Railway Depots of San Mateo County

I’ve been wanting to do a sketch project of the passenger railway depots along the current Caltrain line; at least the stations that are architectural and historically interesting. Caltrain runs passenger service from San Francisco to San Jose (and further south to Gilroy). I wanted to narrow the project down to the existing depots in San Mateo County, the county where I am employed.

My own interest in railways and railway depots comes from my own childhood. I have very vivid memories of being on the back of my dad’s bicycle as we went down towards to the Southern Pacific tracks after work. My dad was a huge rail enthusiast having grown up riding the streetcars and trains of San Francisco. We would watch trains from the pedestrian walkway as they came in and out of the Sunnyvale Depot, dropping off commuters. We also took the train north to Palo Alto or San Francisco and I always loved the all too brief visits to each station. I also noted that not all stations were alike. Some depots have architectural merit while others were merely weather shelters where you can buy tickets.

I wanted to start in the north and head south towards the Santa Clara County line. But I would not be starting on the current main line that runs along the eastern part of San Francisco and the Peninsula but the starting point for this project is a marooned station that is west of the main line. This station has been moved a short distance from its original location and now does not have any trains that stop at its platform. It is now part of a historical museum. This is the passenger depot in Colma.

The original mainline passed further west as it headed around San Bruno Mountain than it does today. The second stop, south of San Francisco County, which is in San Mateo County, was then called School House Station because of its proximity to the local one room schoolhouse. At the time this was one of 21 stations built between San Francisco and San Jose. The station was later renamed Colma.

In 1907 the Bayshore Cutoff came into service which straighten out the line to where the main line runs to this day. This new line left Colma off of the mainline like a rerouted highway, taking all the traffic away, leaving a ghost town in their wake. That may be appropriate because Colma is known for all it’s cemeteries. The number of dead in Colma, estimated at 1.5 million, outnumber the living. Hence the town’s motto, “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

So I set up a sketching chair, readied my supplies, and started to frame in the railway depot. Here I really tried to get the perspective correct before I added pen or paint. This starting part of the sketch takes the most focus and concentration.

Another reason the Colma Depot was a good starting point for this project is that it was the oldest depot on the line, built around 1863, beating out the actual oldest station on the Peninsula mainline at Menlo Park, built in 1867.

Starting with the Colma Depot was a bit of a cheat, because it is no longer an active depot nor is it on the main line. But because the river of rails have been diverted to the east leaving a pool that no longer flows to the sea, I felt it was important to start here, at least to get my feet wet. It was also helpful to start to learn the visual language of Californian train depots. It helps the eye see repeated patterns and forms when I move on to sketching other depots.

My next plan was to ride Caltrain from San Francisco down to all the historic stations in San Mateo County and sketch each one.

Sketch number one of this project is nearing completion. The rusted tracks in front of the station are just a short section. They go from nowhere to nowhere. Just like many of the visitors to Colma. Once they come here, they never leave.


Harlequin and Rails

On a clear and calm Sunday morning, I picked up Grasshopper Sparrow to make our fourth and hopefully last attempt, to see the over wintering male harlequin duck at the Coyote Point Marina. We had perfect conditions with calms waters and the sun at our backs, now all we needed was a little luck and a lot of patience.

We walked out to the end of the path and started to scope the bay waters, picking through the hundreds of scoters and goldeneyes to find the one bird that really should stand out. A duck with bold white markings and a reddish side. I checked the waters to the south while I let Grasshopper’s young eyes scope the waters to the east, just beyond the breakwater.

“I got the harlequin!”, he announced shortly afterwards. Of course he did. I looked though the scope and the bird had disappeared under the waters, which is no surprise because it is a diving duck. I asked him what the duck looked like.

“A harlequin duck!”, I told him that description wouldn’t cut it in the birding world and pressed him to recount details. He described the white facial patterns and colored sides. And just the confirm himself, the harlequin returned to the surface and I was able to get great views in amazing light.

IMG_9509The Bay Area rarity was finally ours. Male harlequin duck just beyond the breakwater at Coyote Point Marina.

The duck briefly perched on the breakwater and preened and I was able to get a few photos off to use for a painting study.


Our next stop was to Bayfront Park in eastern Millbrae. Our target bird here was an iconic species of the bay marshes, a bird that has been declining in the bay because of development of the bay’s shoreline (meaning the destruction of it’s favored habitat) and is now near-threatened. This is Ridgway’s rail (formally the clapper rail). It’s estimated population around the San Francisco Bay is about 1,100 individuals. So seeing a Ridgway’s is always special.

Bayfront Park is a small marsh, preserved near the Bay Trail. It sits just across the waters from the runways of SFO. So here I can really indulge two of my passions: birds and airplanes! I guess the two are really related. But perhaps not the Rigway’s rail, which seldom flies.

IMG_9558Touchdown for a massive A380 at SFO. A raft of ducks are in the foreground, apparently not disturbed by all the air traffic.

The tide was high, meaning that all the bird activity was very concentrated, which could be good for finding rails. Rails are very skulking birds that can be notoriously hard to see. Most of my rail sightings had been brief and unspectacular. But that was just about to change.

We scanned the shoreline and the pickleweed for rails but we found none. The somewhat reclusive birds could be right under our noses and we might never see them. We put in a good 45 minutes of searching and we did not hear or see any. We started to head back to the car when I decided to check one last time. That’s when the loud call of the Ridgway’s rail sounded from some tall reeds about ten yards from the Bay Trail.

We fanned out on either side of the reeds, willing a rail to appear. Again, Grasshopper found one, it’s head raised above the reeds. The rail stayed visible, in perfect light for a good five minutes, allowing me to take some photos and just as quickly as the rail had appeared, it disappeared. As if on cue, Grasshopper found a second rail, just to the north of the reeds, in pickleweed. The bird also gave us astounding looks!

Lifer for Grasshopper and a San Mateo County lifer for me.



Christmas Birding: The Gift of Eagles

It is my Christmas Day tradition to wander down to the Central Valley to do some wintering waterfowl birding in the amazing Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, just north of the Sutter Buttes.

The weather forecast told of rain but that wasn’t going to turn me away from seeing the thousands of wintering waterfowl. Besides, the birds don’t mind the rain, they are covered in feathers after all.

I turned off Highway 99, heading west, at Live Oak. The houses soon became fewer and fewer as I made my way from small town to the rural farmlands on my way to Gray Lodge. In the fields bordering Almond Orchard Road I saw one of my expected species: sandhill crane. This is always an amazing bird, a “Birds of Heaven” as Peter Matthiessen called them.

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I soon turned into Gray Lodge and I looked out towards the Sutter Buttes and the expanse of water that contained hundreds, if not thousands, of ducks: mallard, American widgeon, pintail, cinnamon, blue-winged, and green-winged teal, bufflehead, gadwell, and northern shoveller. Greater white-fronted and snow geese filled the grey skies.

I started on the auto route. The majority of birding is done by car at Gray Lodge. Your car really becomes a moving blind or hide and as such, doesn’t seem to bother the birds too much.

One species that I always look forward to seeing at Gray Lodge is out National Bird, the bald eagle. These large raptors follow the wintering waterfowl and every time they lift off into the air, a mass of ducks and geese rises in their bow wake. I had seen a few far off eagles, perched in trees off to my right. I spotted a few immatures but as I neared them on the auto route, the eagles were jumpy and flew further off over the waters to a tree on the opposite point from where I was.

IMG_9134The unmistakable heft and upright posture of a bald eagle, in this a case an immature. This bird did not allow a close approach. An eagle takes five years to gain it’s iconic “outfit” that most people would recognize: white head and tail, yellow beak, and dark chocolate-brown body.

I came back to the start of the auto route and wanted to take another ride. As I neared one of the parking lots I saw an adult bald eagle flying to my left.


An iconic adult bald eagle flying to my left. Four northern pintails fly above, and probibly away from the large raptor.

The eagle turned towards me and then headed away and landed in the top of a tree with an immature eagle. I raced forward along the route, hoping that the adult would stay.


The adult landed and held it’s wings up as a group of American wigeons take to the air in all the excitement. The immature is to the lower right.

Eagle tree

As I moved toward the tree, which was just to the left of the road, the immature took off and headed off. Let’s hope the adult was not as jumpy. Every 20 yards of so, I would angle the car to the right to take a few photos through the driver’s side window.

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I finally stopped the car near the base of the tree. The adult was now about 40 yards away. The eagle surveyed the waters and presumably waterfowl, and I was able to enjoy the bird for about 5 minutes. Just as I reaching for my sketchbook and pen bag, the adult flew off across the waters, causing the ducks to lift up into the air and scatter. Now this was my kind of Christmas gift!

IMG_9282An adult bald eagle is distinctive, even as it’s flying away from you. It’s bright white tail is a beacon that tells you what you just missed!


This Year’s Snowmen

Every year, since 2007, I have created a winter themed linoleum cut print at this time of year. And for my twelfth print, it again was tough to start the process as inspiration does not always come when I want it to. I have done so many of the these snowman prints and I wondered what could I do that would be new and inspire me to take on the creative labor of making these prints?

I decided to think of the print as a self portrait. But not in the sense that would be very obvious. I guess it is really a manifestation of my philosophy on educating our youth put into a single image.

One of the most important parts of my job is to point out the wonder in the world. To be the curator of life, at least for 180 days. Of course it is not a California State Standard but when there is wonder around, you just have to point it out.

What has really inspired this print has been my autumn birding outings with my young acolyte, Grasshopper Sparrow and his recent finding of a rare brown booby over the bay waters at Coyote Point.

Spending time in the natural world with a young one that sees the wonder of the world is an experience that fills my soul and give me hope for a generation that spend too much time wrapped in technology and not enough time in nature.

An alternate version of the print would be the young snow-student pointing to a point of wonder and the larger, teacher raising his hands in awe at the wonder of youth and surprise. Both versions would be applicable to the humbling experience of teaching.

This is the first draft sketch of the print design. I did this during a lull at a staff meeting. It probably took me less than a minute to put my mind’s concept to paper because I already had the image fully formed in my mind’s eye.

A refined draft sketch which I used to draw the design on the linoleum block, in reverse of course. Here I am just started to carve out the block.

At this stage I have carved away all the material that I do not want to print black and the block is really starting to look like the image I had in mind. The next step is to charge the block with ink and make a proof print.

Fresh prints drying before I hand tint each one with watercolor. Each print is different and it takes time to learn to embrace the medium and recognize to let go of complete control of the printing process.


Brown Booby Surprise

It is an ecstatic experience when your student becomes the master. This happened on a late Sunday morning birding adventure.

I took young Grasshopper Sparrow out to Coyote Point Recreational Area to bird the bay and marsh. He needed to work on his life list and birding skills and this area of open marsh and bay in San Mateo County is as good as any place to hone your observation and identification skills.

There were many birds out on the exposed mudflats: sandpipers, snowy egrets, American avocets, black-belled plovers, whimbrels, and long-billed curlews. Beyond the flats on the San Francisco Bay were rafts of buffleheads, cormorants, western grebes, common goldeneyes, ruddy ducks, and surf scoters. A birding class, returning from the point, even informed us that the rare ongoing male harlequin duck was on the bay but had headed further out and might be hard to see.


There were many Gashawks in the air, including this massive A380 on final approach to SFO.

IMG_8467There also were many black-bellied plovers out foraging on the mudflats.

As we walked along the jetty to the east, Grasshopper was beginning to see some species for the first time. Out on the bay were surf scoter, common goldeneye, and American wigeon, all birds that were lifers. There where a few glaucous-winged gulls out on the sand spit which was a new gull for my acolyte. In the marina were horned grebe and least sandpiper.

Seeing these birds with Grasshopper, took me back to the time when many of these birds where new to me too. We all begin somewhere and at sometime and the avian world is as new as a summer, sunny morning.

We headed out to the point and scanned the bay waters for the local male harlequin duck. But the duck was out on sight but not out of mind. We then headed back to the marsh area where we watched green-winged teal, shoveller ducks, and a immature peregrine falcon perched on a power tower.

Grasshopper sat down and did a field sketch of the young peregrine on
the power tower while I watched an osprey circling above the bay. We
heard a sora’s “whinny” call from the reeds but the sulky rail didn’t
make an appearance.

We walked back to the parking lot and paused to look at an adult
red-shoulder hawk perched about 30 feet up a power tower. That is when
Grasshopper Sparrow looked south towards the bay and spotted an
unusual bird in the air. He called my attention to the long-winged
bird with a prominent dagger-like bill that was not a gull, pelican,
or cormorant.

“Brown booby!” Grasshopper exclaimed as he ran towards the shoreline
to get a better view.

I hurried over as fast as I could with my sketching bag, camera,
binoculars, and a scope and tripod slung over my shoulder, which turns
out not to be very fast at all. I joined Grasshopper on the shoreline
path and put my bins on the bird. Sure enough, there was a very rare
San Francisco Bay (and very rare for Northern California) bird
circling in front of us: an adult brown booby (Sula leucogaster)! I
took about ten photos to confirm its existence to the birding

Seeing this amazing seabird in flight was incredible but even more
amazing was that my young fledging birder companion first spotted and
identified a rare bird that he had never seen before in his life!

He was hoping to see this booby species on a Disney Cruise on the
western Coast of Mexico. He had seen this cruise as a “five day
pelagic instead of a cruise” and had studied this bird guides to note the field marks and behaviors of the brown booby, but alas, he did not
see the bird on the cruise; And in a location where you would most
expect it.

Instead, he found the booby away from its expected range, far to the north and not over the ocean but over bay waters. These surprises are the reason we leave the house with binoculars. We see the wonders of
the avian wonder, both the common residents and reacquainting ourselves with wintering visitors. But, we always dream of that unexpected surprise. That bird that just shouldn’t be. We live for
these surprises of the natural world. A bird can really turn up
anywhere. They do have wings after all.


200 Species

I am not a huge county birder, that is a birder who is obsessed with added as many species to certain counties within the state as possible. For me I set the modest goal of reaching 200 species in the counties that I bird the most: Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz.

In San Mateo, the county in which I work, I was sitting at 199 species. And I planned to make number 200 a rarity in the county. So I headed out with Grasshopper Sparrow on our third attempt to get the wintering male harlequin duck at the Coyote Point Recreation Area.

Unfortunately planning anything involving birds means that you have to be prepared to whiff out on your expectations. And so we did, for a third time, fail to find the harlequin, amid the water and surf scoters of San Francisco Bay.

So as a consolation, we headed over to the other side of the park to look through the flocks of grazing Canada geese for a few smaller cackling geese. This species was recently split and recognized as a separate species rather than a subspecies of Canada goose. This is one way in which your life list can grow but I did not have cackling in San Mateo County.

Grasshopper was easily able to pick out the five smaller geese with tiny bills and a white collar making it an Aleutian subspecies. San Mateo County bird number 200! We watched the cacklers grazing among the larger Canada geese, which provided a great contrast between the two species.


We birded the trees that border the field and in a pine, I was able to pick out a much sought after lifer for Grasshopper, the beautiful western warbler: Townsend’s warbler. This is a common winter warbler of the California coast but somehow this species had eluded us on our previous birding adventures.

We next went to Sawyer Camp Trail to finds some more county birds for me and lifers for Grasshopper. I added wood duck, wild turkey, acorn woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, golden-crowned kinglet, and varied thrush. I ended the day with 206 San Mateo County species!



Ben’s Bird in the City of St. Francis

A rainy afternoon is alway a great time to visit one of San Francisco’s museums. In this case I used my recently purchased membership to return to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

I brought my sketching kit and started to sketch an African penguin as it swam around before feeding time. This was a challenge because I did the sketch in small bits because the penguin did not hold still so I took mental snapshot while the bird was facing the right way and eventually pieced together a few penguins for a sketch.

Swimmiing Ass

I then went out of the African Hall to sketch something more stationary. A giraffe mount will do. It was amazing to read that the taxidermy giraffes were first put on display in 1934 at the old Steinhart Aquarium. Here was another connection with the past.


I next went into the Amazon exhibit and sketched one of the blue-and-yellow macaws. It was nice to have them perched for me to sketch but is was even better to see them free flying over the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil last summer! That beats a zoo or aquarium any day!

B and Y Macaw

I overheard one visitor ask the other if she had ever seen a macaw in Hawaii. If she did then that macaw would be very lost but she was referring to a pet that some street performer had as a means of loosening coins from tourists.

I went down to the aquarium and tried a sketch of California’s official marine fish, the garibaldi. This fish was in constant motion and it was hard to capture it’s essence. And the low light in the aquarium didn’t help. At the end I repeated my mantra to perfectionism, “It’s just a sketch.”

I headed over to the alligator exhibit, a direct link with the old aquarium, to look at the seahorse railings and the albino gator. That’s when I saw something very odd, just outside the window.

It was a large bird perched on a railing, almost condor sized and I though to myself, “Is this a new exhibit?” As I walked closer I realized that it was not a condor but a wild turkey.

Which reminds me of the time when I was birding on the Big Sur coast at Grimes Point. At that time, in one view, I had seven California condors in front of me, including a group that was sitting at the edge of the road. A German tourist came up and asked me if they were turkeys! Now how the table had turned! And how condor-like Ben Franklin’s favorite bird can appear.

Perched on the railing was probably one of the only wild turkeys in the county and city of San Francisco. This is listed as a rare bird in San Francisco and one had been seen in this area of Golden Gate Park. According to the staff this female had appeared just after Thanksgiving, nearly two years ago.

So the turkey perched calmly on the railing which gave me an opportunity to do a quick sketch of the bird from behind. (Featured Sketch)


Sandpiper of the Rocks

There was an over-wintering avian visitor from the far north spending its time on the rocks near the path way of Heron’s Head Park in the south eastern portion of San Francisco. I figured I better make way across the 6.2 miles of the city to see this sandpiper before it headed back up north.

Heron’s Head Park, named because it looks like a great blue heron’s head from the air, juts out into the San Francisco Bay just north of Hunter’s Point (the formal naval shipyard). The parks is a human made landscape that was once going to be an anchor point to a southern bay bridge that was never built. This area has been cleaned up by the Port of San Francisco and is now a 22 acre park that represents on of the few wetlands that still exists in the city and county of San Francisco.

So I figured I’d head east, across town, to see a rock sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis) before it really started to rain and before the bird relocated ahead of a December winter storm.

Like it’s name implies, a rock sandpiper, is found on rocks. And Heron’s Head Park provides many rocks for this sandpiper to forage and roost. Now I had to find the piper amongst the rock before the wind and rain made observation a struggle.

I head out on the path to the point noting the large numbers of double-crested cormorants flying from the north, joining a large raft of birds that was growing to the waters of the southwest.

As I headed out to the point, the surge was making whitewater on the southern side of the rock-levy. The first sandpipers I spotted was four least sandpipers on the southern side. This was a good sign because the the northern visitor was associating with least sandpipers. But the rock was nowhere to be seen.

I retraced my steps to the west and I spotted a spotted sandpiper bobbing on a rock to my right. This was a nice consolation.


I turned back to the east and out to the point for one last look for the rock sandpiper. That’s when I saw a larger peep slowly making its way over the rocks to the north. I didn’t need binoculars to identify this bird as I was able to stand right next to it. As Pete Dunne notes, “A tame bird that allows close approach. ”


The rock sandpiper in it’s desired habitat, rocks!


The Narwhal’s Tusk

It’s not every day that a narwhal tusk is mentioned in a news story. Perhaps a quirky piece of historical science writing about the tusk being sold for exorbitant prices as a rare unicorn horn in Victorian Times but rarely does this marine mammal get a mention in a major International News story. Let alone helping to fright crime.

That was until an incident in London, England on Friday November 29th (2019). There was terrorist attack near London Bridge, where an individual started stabbing people with a knife in the Fishmonger’s Hall. In the end, two people were killed and three others were injured. More might have been killed or injured if it hadn’t been for a 1.5 meter (~4 feet) narwhal tusk.

A quick thinking Polish employee of the Fishmonger’s Hall, took the tusk off a wall and confronted the attacker. Together with another bystander, armed with a fire extinguisher, they were able to subdue the attacker until police arrived and shot and killed the suspect.

This was such an odd mishmash of current events and Victorian Nature history and it left me feeling both dark and delighted. It is yet another example that truth really is stranger than fiction because if this was written in a piece of prose, the writer would be deemed hyperbolic or just insane. Who would believe such a story, it verges on magic realism!

It’s touching that this narwhal, in death, played a hand (well a tusk really) in helping to save lives. There is still magic in this old world.


Bald Eagles of Yuba County

One of my favorite winter birding destinations is in Yuba County, just off Highway 20, northeast of Marysville. The country roads of Woodruff, Mathews, and Kimball are great backwater roads to see the abundance of wintering waterfowl consisting of snow and greater white-fronted geese, tundra swans, white-faced ibis, and wintering raptors.

Tundra study

Study sketch of a tundra swan. The area around Highway 20 is one of the best places to see large numbers of this beautiful swan.

There is nothing in the natural world quite like seeing a sky full of snow geese. The sight and sounds fill the senses like few others experiences.IMG_7972

Thousands of snow geese erupt into the air near Kimball Lane.

The thousands of waterfowl that winter in the Central Valley also attracts a predator: the bald eagle. On Thanksgiving morning, in partly sunny and partly rainy weather I spotted an adult bald eagle perched in a field just to my left on Kimball Road. So I got out an took a few pictures, the eagle was jumpy and soon flew off across the road. This was a clean adult bird with pure white on it’s head and tail and chocolate-brown body feathers. This was a beautiful specimen of Haliaeetus leucocephalus.


Even a non-birder would be able to identify this large raptor.

IMG_8120I headed down Kimball Lane with a wintering wonderland of waterfowl on all sides and thousand of stretched out “V”s in the air. I came to the junction of Jack Slough Road and I turned right. As I headed down the road on this Thanksgiving morning I saw three wild turkeys off in a field to my left. I pulled over to get some photos, but the birds had disappeared into the brush. This was a good day to be skittish if you are a turkey! That’s when I saw my an immature bald eagle fly over. Then an adult appeared, soaring over the powerlines and then coming to rest in a field to the right.


This was another adult from the one I saw earlier. The white head feathers appeared more “dirty” round the eye.

The bald moved around some more before finally landing in the center of a field. The eagle walked around and appeared to be eating some sort of waterfowl that was hidden in the undulating rifts of the plowed but fallow field.

I figured the eagle was going to be here for a little while so I pulled out my sketching bag and did a field sketch (featured sketch). One issue I have had with sketching bald eagles from life is that I either make their head too big or their bright yellow beak too large. In this sketch, I made the beak a tad too long. Oh well, I learn something with every field sketch that will guide me when I make future field sketches.

AMKE study

Here is one of our smallest raptors, a male American kestrel, perched on a sign on Kimball Lane. It  has been said that if this falcon was the size of a bald eagle it would surely be our National Symbol.