DIY Suet Polefeeder

In the afternoon after school, I decided to do a little wood working and create my owe suet feeder, in hopes of luring in the local pileated woodpeckers, (although an acorn or a hairy woodpecker would be nice too) to partake in a little suet.

First I needed wood (easy to find in the woods), and a fully charged Makita with a 3/4 inch spade drill bit. Done and done!

Laying in the corner of my cabin was a two foot length of wooden pole. Looks like I didn’t have to go to the woods to find wood after all. Not sure what my dad bought this for and what purpose it originally served, but now it was to find it’s second life as a bird feeder.

I first drilled a hole through the top of the pole in order to put some rope to hang the feeder. I then drilled five holes, about one inch in depth, at 90 degrees from each other, along the length of the pole.

Now came the really messy part: I stuffed the holes with suet. Suet is like the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hand, impossible to wash off. “Out, damned suet! out, I say!” Once I had plugged the holes with bird candy, I hung it up and now it was a matter of waiting. Which would be the first customer? My heart said, “Chestnut-backed chickadee” but my head said, “Steller’s jay”.

A fully loaded suet feeder, waiting for customers.

It’s turns out that chestnut-backed chickadee was the first visitor to the feeder, followed closely by Steller’s jay.

And at the time of writing, the elusive pileated woodpecker (or any woodpecker for that matter) has used the suet feeder. Oh well, the best laid plans. . .


Nature Loafing

“Adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

With the rest of the school year relegated to distant learning, I decided to spend the remainder of the last trimester at my cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

This was an easy decision because I could be in a place that I love and also have access to everything I needed in my digital classroom to stay connected with my students, parents, and coworkers. In the wooded hills I could really stretch out and breath fresh air while experiencing the world coming alive as Spring was upon us in the San Lorenzo River Watershed.

The calls of Wilson’s warbler, California towhee, and song sparrow was the soundtrack to my mornings and the hoot of the great horned owl dueting across the valley was my evensong.

There is also much more elbow room in Santa Cruz County. A comparison of the population and area of Santa Cruz and San Francisco Counties is telling. The 2019 population of Santa Cruz County is 273,213 compared to 881,549 in San Francisco. The City and County of San Francisco is much smaller, it being hemmed in on three sides by water. The City is 231 square miles compared to the expansive 607 square miles of Santa Cruz County.

It also gave me a opportunity to do one of my favorite activities: nature-loafing. I define nature-loafing as being in nature and actively doing nothing. This definition really captures the oxymoronic nature of this non-pursuit. No agenda, no plan, just being there and being in the moment. All the stress and strain of sheltering in place and distant learning just drains out of me and flows downstream to the Pacific.

Of course I never just nature-loaf because I am also nature sketching at the same time. Like the feature sketch for this post of my hammock-view with my feet pointed upstream and my head downstream.

One of my favorite places to nature-loaf is on the banks of the San Lorenzo and one of my favorite actives is Power Hammocking.

Near Rocky Beach are two alders that are lined up parallel to the course of the river. They are about 15 feet apart and demand that a hammock be strung between; a perfect nature-loafing platform!

My nature loafing stage with the San Lorenzo River on the right.

Powder Works Covered Bridge

Many think of New England as being associated with covered bridges. I certainly saw many during my fall trip when I was in New Hampshire. But there has been a west coast covered bridge in my life for as long as I can remember.

This is the Powder Works Covered Bridge, which was built in 1872. This bridge was built across the San Lorenzo River (the largest river in Santa Cruz County). The bridge was built by the California Powder Works in the site of the plant that produced black power. The plant operated for 50 years but as the population of Santa Cruz increased combined by the decreasing need for black powder the plant was closed down for good in 1914.

When the original bridge over the river washed out in 1871, the Powder Works Superintendent hired the Pacific Bridge Company (in Oakland) to build a new covered bridge. The bridge was constructed in 71 days, at a cost of $5,250.

Above the fireplace of my family cabin, hangs a 1960 oil painting by my great aunt Marjorie Close. This is probably one of the best paintings ever done of the Powder Works Covered Bridge. And I’ve always looked at it with wonder what it’s amazing thick strokes applied with a pallet knife.

My grand aunt was born in a mining town in Arizona on November 11, 1899. She moved to San Francisco and was trained as an artist at UC Berkley and the Art Institute of Chicago. She was known for her still life work as well as a prominent jeweler and furniture designer.

I have painted this bridge before. One sketch of the bridge was from roughly the same position as my great aunt’s painting. For my new sketch, I wanted a different perspective.

A 2013 sketch of the bridge. I used a limited monotoned color palette for this sketch.

I headed upstream to Rocky Beach, just upriver from the bridge. I found a spot on the beach and I looked downstream to the span. There was lot of trees and vegetation in my view. I did not go for realism when sketching in the flora, instead I wanted to sketch in the form and shapes that leads the eyes downstream to the bridge. So I embraced the form instead of each individual leaf.

I also took a minimalist approach to painting the sketch and keeping it loose was my objective. I left much of the drawing unpainted and I kept my paint palette to a few colors. It is a sketch after all!


Cabin Birds (Earth Day 2020)

My love of birds was born by spending time at my family’s cabin above the backs of the San Lorenzo River in the Santa Cruz Mountains. My grandma put up a feeder on one corner of the deck that attracted the local chestnut-backed chickadees, pygmy nuthatches, and Steller’s jays.

While I was planning to spend my Spring Break traveling on the California Zephyr to Chicago, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the works (and changes the lives of others across the world). Instead I headed down to my cabin to shelter in place.

The spring is one of my favorite times at my cabin. Things are finally starting to dry out and temps are gradually warming up. You really start to feel, see and hear the changing of the seasons.

First you feel the air warm against your skin. You start to see the world of green slowly coming alive on the trees and bushes from the desk. And you start to hear the sounds of the neotropic migrants arriving on there summer breeding grounds.

These are the birdsongs that I have not heard in almost a year and I sometimes have to become reacquainted with them, like hearing the voice of a forgotten friend.

The most vocal newly arrived avian member is the diminutive Wilson’s warbler. This little flash of gold is a very vocal member of the spring choir. It calls constantly from the midsts of trees out back. The males at this time of year are setting up their breeding territories and also hoping to attract new-arrived females.

Another migrant is the Pacific-slope flycatcher, of the tricky genus Empidonax. Most of these similar flycatchers can be identified by call alone and I far more ofter hear the “pee-wheet” call of the Pac-slope. Welcome home.

A resident that becomes very vocal at this time is the diminutive Pacific wren, which boasts one of the fastest songs in the avian world at about 32 notes per second! What is amazing is that such a small, drab looking bird can create such a loud and splendid song. I painted a wren from a photograph of a singing male in my backyard bramble.

A pair of common mergansers roosting near the waters of the San Lorenzo River.

Paradise Park

With the current pandemic and the shelter in place order, I chose to shelter in Paradise during my Spring Break. My family cabin is in Paradise Park, just up Highway 9 from downtown Santa Cruz.

Here I have more legroom than my digs in San Francisco and the population density here is far less than the 7 by 7 mile County and City of Saint Francis. Another factor was that San Francisco had almost 1,000 Covid-19 cases and the larger (by size) County of Santa Cruz had just 90 (at the time of writing). This seemed like a no brainer! Head to Santa Cruz for my two week Spring Break.

This move allows me to spread out, breath fresh air, and be amongst the redwoods and river. It also gives me a very familiar patch to sketch from. Here I know all the birdsongs and paths, all the secluded river beaches, and the places of solitude and rest. And I certainly needed both after three weeks of distant teaching.

Some of my favorite sketching locations in the Park are my redwood deck and different locations on the San Lorenzo River, certainly the most important landform that runs through the Park. A beach that I have always loved both as a place of repose and sketching is what is known in my own person geography as Corona Beach (this was named long before the infamous virus).

To get to Corona Beach involves heading up stream with some bush whacking, fording the San Lorenzo (which was trying to take my feet from under me), and then a little more bush whacking to arrive at a small, sloped river beach. Today it was occupied by a young couple, so I headed up stream (social distancing, dontcha know) and arrived at Upper Corona Beach. A smaller bit of sand on the river side. This is clearly a feral beach, wild, rugged, and something Mary Oliver might write a poem about. Well Mary is no longer with us so I guess I will have to give it a go. . . . a poem hasen’t blessed my brain at the moment (the trouble with poetry) so I did a sketch instead (featured sketch).

I also like to be in open air and sketch the green treescape of the view. This was a excise in creating depth in a sketch. In this desk sketch I included a poem:

With distance,

Objects fade,

Colors run cool,

Details become form,

Like the time,

ten years ago,

My father told me


Which I want

to remember.

With this deck sketch I tried to work with creating depth with warm and cool colors and tone. I also worked on my brush work to create the treescape.
Roof view of my cabin surrounded by big-leaf maple, douglas-fir and redwood. The redwoods on right contains Bird Box #2 (the redwood on the left). More on the box in a later post.

Cabin Birds Part Two (Audubon’s Birthday)

“Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm.” —John Muir

“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”. -Mary Oliver

Spending two weeks during my Spring Break at my cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains gave me the opportunity to slow down and notice the most important things in life. That is life itself. (A nod to you Mr. Ebert)

Birding just adds another layer to experience. It is a soundtrack that not many hear. To those aware, the signs of spring are everywhere. To the calls of the Pacific wren and dark-eyed junco to the sounds of the newly arrived neotropic migrants like Wilson’s warbler, Pacific-slope flycatcher, and black-headed grosbeak. The latter bird I heard on my last day at my cabin, when I heard a district “clip” contact call. I headed out to the deck to see this beautiful flash of orange, back, and white.

This was a First of Season (FOS) bird for me. The males arrive on their breeding grounds from Mexico just ahead of the females and the males proclaim their place in the world with their robin-like song. This has always been a favorite cabin bird and it arrives in mid April most years.

The sky above the San Lorenzo River is filled with newly arrived swallows at this time of year. The most common species are tree and violet-green swallows. Swallows are insectivores and are aerial acrobats that catch flying insects on the wing. Like the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano, swallows are a sign of renewed and the turning of the season from winter to spring.

The aerial insectivore, one of North America’s most beautiful swallow.

Just as I was packing up the car to return to San Fransisco, the natural world gave me a parting gift. I noticed that a pair of chestnut-backed chickadees were cleaning out one of the nesting boxes that I had built and hung on a redwood near the parking lot. This gives me such a sense of joy that I have played a small part in helping to create life.

The two weeks I spent in Paradise was a great was to slow down and really appreciate life.


End of the Line: Davenport

In these times of social isolation, I headed north out of Santa Cruz on Highway One. My destination was the small town of Davenport.

A branch line runs from the coast mainline at Watsonville Junction to Santa Cruz, north along the coast to the Davenport Cement Plant. The plant was built in 1907 by the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company. This cement plant became one of the largest producers of cement. At the height of it’s production, during World War II, the plant shipped out 700,000 barrel of cement a year. Cement from this plant helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire and also supplied cement for such major construction projects as Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal.

The cement plant was later acquired in 2005 by Mexico’s CEMEX. The plant was closed for good, in 2010 and now the rails stand rusted, overgrown and the end of the line disappears into vegetation.

The Davenport railroad to nowhere sums up the plight of America’s railroads. At it’s height, in 1916, the United States Railroad network consisted of 254,000 miles of track, the largest rail network in the world. From 1916 to the present day, 160,000 miles of track have been closed down and abandoned. The current rail network stands at about 94,000 miles of trackage.

Railroad companies saw passenger service as a losing hand, as trains were competing with the automobile and the increasing use of passenger air travel. The railroads were in dire straights in the 1960’s and passenger service was saved by the creation of AMTRAK in 1971 (the year of my birth). This service is a government subsidized and controlled service which now serves an average of 30 million passengers annually.

Railroads companies still exist to this day but they earn their profits from freight and not passenger service. They keep America moving and most Americans are unaware both of their legacy in creating the United States and there present impact in moving goods around the county. As Christian Wolmar notes in his excellent book, The Great Railroad Revolution, “America needs to relearn the joys of railroads that have served them so well in the past and, indeed, continue to do so today, albeit invisibly.”

The American railroad stands at a crossroads as the plight of high speed rail in California seems like a far off dream.


Art of Rain

Simplicity is not a simple thing. ― Charles Chaplin

I have always wanted to paint with rain. A cloistered spring break at my cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with rain in the forecast, provided the opportunity.

All I had to do is create the stage and let nature do the rest. I love to think of this as a collaboration with something I can’t control. Which really sums up the medium of watercolor. It is a medium that often controls you. If you work in this medium, you have to accept the unacceptable!

In the past I have painted in drizzle and have loved the added texture which can be unpredictable. The last time I was on my school’s campus, before we were relegated to distance teaching, I painted the scene from my recess duty view. There was a light drizzle that specked the wash which really became an added memory of the time and place. This sketch was posted in my “Distance Learning” post.

This time I wanted to work with purpose. This meant that the process was not just left to pure happenstance. I had to plan and be prepared to capture spontaneity. Pure oxymoronic painting.

With the first few sprinkles hitting the deck, I used drafting tape to create a border on a Fluid 8 x 8 inch, 140 lb watercolor block. I laid in a thick wash of indigo. I walked out to the deck and exposed the still-wet-wash to the elements. Now the wet elements do her magic.

Setting the stage: a wash of indigo framed in with drafting tape. I held the paper to the skies and let the rain do the work.

When I look at this simple painting I’m amazed at its brilliance. And I say that without any ego because I had very little to do with the creation of this piece of art. And for me that’s why it is amazing and transcendent because it deals with the force that is beyond my control yet creates something absolutely sublime.

The painting grew into it’s finished state as the paint slowly dried. And the finished painting is something I could have never envisioned. It surprised and delighted me!

This experience has taught me that sometimes you just need to get out of the way! Let nature do the work, like she always does.

And to my artist friends out there. Go and make your own expressions and let Mother Nature be your guide! She is a great teacher!


Riding West, Facing East

On the verge of comprehending that I may never see my students again this school year, I headed out toward Ocean Beach down Moraga Street.

The day was clear but extremely breezy. It normally takes 25 minutes to reach the sands of the Pacific but somehow, with my heavy mood and the western wind pushing again me, I think it really took 30 minutes.

I had done two recent sketches, facing west, looking out to the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the Farallon Islands and container ships on the horizon.

Instead of doing that view, I turn 180 degree from whence I came and wanted to sketch Moraga Street, climbing up to Grandview Park and Sutro Tower.

This street (as all east/ west streets in the Richmond and Sunset Districts) is named after Spanish Explorer. José Joaquín Moraga  was part of the De Anza expedition force that came from Arizona to present day San Francisco in 1776. He stayed behind and helped to found the Presidio. In 1785, he died in San Francisco and is buried at Mission San Francisco de Asís (MissionDolores) which is the oldest structure in San Francisco.

Much of what I was drawing in the Outer Sunset was developed Post World War II, in the 1950s. In fact my day told me stories of coming out into this area when he was a child and playing amongst the sand dunes.

This was the second time I had sketched Sutro Tower on one of my “sanity walks”. It is the most prominent landmark on this side of town. The television tower was constructed in 1973 and at 977 feet, it was the tallest structure in San Francisco (Sutro has now been surpassed in height by the Salesforce Tower at 1,070 feet).

I plopped down behind a dune, on my Crazy Creek chair, and started to sketch. I tried to keep everything loose and not add too many details (sometimes I think I should have put the pen up five minutes earlier). I uses a lot of artist shorthand when sketching in the rows and rows of houses leading up the hill.