Nature Notes

Being out in nature, whether I am birding, hiking, or simply nature loafing, always rewards the observant sketcher. I notice interesting behaviors from common species, which I have never seen before.

On a recent “big loop” hike in Fall Creek State Park, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I decided to created a few pages based on field notes from observations in the park.

I hiked up the Fall Creek Trail and then headed up to the ridge on the Big Ben Trail and then skirted the edge of the Fall Creek watershed on the Truck and Ridge Trails and then looped back to the trailhead.

I made three observations on my six mile hike that I wanted to illustrate: a singing Pacific wren, a western grey squirrel climbing up a Douglas-fir, and two observations of North America’s largest woodpecker: the pileated woodpecker.

I made my sketches once back at the cabin and I used the Grinnell Method as a guide for my notes. The Grinnell Method was created by Berkeley Field Biologist Joseph Grinnell as a way to make precise notes about species behavior.

As I was headed down the Truck Trail (named I assume, because you could drive a truck on this wide fire road) I noted a western gray squirrel on the ground off to my left. When it saw me, it does what most arboreal squirrels do: head to the nearest tree. In this case it was a Douglas-fir. I noted that he squirrel did not head straight up the tree. Instead it corkscrewed up the bole at a 45 degree angle, keeping the tree between itself and the threat (me). It appeared on a short branch about 20 to 25 feet above the ground and observed the observer.

Now this squirrel is common species in Redwood/Douglas-fir forests but because I was present and open to nature, I wondered why this behavior benefits the squirrel. Was this a latent response to hunting? How would the squirrel react if the threat came from above, like a red-tailed hawk or great horned owl? I may not have any answers but it always pays to question nature because the answer always make sense, even if we cannot quite figure them out.

The Truck Trail turns to the left and the Ridge Trail begins. About 0.5 of a mile down the trail I heard a must sought after bird. I heard the raucous almost prehistoric call of the pileated woodpecker. I got a brief look of the crow-sized woodpecker as it flew south down the tail.

Further down the trail I had an even better sighting. Another pileated flew to a Douglas-fir snag near the trail. The male stayed at the top of the snag and started drumming. Woodpeckers drum as a way to communicate with other woodpeckers as a way to proclaim territory and also to attract a mate. The pileated’s drum is powerful and loud. The male’s drumming was answered by the drum of another, presumedly the other pileated I had seen further up the trail.

These two sketches where not done in the field. The sketch on the left was from memory and the portrait of the pileated is from a Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Birds (1941).

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