A Sketcher’s Prep

Before any great journey, I do some sketcher’s prep.

In this case, the featured sketch, is a spread about my Colorado birding wishlist featuring such birds as scaled quail, sharp-tailed grouse, American three-toed woodpecker, and white-tailed ptarmigan. I did quick thumbnail sketches of each species, in other words, you would never use this spread as an identification guide.

While these sketches are no where near David Allen Sibley standards, they help me to see each bird better. To sketch from a photo requires close attention, once when the sketch is penciled in, then when it’s inked and finally a third time when the image in painted.

I also wanted to use a new travel palette for Colorado and I documented it’s creation in another spread.

I first sketched out the layout of my new palette in my landscape Delta Stillman & Birn softcover sketchbook. As I added each color to the wells of the palette I painted it in and added a swath on the opposite page. This will provide a good reference of what the colors look like on the heavy weight Delta paper.

I love using Stillman & Birn sketchbooks and I love the feel of a panoramic, landscape format but I dislike the fact that this book is not made in hard cover but softcover only. It does not provide a solid sketching surface to paint on. I will see how this book holds up on this trip.

I also carry a small notebook that help me prep before a trip. I writing down my itinerary, addresses, lodging information, any travel notes, random poems, target life birds, and a targeted sketch list.


Post 400: A Zephyr Deferred

Zephyr: (n) a gentle wind from the west.

Last spring break I booked a roomette on the California Zephyr, a 2,438 mile journey from Emeryville, Ca to Chicago, Il. This route passes through such cities as Sacramento, Truckee, Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, and Chicago. It is one of the most scenic routes on the AMTRAK network.

Last spring I was going to travel the entire route but then Covid 19 happened and I had to cancel the trip. I knew that this rail dream was deferred and at first chance I would rebook this trip because I have always wanted to travel by rail through the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains.

The opportunity came in spring break of 2021. Instead of traveling the whole route, I booked a round trip with a roomette from Colfax, Ca (near my mom’s house) to Denver, Co. This stretch includes the most scenic parts of the route and Denver provides it’s own destinations.

On this trip, I plan to do many quick sketches of train views along the route. At California Arts Supply in San Mateo, I got a custom Ronquad which is a 4 by 6 piece of card stock that would be a template for framing each sketch. I used my Ronquad on the featured sketch.

But why Denver and not Chicago? Both cities provide great sketching opportunities but Denver has an edge over Chicago: life birds! I had a few ABA lifers on my list: scaled quail, dusky grouse, American three-toed woodpecker, brown-capped and black rosy-finch, sharp-tail grouse, and the much sought after white-tailed ptarmigan. And while Chicago offers lots of architecture sketching opportunities, Denver has that too but also beautiful landscapes.

The Zephyr stops at the historic Union Station in downtown Denver and I booked a “Pullman” room in the hotel at the station, the Crawford Hotel. I admit this is a bit a splurge but I love the idea of stepping off the train in the evening, after a two day trip, and walking a short distance to my room in Union Station. It seems a throwback to a different era. An era when more people travelled by rail, when the airline industry was in it’s infancy.

As I do before any trip, I do a few sketches to build knowledge and excitement. The featured sketch is from the AMTRAK website for the California Zephyr. This location looks to be somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. I also like to do a map of my future journey. In this case, Train 6, from Colfax to Denver with all the stops in between.

California Zephyr map showing all the stops from Colfax, Ca to Denver, Co.


Waddell Beach: Black Scoters and an Elephant Seal

I had a nice Santa Cruz County After-Work-Lifer (AWL) as I just crossed into Santa Cruz County on Highway 1.

A pair of black scoters had been reported just north from the dirt parking lot at Waddell Beach.

Three scoters are found on the California Coast in winter: surf, white-winged, and black. The most numerous is the the surf scoter. There were about fifty (probably many more) riding the waves or diving under them, off the sands of Waddell Beach.

Black scoter is the least common off the Santa Cruz County coast. Luckily for birders, it is the easiest to identify. Both the male and female are distinctive. The black has a rounded head where as the surf and white-winged scoter have a flatten head as if they were hit on the head with a frying pan!

The male black scoter, like it’s name implies, is all black. It’s head is rounded and it’s orange “golf ball” at the bases of it’s bill is a beacon that yells out, “Black Scoter!!”
The female also has a rounded head and a dark cap that contrasts with a lighter checks and neck.

I returned to Waddell Beach on Saturday morning to look through the gull flock at the Waddell Creekmouth. I was hopping to see a kittiwake or the rare lesser black-backed gull that had recently been reported. I saw neither.

What I did find, foraging in the near shore of Waddell Creek, was a long-billed dowitcher. Turns out that this is a new county shorebird for my list!I always love these shorts of birding surprises!

I did want to look for the black scoters again and try to get a few photos of the continuing sea ducks in good morning light. They obliged as the rode the tide about 40 yards from the parking lot. I was able to photograph the two together and separately as they associated with the surf scoters.

On Sunday morning, I headed back to Waddell Beach. The creek provides a large public gull bath along the coast and this area has produced much sought after gulls as black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull, Bonaparte’s and, just once, an adult lesser black-backed gull! Gulls congregate here to wash in the fresh water and you are more likely to see a larger number of gulls at this early hour before the beach crowds arrive.

On Sunday morning all I recorded was California, western, mew, herring, and four Heerman’s gulls. Nothing too out of the ordinary. It did give me practice at sorting through gulls which can be notoriously tough to identify.

On my way back to the parking lot I refound the two black scoters in even better morning light. The two photos included in this post were taken on Sunday morning.

When I returned to my car I looked down at the beach and about 20 feet away was large 12 to 15 foot bull elephant seal resting on the sands. How had I missed such a large beast?

I had come here to see a county life bird. Instead I found a county life pinniped!

The view from the parking lot. Seems so hard to miss.
Here is my car to provide some scale.
This young male northern elephant seal looks like he has been in a few scuffles by the number of scars on his body. He is defiantly the beach master of this beach.

Del Puerto Canyon and the Canyon Wren

After enjoying brief but distinctive views of the Bell’s sparrow we headed south on Mines Road towards The Junction.

The Junction is the junction of three roads: Mines, San Antonio Valley, and Del Puerto Canyon Roads. At the corner is a store which is popular with cyclists (both ped and motor) and birders.

We continued on to San Antonio Valley Road. The open oak grassland is a great place to look for Lewis’s woodpecker. I have seen this woodpecker at this location on a few other trips but today was not our day so we turned back and headed northeast on Del Puerto Road.

When headed into Stanislaus County on Del Puerto Canyon Road, I only think of seeing and hearing one bird: the canyon wren.

Hearing the spiraling song of the canyon wren is one of those emblematic sounds that is often used in nature documentaries, television shows, and feature films. Along with the primal scream of the red-tailed hawk, the canyon wren’s song is often used to represent desolate desert wilderness. Think: broken down car on a one lane desert road, miles from nowhere, cue the canyon wren.

Del Puerto Canyon looks very different form the time that I had last visited. A wildfire, the SCU lighting complex, burned in five counties for 44 days from August to October in 2020. The fire consumed 369,624 acres. We may never know how this affects the local animal populations and also how this might affect the future avian migrants like the western kingbird, ash-throated flycatcher, and Bullock’s oriole.

There are many arid rocky canyons and steep hillsides along the 25 mile road that is perfect habitat for the rock loving canyon wren.

Canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus) is at home on rock as most birds are on limb. This is a small rufous and white-throated wren with a white-flecked back, ending in a short, thinly banded tail. The canyon wren forages on rocks and crevices, exploring rock for insects and other morsels. Pete Dunne describes the wren this way, “Movements often have a theatrical air. The bird pauses before a jump, as if posing”.

We stopped at any habitat that looked good. I played it’s contact call, as well as it’s cinematic song that Dunne describes as “heart-gladdening tumble of notes”. We did not get a response. We tried at a handful of inviting habitats. Nothing.

At our fifth stop, just west from where as the Del Puerto Creek passes under the Del Puerto Canyon Road, we stopped for another attempt. In the past, this location has been reliable for canyon wren.

Within a minute I heard a contact call of a canyon wren from across the road. Now the tough part was locating the rufous gem. Because their call is so loud, judging distance can be a bit challenging. The contact call stopped and the canyon wren erupted into it’s signature song. Now we only had to get bins on this Del Puerto Canyon classic!

Young eyes have an edge over aging eyes and Grasshopper Sparrow spotted the canyon wren on the near bank, perched on a rock (of course), singing it’s heart out.

We spend a good ten minutes watching and listening to the small bit of feathered rapture. It stayed perched on the it’s rock, with it’s back towards us and then it turned to show it’s white throat. Later it perched down in a little rocky cave. This is what is illustrated in the featured sketch.

Our first view of the singing canyon wren, perched on a rock of of course!
A closer view of it’s epic song. It’s amazing that such a small bird produces such a loud and intense song.
The curious canyon wren, looking our way.

Sketching note: I first started the featured painting with a lot of wet on wet and I was attempting to build up layer upon layer. I came to the point where I hated the sketch and wanted to abandon it, half-finished. Then I remember the sage advice from my childhood friend Erik, “If you don’t think your poetry’s shit, you’re a shitty poet!” The next morning I came back to the work, this time holding it together with black ink. I built up layers on the rock using different mediums and tools like watercolor, masking fluid, pen, colored pencil, and charcoal. I used a variety of methods and technics to create texture and depth including brush, tooth brush, finger smudging, wet on wet, glazing, hatching, dotting, and paint splatter. I worked on this failed work until I loved it.