The Record Plant

One of my many passions is music. To sketch something as ephemeral as music seems a daunting task. So I needed to find an anchor image.

There are many locations that are pilgrimage sites for music devotees. Many of these sites are in the Bay Area reflecting the flowering music scene stemming from the 1960’s

One of these Mecca’s of Music is on an unassuming side street in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco. It’s an odd building looking like it would not be out of place in a futuristic western or as massive palace built of driftwood on Stinson Beach. It really is an odd wooden facade for the amazing music that was created and recorded on the inside.

The recording studios are currently silent and has just been purchased by a new owner.

This is the Record Plant and many well know artists recorded albums here in the recording studios. These albums a few classics and one is monumental album.

The original Record Plant was founded in 1968 in New York City and it was soon followed by another studio in Los Angeles with the same name that was opened in 1969. The owners wanted another studio that was an oasis from the music scenes, and distractions, of New York and LA. One October 28, 1972 they opening the Record Plant in Sausalito, on 2200 Marinship Way, just a short distance where Otis Redding wrote” Sitt’in on the Dock of the Bay” on rock promoter Bill Graham’s houseboat in August of 1967.

What made the Record Plant studios different is that it provided a warm and comfortable space to create music. The studio even included a jacuzzi. Musicians stayed in houses in Sausalito or in nearby Mill Valley.

The side door of the Record Plant. How many legendary musicians have passed through this door? John Lennon and Yoko Ono attended the opening night party dressed as trees.

Many well known local Bay Area musicians recorded albums here including: New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, Marty Balin, the Doobie Brothers, Huey Lewis and the News (Sports), Jefferson Airplane, Journey, John Fogerty (Centerfield), Santana, and Metallica (Load and ReLoad).

Other notable artists from around the world also recorded albums here including: Bob Marley and the Whalers, America (the group ironically formed in Germany), Heart, Van Morrison, Jimmy Cliff, Price (he recorded his debut album For You here), John Lee Hooker, Whitney Houston (her self-titled debut album), Stevie Wonder (the amazing Songs in the Key of Life), Rick James (he recorded the song Super Freak here), Mariah Carey, and the Dave Mathews Band.

But the one album, that was recorded in Studio A in this redwood-sided studio, that stands out is Rumours by Fleetwood Mac (1977). This Grammy winning album has sold over 45 million copies worldwide and is the fifth largest selling album in American history. It includes the hits: “Dreams”, “Go Your Own Way”, “Don’t Stop”, “The Chain”, and “You Make Loving Fun.”

The album was largely recorded here from February to August 1976. This album was forged out of strife and drama. The bass and keyboard player, John and Christine McVie had recently been divorced, and the couple, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, were in the midsts of separation. Out of these tempestuous times in the odd wooden recording studio in Sausalito, came one of the best albums of the 1970s.

Music writer, Patrick McKay wrote of Rumours, “What distinguishes Rumours—what makes it art—is the contradiction between its cheerful surface and its anguished heart. Here is a radio-friendly record about anger, recrimination, and loss.”



At length did cross an Albatross, 
Thorough the fog it came; 
As if it had been a Christian soul, 
We hailed it in God’s name.

~The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Into each life some rain must fall, but too much is falling in mine.”

~Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots


Most people know the word. Some know that it is a bird. Fewer know that is is a bird of the sea. And even fewer have ever seen one in the wild.

I have seen albatross. But only two species, of the almost 21 species that ride just above the seas. They are a bird to behold. Long and thin, graceful wings that rarely flap as they soar on the ocean’s winds. A turkey vulture of the seas.

The most common albatross in the northeastern Pacific Ocean is the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes). It is uncommon to see Laysan albatross on an all day pelagic boat trip.

I had booked a pelagic trip out of Santa Cruz Harbor that was scheduled for August 30th. This trip was sponsored by the Santa Cruz Bird Club (founded in 1956) and was open to members only. The trip was limited to 18 birders because of the continuing pandemic. It sold out in a very short time.

This trip is a reconstituted version of a very popular “Albatross Trip” which was an annual pelagic trip first taken by the club in the 1950’s. As many as 60 club members would depart the Municipal Wharf in June on one of the Stagnero’s fishing boats. They headed out 12 miles to the rock cod fishing grounds and the bird on everyone’s wish list was black-footed albatross.

The albatross is the figurehead of the Santa Cruz Bird Club. Since the club’s inception in 1956, the newsletter is named “Albatross”. And the only way to see an albatross in Santa Cruz County is to get on a boat and head offshore. Most pelagic birding trips leave from Monterey and not Santa Cruz. So this Santa Cruz pelagic trip was a rare treat.

Albatross is a species I like to see at least once a year and I have never recorded a black-footed in Santa Cruz County waters and this pelagic trip was my chance! Along the way to the fishing grounds we also had a chance to pick up shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, skua, murrelets, Sabine’s gull, and Arctic tern.

An adult black-footed albatross seen on an August 17, 2018 pelagic trip off the coast of San Mateo.

And then came a fierce, dry electric storm on the morning of Sunday, August 16. I was at my cabin the Santa Cruz Mountains and I first heard the deep rumble of thunder at 3 AM. This was a rare treat in the Coastal Region of California: thunder and lighting. I walked out on my deck and reveled in the sights and sounds of the power of nature.

This treat came with a trick. Lighting struck the extremely dry earth many times and ignited a forest fire, that was named the CZU Lighting Complex. At the time of writing the fire has consumed 78,769 acres and had been burning for eight days. 330 structures had been destroyed, including the Big Basin State Park Visitor’s center and taken one human life. (There is no tally for the lives of trees, plants, and animals killed in the fire.)

So with distance learning starting during a global pandemic, and a fire slowly creeping towards the cabin that has been in my family for almost 80 years I was especially looking forward to the opportunity to escape to the sea and look at the marine life; the whales, dolphins, and pelagic birds (including the black-footed albatross).

But it was not meant to be as the trip was postponed because of the wildfire and the displacement caused by mandatory evacuations in Santa Cruz County.

But this gives me hope. The fire is now 17% contained and I look forward to heading out to sea with the Santa Cruz Bird Club to see our first albatross appear through the rolling waves!


Goldsworthy, Again

On a Saturday morning, Grasshopper Sparrow and I went down to Stanford University to do some urban sketching.

We parked near the Oval and headed towards the Center of Visual Arts. A red-tail hawk was very vocal from above and we soon found out why as a much larger golden eagle flew low over the museum, circling up on rising rounds and then disappearing to the south. This had to be a great sketching omen!

Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone River (2001) is a touchstone in my sketching world. As I have written before, a touchtone is subject that I return to again and again. Usually a touchstone is a building, a bird, or a piece of sculpture; something that is not going anywhere, anytime soon and can be sketched from different perspectives. This was my third time sketching this outdoor sculpture on the Stanford campus and I was excited to share the experience with Grasshopper!

Our sketches of Goldsworthy’s Stone River, resting on Mrs. Fayer’s lawn.

After about a 20 minute sketch I called up a fellow teacher from my school who lives on the Stanford campus. She was Grasshopper’s favorite 3rd grade teacher and rumor has it, that I was his favorite 4th grade teacher. She was home and invited us over. She happens to be one of my favorite people.

We walked through campus and had a lovely time in Mrs. Fayer’s backyard, from ten feet of course! To see the care and love Mrs. Fayer had for her former student was inspiring! This was no idle, simple conversation here. She challenged Grasshopper and asked about his hopes and dreams. When he answered, she dug deeper. It reminded me that all good teachers are also students that never stop learning; about their students or former students (there really is no difference) and life.

On Sunday I wanted to sketch another Goldsworthy touchstone in the Presidio. This was the wooden sculpture called Spire (2008). Goldsworthy has four pieces in the Presidio and I have sketched them all. The last time I sketched Spire was in December 2010.

I parked at Inspiration Point on Arguello Boulevard. I looked up at Spire against the gray summer skies of San Francisco and when I saw some of the trails barricaded off, I should have known something was wrong. Perhaps just another closed area during the ongoing pandemic.

It was a typical gray day in western San Francisco at this time of year, when colors are drained of vibrance and contrast is muted. Spire looked just the same as ever before. Then I noticed that the area around Spire was fenced off and people were milling about as if before some somber memorial. Not a spire then but a funeral pyre.

I found out from one of the visitors that Spire had been burned in an act of arson on the morning of June 23 (2020). It is unclear if this fire was part of the recent protests in the City or if it was set by illegal fireworks. At least the piece is still standing in a somewhat altered and charred state. Andy Goldsworthy, often the creator of ephemeral works, commented on the burning of Spire:

The burning of “Spire” goes too deep for my own words. Besides “Spire” has always spoken for itself and will perhaps now speak with an even greater eloquence after what has happen. If anything, its epitaph will be better written in the memories, thoughts and words of those who have lived with it over the past twelve years.

I would also add that it is also “written in the memories, though, words, and sketchbooks“. This response from the artist to what could be viewed as a tragedy is, well, very Goldworthian. His pieces are always subject to the elements and time, whether from the wind and rain or at the hands of an arsonist.

Vistors stand in silence, looking up at the burnt remains of Spire. The sculpture was still standing!

Black Swift

Birding is a form of maddness.

It can make us wake at ungodly hours, spend ten hours in an ocean going fishing boat, or drive hours to search for a rarity! All for adding birds to a list or seeing a species for the first time.

This evening I was driven to hike a mile through fields and farmhouse to stand at the edge of the ocean, my face to the wind (a small sacrifice I know). I was standing above the sea caves at Sand Hill Bluff, about five miles from the city limits of Santa Cruz.

The caves are used as a nesting and roosting site for a Santa Cruz County target bird: the black swift (Cypseloides niger).

The black swift is our largest swift and is not often seen because it forages for insects high up in the air column, sometimes as high as 10,000 feet. They live much of their life on the wing, including copulating on the wing. But they return to terra firma to roost and nest. They have a limited distribution in North America, hugging the western side of the continent. Sadly, the black swift population has diminished by 90% since 1970.

I arrived on the bluff at 6:30. The black swifts seemed to be returning to roost just before sunset, which was going to be at 8:10, so I had a little time to wait.

I reflected on the fact that there is so much that is unknown about the black swift. It’s nest was left undiscovered until 1901 when a swift nest was found on the cliffs near Santa Cruz.

After reflecting I set up my sketching stool and sketched the cliffs looking west (featured sketch). Western gulls and Brandt’s cormorants where roosting on the rocks and off shore a steady line of sooty shearwaters where heading west. I estimated that there might be 2,000 shearwaters in this flock. Closer in, there where four sea otter foraging in the kelp beds.

At about seven I was joined by another madman, err, I mean birder. He had come from Sacramento to see the appearance of the black swift. It is always great to have a second set of eyes. In the past the swifts appear for a short time before flying into the sea caves to roost.

At about 7:30 I noticed an uptick in bird movement. The movement of westward sooty shearwaters had diminished and disappeared. The always vocal Caspian terns were heading east to their roost sites and long lines of “checkmark” formations of brown pelicans were flying low over the water heading west. I was waiting with anticipation as I scanned the skies for the arrival of the black swifts. Nothing yet.

At 7:55 PM, the Sacramento birder alerted me of the presence of a lone swift that disappear into a sea cave. I missed it. This was followed quickly by two other swifts that flew just east of the bluff and stayed in sight for about four minutes. County lifer 210!


The Search for the American Dipper or Dipping On Dipper

Once, perhaps 35 years ago, I saw an American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) flying downstream on the San Lorenzo River, between Middle and Sandy Beach in Paradise Park. What an amazing sighting. The bird of John Muir, the aquatic songbird of clear, turbulent mountain streams was on the San Lorenzo!

At the time I did not keep records so I don’t know the month or year of the sighting but since that time I have been looking to find another dipper on the river. This bird is an indicator species for the health of a river. Dippers are considered a rare bird in Santa Cruz County but there was suitable habitat upriver in Henry Cowell State Park that look promising. Large granite boulders, turbulent river water. This is where a dipper should be, I reckoned.

I first checked the location of my first sighting on the San Lorenzo on the turbulent turn in the river between Sandy and Middle Beach. This rocky bend looked like good habitat for dipper and I walked up river, checking river rocks for the tell tale signs of whitewash, bird poop. There was some but this could be from a black phoebe. I did not see a dipper here.

On another day I next searched Rincon Gorge upstream from Paradise Park. Dipper had been reported here in May 1988 and again in May 2009 where a nest with young was seen. That was a long time ago and there were no current reports on eBird. So I searched and I again dipped on dipper.

Now it was time for a bigger expedition on the San Lorenzo, to explore some of the best stretches of river between Coon Gulch and Garden of Eden Beach in Henry Cowell State Park. This effort would require traversing down to the river from the railroad tracks on what only could be called a mountain goat path and then hiking up and often in, the San Lorenzo, towards Garden of Eden.

I parked on Highway 9 and headed down the Ox Fire Road towards the railroad and Garden of Eden. When I was halfway down the trail I heard the primeval calls of our largest woodpecker: the pileated. On a Douglas-fir snag, about 100 yards from the railroad, I spotted a family group of four pileated woodpeckers! Either this was a good omen for my dipper search or a great consolation for dipping.

After leaving the pileated family I headed downstream on the railroad and took the trail down to the popular beach, Garden of Eden. Perhaps this beach should be renamed Garden of Trash. I was appalled at the amount of cans and bottles, random clothes and towels, and toilet paper. Beachgoers clearly ignored the “Pack Out Your Trash” signs.

The amount of discarded cans and bottles along the banks of the San Lorenzo was truly disgusting!

I headed upstream from Garden of Eden to check the granite boulders for dipper. I was further appalled at all the graffiti on rocks and logs. It seemed far from the favored pristine rivers that the dipper preferred. And I did not find any dippers upstream from Garden of Eden.

What makes someone come to the San Lorenzo and spray paint a rock, I will never know! No wonder I didn’t find dipper on this stretch of the river.

When I returned to the main beach a young man was wiping graffitti off a sign post that no longer contained a sign. I’m sure the sign said, “Don’t Litter” or “Respect The Trees, Dippers, and Rocks!” or “Save the Painting For Sketchbooks and Canvas!” Turns out he was an interpretive ranger from Henry Cowell State Park who comes to Garden of Eden, before his shift, to clean up the beach. I asked about beach clean-ups and he told me that when litter is removed, there is more to replace it on the following days. Shameful!!

I returned to the railroad and hiked downstream towards Coon Gulch. I paused at the osprey nest where both adults were perched near the nest, indicating that there might be chicks hidden in the deep nest.

A view of the osprey nest and the two adults from below on the banks of the San Lorenzo. I did a brush-pen sketch of the nest on my journal.

I then headed down the steep mountain goat trail towards the river (this seemed so much easier 30 years ago). The final pitches of the trail had rope tried to trees to aid in the descent. This was a far less accessible part of the river and is not visited as much and seemed a little more “pristine” then upriver.

I traded my hiking boots for river sandals, made sure everything was secure in my dry bag, and I grabbed a hiking stick and headed upstream.

This, to me, is the most scenic and “wild” stretch of the river. The stream bed was lined in large granite boulders, perfect foraging perches for the American dipper.

Heading upstream on a beautiful stretch of the river, between Coon Gulch and Garden of Eden. If there was any place on the San Lorenzo that contained dipper, I reckoned this was it.

Progress was slow going as I was hiking in the river, reminiscent of The Narrows in Zion National Park. I had to pick my path through the large boulders often crossing and recrossing the river bed to find the path of least resistance. A bonus was finding a Pacific wren nest built under a fallen Doulas-fir tree that spanned the river.

The river veered to the right and I was in the stretch of river that when viewed from Highway 9 is known as Inspiration Point. I needed some avian inspiration at this point!

The river hike was an adventure in itself but the closer I came to Garden of Eden, I knew the the chances of seeing American dipper on this stretch was diminished. The habitat seemed right but the pollution and semi-turbid waters of the San Lorenzo did not look like the pristine mountain stream that the dipper require.

I have made the journey with no mishaps or injury and as I came in sight of Garden of Eden, which was now full of family groups, I took this time to slip and fall. It’s always good to have an audience. And as Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” And so I recovered and stood up again only to see that no one noticed.