest of the season. Beyond October, you have colder temperatures, snow, and then the long Maine winter. The wood burning stove was great companion to my stay.


A sketch of the Up Back Cottage in Lamoine. The is a true cottage, unlike the mansions of millionaires in Bar Harbor which where hyperbolically called “cottages”. This is the real thing.

IMG_E3327Probably the most artistic entry I’ve ever made in an Airbnb guestbook. This dwelling really inspired me! 


The Northeast’s Iconic Animals

There are three animals that I saw on license plates, advertising, stickers, postcards, posters, and signage throughout my time in New England. In fact you could see all three represented on different license plates in Maine. They are: the common loon, black-capped chickadee, and moose.

I had seen the common loon many times before because they spend their winters in the near shore oceans or harbors on both coasts. At this time they are sporting their drab winter plumage and not their iconic black and white checkered patterned breeding plumage which the loons in New England are always represented wearing . The density of loon representations was at critical mass in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. It seemed like every store, inn and bed and breakfast that was anywhere near a lake, had a loon on their sign.

I had only seen loons on the ocean and never on a northern lake. On our Squam Lake pontoon boat tour we saw two small rafts of loons, the adult where still in their stylish breeding plumage. Soon the birds would be leaving the lake as the temperature got colder and the lake begin to freeze over.

Exhibit A, yet another loon sign!

Another bird that I saw on many signs and license plates, especially in Maine was the common black-capped chickadee (Maine’s State Bird). I heard this bird’s well known “chick-a-dee-dee” call in both town and county. In fact the chickadees call was one of the most common calls I heard throughout my trip, except for perhaps the blue jay.

The black-capped chickadee license plate was the most common in Maine.

The last iconic animal of the Northeast is Maine’s official mammal, the moose. This large deer, in fact the world’s largest deer, appeared on more and more advertising, stickers, postcards, posters, and signage the further north I travelled.

Most visitors to Maine only see a moose on a t-shirt or bumper sticker. To see a real, living moose you have to wake up early and travel north as I did to Baxter State Park (More about this in another post).

New Hampshire loves the moose too but I did not see any at Squam Lake.

F. Moose

It was really tough researching this post. This is how you celebrate seeing a moose in the wild!


The Godwit Trifecta

It’s not every day that you see three species of godwit on the west coast in one day. But Monday October 21, 2019 was the day and I was going to try for them after work.

I had seen all three godwits before but not all at the the same place. Marbled godwit is a common bird this time of year on the coast or bay. Hudsonian was rare on the coast. The last time I’d seen one was in Alviso in September of 2003. And I had just seen a bar-tailed godwit in the spring. It’s a common bird, if your in Europe, which I was, but rare in Coastal California. I had picked one up as a lifer in the Ebro Delta in Spain.

My first stop was Pescadero State Beach, where the previous week, all three godwits were present. Now only the Hudsonian and marbled remained. It was just a mater of finding it.

Along the long narrow beach that stretched out to the north I could see nothing but gulls, lots and lots of gulls. What I needed to find was a group of godwits. I couldn’t see any from here so a little leg work was called for. So I took a sandy step off to the north.

After I passed the large gull roost I found what I was looking for, a small group of shorebirds. I could make out a few whimbrels, long-billed curlews, and yes, some marbled godwits. It took all of my effort not to raise my bins to my eyes but I resisted the urge. I needed to get closer and head a little to the west to get the low sun at my back to help me find that one godwit that looked a little different.


One of these birds does not look like the others.

Most of the godwits were roosting, balanced on one leg with bills tucked under their back feather. Once I put bins on the group I immediately saw a smaller, over all gray and not rufous godwit with a dark cap and a defined bold supercilium or eyebrow. I was looking at a Hudsonian godwit for the first time in almost 20 years!

Hudsonia sketch

A field sketch of the resting Hudsonian in a Stillman & Birn Delta Series softcover sketchbook.

I guess I would just have to be satisfied with a two Godwit Day when Dickcissel texted me that the bar-tailed godwit had just been refound 10 miles to the north at Tunitas Creek Beach! So I rushed back, as fast as I could with a scope and in sand, to the parking lot.

Off I headed on Highway One and pulled off on Tunitas Creek Road (one of the most haunted roads in the United States) and parked. Then it was down the hill, along the path, up the steep hill, through bramble, along the hedge cave, past the creek and concrete wall to the expanding views of Tunitas Creek Beach.


Tunitas Creek and the beach, looking southwest.

I scanned the long and narrow beach from the north and to the south. Nothing but gulls. Déjà vu.

What I needed to find was a group of godwits. I couldn’t see any from here so a little leg work was called for. So I took a sandy step off to the north.

All gulls and no godwits.

I was stopped by some friendly locals with their pooch and they asked what I was looking for. I expanded and they asked if I’d seen the heron by the creek. I told them that I had and that birding is an affliction and I had to find the godwit before I lost light. And off I went to the south. Not sure they understood, it is an affliction after all.

About halfway down the beach I saw the silhouetted forms of shorebirds. I had to head southwest of their position to get the sun at my back to identify them. A group of godwits. I scanned the flock. All marbleds.

I looked to the south and moved on. In a sandy depression in the beach, I saw the silhouetted forms of shorebirds. I had to head southwest of their position to get the sun at my back to identify them. A group of godwits. I scanned the flock. I found marbled godwits and one bird that looked like no other. A bird foraging with the flock but was a little apart from the rest. Bar-tailed godwit!


Bar-tailed godwit at Tunitus Creek Beach,

Now after attaining the Godwit Trifecta I could head back north towards home, reveling in a very satisfying Monday afterwork Birding adventure.

I would sleep well tonight!


Mount Washington Cog Railway

There is something about the sound of a steam engine whistle that turns this grown man into a child again. Better yet if the whistle echoes off the walls of a valley, covered in autumnal vestments.

I was waiting with anticipation on the platform as I heard the retort of the steam engine’s whistle down the line, announcing it’s arrival. The engine’s top speed is three miles an hour, so it would take a little while to pull into the station.


Our brakeman Tommy, waving at the children and adult children as No. 2 Ammonoosuc, pulls into the base station.

The Ammonoosuc was slow but it could do what few other steam engines could do: ascend a grade of over 35% (most steam engines can handle only a grade of 6%). This is because the steam engine, now billowing smoke into the cold fall air, is a cog engine.

No. 2, Ammonoosuc, was pushing her red passage carriage which would push about 70 tourists up the three miles of track to the summit of Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, at 6,288 feet. What was really amazing about our engine is that she was built in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1875 and she’s still running strong.

We loaded up and it would take about hour (three miles at a top speed of three miles an hour) to reach the summit. I got a quick sketch in of my carriage view, which caught the attention of a curious toddler.

With a long retort of the whistle we started up and not far from the station, Ammonoosuc was tasked with pushing us up the Spring Hill Grade at 35%. That means that for every 100 feet we travel, we climb 35 feet! But this wasn’t the steepest grade on the line. That was yet to come, just under the summit, at the Jacob’s Ladder Trestle with a grade of 37.41%!

Near the summit was the first of two times that I would be crossing the famed Appalachian Trail or AT. At Mt. Washington, this was the second highest point on the entire 2,200 mile trail. Near the rocky, treeless summit, the AT is marked with stone cairns so hikers will not loose their way in the frequent inclement weather of the summit.

Mt. Washington

My sketch from the summit of Mt. Washington looking southeast, the highest peak in the northeast at 6,288 feet.

Once at the summit we had an hour to take selfies at the summit, take in the view, and sketch (well I was the only one sketching). I did one quick and loose sketch of the incredible view to the southeast in which I almost froze my face off (one must suffer for art) and one sketch of Ammonoosuc as she rested before our descent.


One our descent, our brakeman, Tommy, was in charge of the wheel breaks of our car so we didn’t run into the engine on the steep grades. We were actually not connected to the engine, she pushed us up and then we glided down and Tommy made sure we didn’t put too much stain on No. 2. She was an old lady after all, just 144 years old this year!

We made it to the calmer weather of the base station where well all unpeeled from our layers, hats, gloves, and scarfs. Looking up I traced the snake trail of the cog line and reflected on the incredible achievement of having this almost impossible railway line built.



Above Golden Pond

I had seen Squam Lake from lake view on my pontoon boat tour and now it was time to see Squam from above.

And the best place to do this was a 40 minute hike up to West Sidewinder Ridge.

From the granite park, you look down as the fir and pine fingers that seem to reach out into the waters of Squam.

Today was a beautiful afternoon and even on a Tuesday, the car park was filled to capacity. By the time I was at the peak, there were groups of people enjoying the views and sunshine.


I found my little sketcher’s hallow and found a crack in the granite to secure my sling bag. I then started sketching the contours of the lake in my Strathmore panoramic watercolor journal.

Grasshoppers and wasps were my companions and the wasps investigated me until satisfied that I was not a source of food and then left me alone to enjoy my sketch.



On the “Real” Golden Pond

What would bring a son the Golden State to a small lake in New Hampshire?

It was a film I saw when I was a kid, the three time Academy Award winning On Golden Pond (1981). The real Golden Pond is to be found in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and it’s real name is Squam Lake. I planned to spend a few days here sketching and nature loafing.

I would be visiting a few of the filming locations and taking a Squam Lake Natural Science Center pontoon boat ride around the lake to take in the natural beauty of the lake in it’s fall foliage.

On our 90 minute ride we visited some of the bays and islands of the serene New Hampshire lake. We hoped to see two of the emblematic species of this region: common loon and bald eagle. We had no luck with the eagle but near Kimball Island, I spotted four loons and our captain took us over for a closer look.

During the filming of On Golden Pond, the cinematographer noted that it was hard to get good shots of loons because they were so shy and would dive out of view when approached (they are known as “divers” in Britain). Since the 40 years since On Golden Pond was filmed, the lake has become more and more popular with more visitors and boats and house on the lake. As a result the loons are used to the presence people being around them and allow close approach.

IMG_6796A Nature Center pontoon boat passes by Holderness’ famous dock on it’s way to Squam Lake. Behind the boat is the boathouse that Henry Fonda almost took out as he speed away from the dock in the film.

One of the locations featured in the film is the public boat harbor in Holderness. It is know as the Squam Boat Livery to the locals. It was here where legendary film actors Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, playing Ethel and Norman Thayer, stopped to have their vintage 1951 Chris-Craft wooden boat refueled. The wooden boathouse looks very much the same when they filmed here in 1980. What is notable is the tourist industry that has grown up because of the success of the movie. The restaurant next the the harbor is named “Walter’s Basin” a reference to the trout that almost got away in the film who was named “Walter”. The are inn and bed and breakfasts with the name “Golden Pond” in them.


I stood on the bridge, right where Katherine Hepburn pulled her car up to get the mailman to help look for Norman Thayer and Billy after their boat accident in “Purgatory Cove”. (If you haven’t seen the film this is all meaningless, so go watch On Golden Pond!)

Purgatory Cove

The scene where the boat accident was filmed was near Kimball Island. (This scene scared me when I watched it as a kid). On our boat tour we passed by the cove and our captain pointed out the two rocks featured in the famous scene.

We left we again found a small raft of loons.


The second unit shot footage of a car driving through the Lakes Region. Some of this unused footage was featured in the opening sequence of the sitcom Newhart, including the main road in Sandwich.


Carriage Roads and Bridges

A way to avoid the tourists and fall foliage peepers In Acadia National Park is to hit the 57 miles of Carriage Roads that rise and weave throughout the National Park. It was easy to find peace away from the crowded Jordan House area because anything requiring hiking on a slight rise really thins out the masses.

The Carriage Roads where a gift from philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. and were constructed from 1913 to 1940. The roads were designed and built to fit the lay of the land and meant for taking your time and enjoying the journey. These roads were never built for the automobile in mind and to this day you can only travel by foot, tire, or hoof.


Walking on a Carriage Road in the fall was certainly one of the highlights of my trip.

Rockefeller also financed 16 out of the 17 stone-faced bridges. I was heading out early from Jordan Pond to sketch the oldest bridge on the Carriage Road system: Cobblestone Bridge which was completely in 1917.

Less then a mile on the well marked Carriage Roads, I came to the first bridge ever built in the road system. It is different than most of the other 16 bridges in that it is faced in cobblestone, in an attempt to fit into it’s stream-spanning location. I found a streamside rock on Jordan Creek and started to sketch.


I loved sketching the textures of this bridge. I also loved sketching in my Stillman & Birn Delta Series watercolor journal. I normally don’t like spiral sketchbooks because of their lack of ruggedness for the trials of travel but this this book held up well.

I headed back to the Jordan Pond area, where a good confluence of Carriage Roads exist, and I hiked out to look at two other bridges. I sketched one of them, the Cliffside Bridge which was completed the year my father was born, 1932. This 230 foot bridge is an arch above a ravine and standing above the arch gives way to a beautiful fall foliage panorama.


I drove to another trailhead and another carriage road system to see and sketch two more bridges. The first bridge I came to was the Hemlock Bridge (1924) and then I came to the appropriately named Waterfall Bridge (1925) because it’s arch frames a forty foot waterfall. This bridge I sketched in my smaller Aquabook.

Waterfall bridge

Waterfall Bridge in my smaller Aquabook.