Sketching at the California Academy of Sciences

On a recent field trip we took 90 fourth graders to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I had come here myself when I was in elementary school, back then it was known as the Steinhart Aquarium. The museum was completely rebuilt in 2008 and bears little resemblance to the museum of my youth.

When the museum reopened, which is about a 45 minute walk from my dwellings, I bought a membership and visited some of the 46 million specimens on display many times. I had since let my membership lapse, but on our recent field trip I thought I would take advantage of the teacher’s discount and reconstitute my membership.

So the week after our field trip, after work, I headed to Cal Academy and bought a teacher’s membership. This museum is a wonderful resource for the natural world and I came prepared with my sketchers kit.

At mid-afternoon, after all the school groups had departed, it seemed that I had the museum to myself. I took advantage of this time and did five quick sketches.

I started by sketching an African penguin. This bird is also referred to as the Jackass penguin, a name that makes fourth graders blush and laugh at the same time, but refers to their braying call. These penguins were easy to sketch as they were roosting on their rocks and posing for me. (Well that statement was very anthropomorphic of me!)

I then headed up to one of the best features of the new building ( well it’s just over ten years old), the living roof. I did a quick sketch with Sutro Tower in the background.

living roof

I then headed into the basement where the aquarium is located. Here I sketched a massive but stationary red-tailed catfish(all sketched in pen) in the drowned Amazonian flooded forest tank. I had a grand time sketching a moon jelly with my sepia brush pen, all without a underlying pencil drawing (featured sketch).


On the way out I passed under the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the entrance. When I was a kid I remember an allosaurus skeleton in a similar place. I liked this little reach back to the past and I sat on a bench for a final sketch. Sketching the entire skeleton with the museum soon to close for the day seemed a daunting task so I just sketched the skull.


I look forward to many more visits and more sketchbook pages filled with knowledge and life!


Cranes and Raptors

I headed out early, with Great Gray and Grasshopper Sparrow.  Our destination was Woodbridge Road just north of the town of Lodi. This road is well known amongst birders as a great place to see wintering sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis).

We made good time, traffic was light on a Saturday morning and after two hours of travel, we pulled off Highway 5 and headed along a frontage road until we came to Woodbridge Road. Our destination was the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve (Isenberg Crane Reserve), two units, north and south of Woodbridge Road, preserving 353 acres of sandhill crane habitat.

To the right was the North Unit and we pulled into the dirt parking lot and there were cranes in the fields as far as the eye could see and cranes in the air coming and going, their loud bugling calls filling our ears. This was a life bird for young Grasshopper (as many of the birds on this trip were).

IMG_7748I had been to Woodbridge Road a handful of times and there seemed to be more cranes around on this visit than in any other previous visit. The last time I was here, I was looking for the sulky, vagrant the brown thrasher, which I successfully added to my ABA lifelist on December 8, 2018.

After getting our fill of cranes (can you ever get your fill of cranes?) and doing a few field sketches,  we had an ever more amazing crane experience at the south unit. Across the road from the parking lot, in a green field, were perhaps a thousand sandhill cranes. A farm truck drove along the border of the field causing a mass of cranes to lift into the air. What an incredible sight! Hundreds of cranes in the air, their bugling calls, reaching us across the road.


We were surrounded by birds in all directions, thousands of ducks and coots to our south (and two tundra swans, another lifer for Grasshopper), cracking geese flying overhead in stretched out “V”s, and sandhill cranes everywhere!

We left the Reserve and headed back to Highway 5 South and then headed west on Highway 12 toward Rio Vista. Our destination was the dirt roads and open fields known to birders, collectively, as “Robinson Road”. This area is also known as “Raptor Heaven”.

We headed north on McCloskey Road onward to where the pavement turns to dirt. As we approached the T junction with McCormack Road, I saw a raptor hovering above the field, north of the road. It’s white tailbase blazed bright, identifying itself!


We rushed out of the truck and headed to the field edge. I told Grasshopper that I would help him find the birds but I wanted him to identify them. We were now looking at a raptor that is never guaranteed at Robinson. I have whiffed on this species many times but McCormick Road had always produced for me. When the hawk wheeled around showing it’s dark belly and carpal patches, Grasshopper said, “Rough-legged hawk!” And he was correct!

At the intersection of Robinson and Flannery Roads, Grasshopper spotted a large raptor on the ground. The bird flew up and we watched our largest hawk, the ferruginous hawk, ride the thermals with an adult red-tail.

Our best sighting of the trip was further down Robinson Road. I saw a large raptor perched near the top of the power tower to our right. We drove a little further down the road so we could get a better view of the raptor. I got the scope on the bird and asked if Grasshopper could identify it. He looked through the scope and after a short time proclaimed, “Golden eagle!”

We got great scope looks of the eagle before it to flew west across the road and caught  a thermal above the fields. It was soon joined by two other raptors that harassed the large eagle by dive bombing the golden from above. The eagle’s assailants where a ferruginous hawk and a prairie falcon! This was certainly a first and an amazing thing to witness. A golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, and prairie falcon, all in one scope view!

Grasshopper Sparrow’s spread of our fantastic day with sandhill cranes!


Van Damme Gray Ghost

Dickcissel and I stayed at Van Damme State Park at campsite #9. Van Damme is just south of the town of Mendocino, right off a lovely sandy cove.

This campground is legendary amongst birders because of one of its feathered residence. This is a bird that is sometimes known as the camp robber or the Gray Ghost. This is a bird that suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere, that is usually quiet, which is unusual for a member of the jay family. This is the southern edge of it’s range in California and as it’s name implies, the Canada jay is a creature of the far north.

Seeing a Canada jay, formerly called the gray jay, is not always guaranteed at Van Damme. While you may never see this sometimes-elusive bird, it certainty sees you. This jay is extremely curious and often bold.

The bird that is usually first encountered at the campground is the bold and raucous Steller’s jay. This is the west’s only crested jay and it is a bird that I have loved since my childhood. The Steller’s jay is often the first visitor when you pull into camp. Like the Canada, this jay is also very curious.


Since childhood, I have always loved this much maligned jay, with a raucous call and it’s bold jayness. The lesson (and some times struggle) is to see the beauty in everything.

As we set up camp we saw and heard Steller’s but there was no sign of the grey ghost. As dusk approached, a young great horned owl called from the forested hillside and an adult responded from across the way. The owls called for most of the night, which along with the ringing of a buey bell just outside of the cove, were the soundtrack of our Van Damme slumbers.

In the morning, as the owl calls slowed to a stop, the first diurnal call that I heard was the acorn woodpecker. This was soon joined by Pacific wren, Dark-eyed junco, American robin, northern flicker, ruby-crowned kinglet, common raven, red-breasted nuthatch, and the ever-present Steller’s jay. I ticked all these bird calls off as I stayed in the warmth of my sleeping bag.

But then I heard a soft call. I call that I had trouble recognizing. As I sorted through the calls in my memory bank, I knew it could only be one bird! The ghost had arrived!

I zipped open my tent and peered out into the morning half-light. There in the tree over the picnic table was a Canada jay! I loudly whispered over to Dickcissel’s tent, “They’re here!”

I threw on my clothes, putting on one sock upside down in the process and stumbled out of my tent. In the tree were a family of four Canada jays, coming in to investigate our camp. Dickcissel and I watched these beautiful corvids as we ate our breakfast.


This gray ghost is getting a little too close to my morning oatmeal! This very inquisitive,  and fearless jay is not called the “camp robber” for nothing!

Doing a little field sketching of the Canada jays of Van Damme State Park. The sketcher is looking a little “gray” himself.

IMG_7314The Canada jay is very much attracted to the presence of humans and are a very intelligent and curious critter! This jay is perched on our food larder at campsite #9.


The Rime of the Ancient Murrelet

On Veteran’s Day Weekend, consisting of a birding and camping adventure with Dickcissel, I had one bird on my wishlist: the ancient murrelet (Synthiloramphus antiquus).

I have been to the Mendocino Coast many times but had not put the effort into a dedicated seawatch to see this small alcid. (I also did not bring the scope required for finding this bird.)

Before heading up to the Mendocino Coast, I did a study sketch of this small alcid (the featured sketch). When I did this sketch, using the Sibley Guide, photos, and Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, it was a way of creating a mental image of this bird; It’s field marks, behavior, and flight. This helped me single out the other birds and find the two toned “flying penguin “. A bird named “ancient” because of the gray feather of it’s head, giving the impression of being really old.

We started our Seawatch on the observation decks at Laguna Point in MacKerricher State Park just north of Fort Bragg. It was a beautiful day, clear and calm which makes for great seawatching with the sun at our backs providing great light to see the passing birds on the water. There was a lots of birds moving south, mainly loons and surf scoters that flew close to shore, low across the water.

Now it was just a matter of finding a small gray-backed alcid with white underwings, a light, short bill and a twisting and turning flight pattern. Really there where not too many birds that we could confuse it for.

About 30 minutes into our watch, I got on a two small alcids, heading south. I panned the scope with them and they checked all the boxes! Ancient Murrelet, ABA lifebird #570!

Scoping the Pacific. There was lots of southerly movement at Laguna Point. Mostly loons and surf scoters and the alcid I wanted to see: the ancient murrelet. Does this hat make me look ancient?

We also scoped from the Mendocino Headlands State Park.

A little nature loafing in between seawatches at Mendocino Headlands State Park. We had a glorious day on the Mendocino Coast. From here we spotted a peregrine, loons, black oystercatchers, mergansers, and five snow geese. The latter had never been recorded for this location!


Robert Frost, New Hampshire.

I had a later flight from Logan International (8:45 PM) and I had time to burn before heading to the maze of Boston. On a whim I decided to head over to the New Hampshire town of Derry and visit a farm that the poet, and native San Franciscan, Robert Frost lived in from 1900 to 1911.

The farm house was closed for the season, most things start closing down after Columbus Day but the grounds around the white farmhouse were open for exploration.


The three farm building of Robert Frost’s farm. The building are all connected so you can go from building to building without having to brave the frigid winter temps.

I walked through the grounds of the former orchard. Around the farm grounds were placed interpretive signs with some description as well as a Frost Poem printed in it’s entirety. According to a sign near the farm house:

He would call the first five years on this farm, “the core of my writing”. . . Frost called this farm the seedbed for his poetry and his thoughts returned here over and over again in ” the ache of memory,” to harvest poems throughout his life.

Many of his most famous poems were written at the farm and it’s geography certainly inspired the poet.


One the the signs at the fork of a path featuring Frost’s most well know poem, “The Road Not Taken”.

I did a rough sketch with my dark sepia brush pen in my small Aquabook watercolor book of the farm building and the trees around it (featured sketch). I decided to leave the sketch unpainted because I liked the lines of the work, which was done without a pencil. As I tell my students: embrace your mistakes!



Lighthouses of Maine

I couldn’t visit the Maine coast without sketching a lighthouse. I chose a lighthouse near my digs in South Portland: Portland Head Light. Which just happens to be one of Maine’s most famous sights. It is feature on posters, postcards, and paintings.

The Portland Head Lighthouse is Maine’s oldest lighthouse. Construction began in 1787 under the order of George Washington. It was completed on January 10, 1791.

The tower is 80 feet above ground and 101 feet above the water. The light is at the entrance of the main shipping lane into Portland Harbor and it’s light can be seen from 24 nautical miles.

Edward Hopper painted this lighthouse in 1927, albeit from a different angle. I felt in good company.

A little watercolor near the water. The rocks just north of the lighthouse provided the perfect sketcher’s seat. I had a raft of common eiders to keep me company.

The next day I headed toward Cape Elizabeth to visit two iconic Maine lighthouses, both where painted by Edward Hopper. Two Lights at Cape Elizabethan the lighthouse at Cape Neddnick.

Scan 225

Cape Neddick

The Nubble Lighthouse near Old York, Maine. 


The Appalachian Trail

“Maine is deceptive. It is the twelfth smallest state, but it has more uninhabited forest-ten million acres-than any other state but Alaska.”

A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson

The first time I crossed the Appalachian Trail or the AT as it is also known, I was on the Mt. Washington Railway climbing to the summit. The second time I crossed the Trail, was 5.2 miles from it’s ending on the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park.

For the about 400 Thur-hikers, who have hiked the entire 2,200 miles in one season, this is the last part of their long journey ending at Baxter Peak at 5,267 feet. They would have started sometime in the early spring at Springer Mountain in Georgia and passed through 14 states. Through that journey, their elevation gain and loss is the equivalent of ascending and decending Mt. Everest. . . 16 times!


I walked a short way on the AT, found a rock, sat down, and sketched. The sketch I created was a loose, gestural representation of the trail that stretched out into the woods before me. I used my dark sepia brush pen and I sketched quickly. I had to because I felt the first few drops of a passing sprinkle. The weather changes here at Baxter very quickly and I wanted to get the bare bones of my sketch down before the rain.

Now I can say that I have walked about 100 yards of the 2,200 miles of the AT. Well that’s a start anyway.


Sandy Stream Pond

I left the Up Back Cottage in Lamoine at 5:30 AM (it was hard to leave such cozy digs). I had two wildlife targets for this early morning adventure. One was a small boreal species weighing half an ounce and the other was the largest deer in the world. Adult males can weigh in at 1,800 pounds and can be over six feet tall at the shoulder.

I was hoping to kill two birds with one stone (forgive this tasteless idiom) on a single hike in Baxter State Park. The hike was on the eastern shore of Sandy Stream Pond which is in the shadow of Maine’s highest peak: Mount Katahdin (5,267 feet).

I hit the trail by 8:30 after signing in at the trailhead. Baxter is some serious wilderness and many hikers attempt to summit Mt. Katahdin and you had to be aware of the trails, terrain, and the quickly changing weather. Mortality can feel very close here.

I crossed Roaring Brook and soon I could see the pond through the trees off to my left. At this point the trail was a wooden boardwalk above the boggy ground. I took the first left towards a viewing point. Once I had a clear view of the waters, I immediately saw two moose in the water near the far shore. A cow and her calf were grazing in the waters. Each time the cow raised her head from the waters, a small cascade of mountain water flowed down from her “beard”, like a small stream.

IMG_6250Moose cow at Shady Stream Pond. See, I’m not making these similes up, like a small stream.

I stayed and watched the cow and calf feed in the pond. This was the second time I had seen moose in the wild. The first time was two years ago. I had tried known hotspots in Grand Tetons National Park, arriving at the appropriate times (dawn and dusk) only to see a cow and a calf in the city park on my way out of Jackson. It was great to see moose in a more natural setting with long legs submerged in an icy mountain lake.

Sandy Stream

A quick sketch of Sandy Stream Pond with fall foliage.

After getting my fill of wild moose in an amazing backdrop of autumn reds, oranges,  yellows, and dark greens under the shadow of the peak of Mt. Katahdin, it was time to move on to look for a small bird that weighed as much as five pennies.

I continued north along the Sandy Stream Pond Trail towards the junction with the South Turner Mtn. Trail. The key to locating a boreal chickadee was to be in the right location (check) and to listen for the sounds of the more common black-capped chickadee. It’s call, chicka-dee-dee-dee, is onomatopoetic of it’s name, was the call I was listening for, because the boreal chickadee forms loose feeding flocks with it’s more well known cousin.

I was halfway along the trail from the Sandy Stream junction when I first heard the faint sound of a chickadee coming from within the mixed spruce to my right. In this case a black-capped. I headed off the trail and weaved my way through the trees trying to locate of the flock, willing to hear the “gargle” call of the boreal.

Much pishing and other hopeful noises brought in a few black-caps. This was a good sign. And then a few other birds came in with calls that seems a little similar but not quite right. It was different enough. And one of these chickadees flew in to a branch above my head and I was able to get a few photographs.

IMG_6275Above is the first photo that I captured of the mystery bird. The key fieldmark that distinguishes a boreal from a black-capped is that the boreal has a brown cap. The bird was looking to be the bird that I was looking for. It clearly had a brown and not black cap. The Audubon Bird Guides noted the boreal chickadee, “has gained a reputation as an excessively elusive bird.” This bird was elusive no more! Lifer!



A True Friend and a Good Writer

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

To escape the tourists and the leaf peepers in Acadia National Park, I headed west and then southwest to the tiny rural town of Brooklin, Maine and it’s tiny cemetery. I was here to visit another writer and this was a writer that is close to my heart. He instills a lifelong love of reading in many 3rd graders around the world. He has written books that are still read by thousands to this day. I had read his books in my youth and loved them.

When I arrived, after an hours drive from Acadia, after an unsuccessful attempt to sketch Bass Head Light, I saw the Brooklin Cemetery on the left, across the street from the white church. I got out and searched the headstones. I didn’t know where the grave was located but I was going to search until I found the tombstone I was looking for.

At the end of the cemetery, under an oak that had not yet put on it’s autumnal vestments, were two identically shaped dark tombstones. The one on the left was Katharine Sergeant White. The stone on the right was the one I was looking for. The name read: Elwyn Brooks White 1899-1985.

The headstone was very plain and without any words beyond his name and dates, which seemed odd for a writer’s grave. The only sign that this was a person of note was the two rocks and penny that rested on the top the marker’s arch. In the lower corner, there was a spider’s web attached from the gravestone and the flowers, it was also without words and I resisted the urge to clear the web from the stone, leaving it untidy. After all this could be Charlotte’s web.


The White’s headstones in the background and the headstone with “Wilbur” in the foreground. Uncanny.

Elwyn Brooks White, known to his many readers as E. B. White, spent 48 years his life in this part of coastal Maine. He is known for the writer manual The Elements of Style and two children’s books: Stuart Little and his masterpiece, Charlotte’s Web.


Andy now rests next to his wife, who died eight years earlier. White’s fear of crowds meant that he did not attend his wife’s funeral.

In 1933, White, who was known to his friends and family as Andy, bought a farm in coastal Maine on Allen Cove, just south of Acadia National Park, in the town of North Brooklin. White and his wife, Katherine, who was The New Yorker’s first fiction editor, spent much of their time at the farm both farming and writing.

The farm, barn, and farm animals became the inspiration for his greatest work. He wrote Charlotte’s Web here and in the boathouse where he often wrote with a view of the Atlantic and the highest point in Acadia National Park, Cadillac Mountain.

White relished his role as a gentleman farmer and he was shy and shunned his ever growing fame. When his wife Katherine died in 1977, he he did not attend her private burial service at Brooklin Cemetery. As Michael Sims noted in his wonderful book, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic:

 Knowing Andy’s aversion to public events, no one had been surprised or upset. Now his legendary fear of crowds became part of his own memorial service. “If Andy White could be with us today,” Roger Angell (his stepson) said to the assembled family, “he would not be with us today.”

One touching episode that happened towards the end of White’s life, when he was either suffering dementia. His son Joe, would read to him from his own books and essays. He would often get confused and not remember who wrote the words. Sims writes of Andy:

. . .he would stir and look at Joe and ask again who wrote what he had just read to him.

“You did, Dad.”

Andy would think about this odd fact for a moment and sometimes murmur, “Not bad.”

I stood before the stone and did a quick sketch. Before I headed back to the car I took out a penny from my pocket and placed it on the tombstone. “Thank you”, I said.

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

Last two sentences of Charlotte’s Web

-Elwyn Brooks White