Mauna Loa, the Long Mountain

I look forward to seeing and sketching the world’s largest volcano on the planet earth, Mauna Loa, the Long Mountain.

The volcano is so big, and such a major part of the island of Hawaii, that is tough to get a firm perspective of the mountain, so I was going to have to get a little creative with my viewpoints on how to capture the mountain in sketch.

I before I stand before the mighty mountain, pencil and sketchbook in hand, I wanted to do a pre trip sketch to help put the scale of Mauna Loa into perspective.

A volcano I had visited in recent memory was Mount Lassen. This was a volcano that had erupted sometime ago (in May of 1917) but it was clear to see in quite easy to sketch. I was looking forward to comparing both of these volcanoes and how they were alike and different.

A brush pen sketch of Lassen Peak from October 2020.
A spread on the different types of volcanoes at Lassen National Park. Mauna Loa is a shield volcano, which is a volcano that is a broad dome with gentle slopes extending to the ocean floor.

For my spread about Mauna Loa, I based of my sketch on part of a map I picked up at REI. The map was produced by Franko Maps and is titled “Hawaii Adventure Guide”.

The specs of Mauna Loa are incredible. It’s the largest active volcano in the world. It rises 13,100 feet above sea level. But if you look at the base of the seafloor where Mauna Loa rises, it is a 32,000 ft making it the largest mountain on planet Earth. That is almost 3,000 feet taller than Everest. Mauna Loa extends for 74 miles and covers half of the island of Hawai’i and it’s area adds up to about 85% of the area of all the other Hawaiian Island combines.

One of Mauna Loa’s eruptions produced the largest earthquake in Hawaiian history.

Mauna Loa is a very active volcano having erupted 33 times in recorded geologic history. It’s last eruption was in 1984, which is a extremely short time ago on the geological timeline. That eruption came within seven miles of Hilo.

Will Mauna Loa erupt again? It is not a question of “if” but “when”.


Gull Puzzles: Venice Beach

I was listening to a radio program and the subject was about how puzzles have become more popular during the pandemic. There’s always been one sort of birding puzzle that has also gained popularity in recent times but is also a puzzle that turns a lot of birders off, and that is gulling.

For a long time birders just dismissed a flock of gulls and didn’t try to pick through them. To the untrained eye, gulls look the same and if there aren’t adults, then they can be very problematic for identification. One flock can contain a range of ages and two members of the same species, roosting right next to each other, many look like entirely two different species.

Now there is a much better understanding of gull plumage through all their various life cycles and there are quite a few books that provide identification techniques and photographs on identifying gulls in all their ages.

On my Monday President’s Day I headed to the coast to try to puzzle over some gulls. One of the best spots on the San Mateo County coast is Venice Beach, just north of Half Moon Bay. Here Pilarcitos Creek snakes it’s way into the bay.

Anywhere along the coast where there is a broad sandy beach with a freshwater steam can be a good gull roost. The freshwater attracts the gulls because here they can preen and wash and rest. To me, a bathing gull is a joyous sight to behold.

Lots of gulls on Venice Beach with many coming and going. I predicted there where over 300 birds.

At Venice Beach there where about 300 gulls resting on the beach or floating in a raft just off shore. I set up my scope on the bluff above the creek and beach and started scanning the flock.

I was seeing a lot of gulls of different species and ages: western, California, herring, and glaucous-winged. But I was looking for a gull that stood out from all the rest of the flock. Perhaps a gull with a yellow bill and dark earmuffs or a shockingly white gull with a black-tipped pink eraser bill. I was looking for rare gulls. A gull that stood apart.

And then I spotted the large white gull of the High Arctic but my view was obscured by the undulating roll of the beach so I headed up along the bluff for another look. It was worst. The gull was hidden between the Surfline and the beach. I wasn’t helped by that fact that parts of the flock where flushed when a beach walker decided to amble through the flock, taking a video, no doubt, to impress their eight followers on TikTok.

Also there where many gulls coming and going. But I didn’t see a large white gull take to the air so I assumed it was still among the 300.

I continued scanning the flock looking for that puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit in. On one of my scans I came across a smaller gull that was preening, hiding it’s beak in it’s back feathers. I didn’t need to see its beak shape or color to know that this was a rare California coastal gull. The darkness around its nape and the dark “earmuffs” were the giveaway. I was looking at an adult black-legged kittiwake! When it turned it’s head back I saw it’s all yellow beak.

The adult black-legged kittiwake with it’s dark “earmuffs’ and yellow beak.

The black-legged kittiwake (Risso tridactyla) is not often seen from land south of it’s nesting territory, so seeing a roosting kittiwake on a California beach is always a treat. In order to see a roosting kittiwake would mean a trip to coastal Alaska in the breeding season.

I got some documentation photos before the flock was flushed by another beach walker and I never saw the kittiwake again.

I continued to try to re-find the Arctic visitor and there where many gulls to pick through. After about ten minutes a gull that was bathing in the creek stood out like a sore thumb: a large white gull with a bicolored pink and black bill, this was a first winter glaucous gull!

Gulls bathing. There is no doubt which is the white gull of the High Arctic!

The other gulls where keeping their distance from the glaucous, and for good reason. While the great black-backed gull is recognized as the largest gull in the world by length and wingspan, the glaucous can often be heavier.

In Audubon’s The Birds of America the glaucous is called the Burgomaster Gull. A Burgomaster is a European term for a chief magistrate of a town. Indeed the glaucous is the mayor of the beach. This big barrel chested gull maintains a circle, at beak length, from other gulls. This is the dominate gull in the flock even though this bird was a first winter immature.

The other gulls keep their distance from the Mayor of the Beach!

Nest Watch

How do you make education “real” for students? It’s all about making it local and creating connection.

I have always wanted to connect my students to the natural world around them. That natural world can be experienced in our own school community. From our schoolyard I have seen many interesting avian species. And if student are around, I want to share this with them. I have pointed out a pair of adult bald eagles circling above the food court or a passing peregrine falcon (I’m sure most missed it!)

Just to the north of the upper grade playground, I noted a nest below the canopy in a eucalyptus tree. In all honestly, I had seen this nest over the past few years. This is a red-shouldered hawk nest and I was interested to see if it was going to be used again this year.

Red-shouldered hawks tend to reuse their nest across generations and I did not know how many years this nest has been in use.

An early morning field sketch of the RSHA nest.

On a Friday I brought my scope and tripod to school and I wrote “I Spy” on our agenda just before recess. This generated excitement among my students and I didn’t explain what it meant.

I introduced my students to my telescope (scope for short) and explained its uses and advantages over the naked eye (getting closer to wildlife without disturbing them) or using binoculars (seeing more details).

Pointing the scope at the nest was like a revelation to many of my students because it became magic, making the unseen, seen.

Students saw the nest but at the moment, in mid February, it was not yet occupied. But over the nest few weeks as I birded in the field, I started to see the signs of the changing of the seasons.

A crow flying with a twig, morning bird song, copulating red-tailed hawks, two red-shouldered hawks circling together and calling.

And then, on March 13, I drove to the street nearest the nest. In the distance I heard the local red-shouldered hawks calling. These are the most vocal hawks on the West Coast, despite the fact that the red-tailed’s call is more famous. From my right, a red-shouldered appeared and made a B-line to the nest! This was an amazing sight to see. I wanted to share this with my student the following day.

The red-shouldered hawk doing a bit of nest-keeping.

Nature doesn’t always do what you want it to. Just as I set up my scope to observe the nest, a red-shouldered flew from the nest, which a few students saw.

This made me more determined that we should have a weekly “Nest Watch” and share our observations with the rest of the school community.

To be continued. . .

Sans watercolor.
After a few washes.

Kona Kai Ki’i

Part of my planning for a journey is picking the right journals.

For the Big Island I chose two Stillman & Birn Beta journals. One a hard cover and the other soft cover. I like to break these journals in with a pre-trip sketch or two.

With my softcover Beta, I reached back into my very early connection with the Hawaiian Islands. This is not hard to do, considering I grew up in the state of California.

In the Bay Area in the 1950s there was a fascination with Polynesian or Tiki culture. The very first Tiki bar was open in Emeryville and it was called Trader Vic’s (opened in 1934). The restaurant soon became a chain and they claimed to have invented the Mai Tai cocktail. I remember a huge garlic shaped, wooden shingled Hawaiian themed restaurant on Stevens Creek Boulevard. The building was surrounded by a mote and tiki torches. It was called Don the Beachcomber and reflected the interest of all things Tiki. The restaurant is now gone but Trader Vic’s is still open and selling Mai Tais.

This also reflected that Hawaii officially became a state in 1959, which open the doors to its culture, food, and cocktails.

I spent summers swimming at the swim and racquet club where my family had a membership. It was named Kona Kai Swim and Racquet Club. The club was founded in 1958 and was an oasis in a sea of apricot and cherry orchards.

Kona Kai means “Sea of Kona” and the name of the club certainly does not reflect the club’s surroundings but reflects the Polynesian craze of the time (think: Trader Vic’s, Martin Denny, Mai Tai, Hawaiian shirts, and Don Ho.) The club still exists where it is still an oasis but among Apple’s buildings and the Kaiser hospital that towers above it.

To go along with the Hawaiian theme of Kona Kai, an artist from Maui was hired to carve a Ki’i or Tiki statue to greet members at the entrance. The sculpture was finished in 1967 and it remains at the entrance. It was this Ki’i that I intended to sketch on the first page of my Kona journal (featured sketch).

While I was sketching the statue a man got out of his car and we struck up a conversation about the statue. He told me that the previous week, the woman who hired the artist from Maui, had come to Kona Kai to take some pictures. The man turned out to be the tennis pro. He filled me in about the history of the Ki’i and he noted that it had recently been repainted.

It still looked good for being a wooden 55 year old statue that was exposed to the elements. And despite the astronomical rise in real estate prices in the area, Kona Kai still exists as a thriving swim and tennis club.

It was good to see that a piece of my Silicon Vally past was still in existence while many memories have been bulldozed and covered up.


Hawaii Odds & Ends

Pretrip planning would not be complete without a map.

I was excited to be visiting the Big Island for the first time and one of the best ways to get to know a place is to map it. Drawing imprints information better than any other note taking strategy. Drawing is an active, not a passive, pursuit.

There are two distinct sides to the largest and youngest island in the Hawaiian Island chain. The Kona side (west) and the Hilo side (east). The Kona side is the more sunny and the most popular side. Hilo is on the windward side and experiences more rain (about 130 inches per year) than the leeward or Kona side. I planned to visit both sides. And sketching a map of the islands, helped me put towns and sites into perspective.

I also did a spread that is a visual checklist of some of the sights and experiences I wanted to encounter on the Big Island (featured sketch). Snorkeling at the Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay, Mauna Kea, Birding on Saddle Road, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, manta rays, ‘Akaka Falls, Hawai’i Volcano National Park, Kona coffee, and a tropical reef fish called a Moorish idol.


Hawaiian Pelagic

When I found out that there would be a pelagic birding trip out of Kona on April 3, I signed up immediately! This was a chance to add lifers that I would not be able to see from the shore.

As a birder living on the coast it is an absolute privilege (tsunamis and global warming excepted) because it brings you in contact with species that spend the majority of life at sea. To encounter most of these species requires boarding a boat and heading off shore.

I’ve been on many pelagic birding trips from the ports of Bodega Bay, Pillar Point, and Monterey Harbor but I was really looking forward to heading out of Honokohau Harbor on a Hawaiian pelagic! This was entirely new pelagic birding territory.

Pelagic birding can be at once transcendent and deeply frustrating because of the amazing and the not so amazing views of birds. Picking a bird out between swells on a rocking substrate is a challenge and that’s if you are on the right side of the boat when the rare petrel or shearwater makes it’s all too brief appearance.

How do you prepare for such a birding challenge? It’s simple: uncap your pen and sketch.

My first sketch was a study of three tropicbirds. I had a chance of see one or all three while from shore (called a sea watch), on the pelagic, or at Volcanoes National Park. I’ve always wanted to see a tropicbird and sketching then helped me to understand them a little more.

In another spread I sketched six other target species that I hoped to pick up on the pelagic trip. And who knows what other unexpected bird might show.


Big Island Endemics

It had been along time since I had set foot on a Hawaiian island.

The last time was on a family vacation and the island was Kauai. Before that, I had been badly sunburned while snorkeling in Maui. Mom did tell me to wear a t-shirt. Always listen to your mother!

I guess I had avoided Hawaii for a number of reasons, too many to note: too crowded, too touristy, too much introduced flora and fauna, too expensive. My idea of a vacation has never been about laying on a beach getting a tan (see above about Maui snorkeling).

Instead, I go on vacation, waking up at ungodly hours and learning as much as I can in one day. I sketch, bird, sketch some more, walk and hike, learn as much as possible, take a few photos, visit some historical sites, look at architecture, and make time for lunch, repeat. At times my vacations can seem like a job! No sleeping in here. The closest I come to a “vacation” is doing a bit of natureloafing.

But there is one island in the Hawaiian Archipelago that I have not yet visited (Well actually there are a lot more). This is the youngest island, it is merely a million years old and it is still forming today. This is the island of Hawai’i and is also home to Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano.

It is also home to some of Hawaii’s endemic birds. And thats what was drawing me to the Big Island (pun intended). Many of the endemic avian species are endangered and I wanted to see as many of the unique birds as I could. the avifauna of Hawaii had been decimated by introduced species such as the black rat and the Indian mongoose and disease carried by not native mosquitos. This has resulted in the loss of 65% of Hawaiian avifauna.

When I planning a trip I like to started with a little hardbound notebook, in this case a Leuchturm 1917. While this is not a watercolor notebook, I like to add an illustration to the front page. In this case I chose to draw the Hawaiian State Bird, the endemic nene, or Hawaiian goose. It is fitting that a state entirely surrounded by water should be the only state with a waterfowl as it’s State Bird.

Well to wet my appetite, I started sketching some of my target species. I’ve learned that when I sketch a bird I have not yet seen in the field, the process helps me etch it’s forms and fieldmarks into my eye. I have that image at the ready for when I might see the bird, for real.

With any list of endemic species the state bird of Hawaii has to top the list. It is the nene or Hawaiian goose. I sketched this beautiful goose and it anchored the left side of my spread. On the right side I sketched another target bird, the Hawaiian honeycreeper: i’iwi. Both of the species are relatively easy to seen on the Big Island.

Another target bird for the Big Island is the Ae’o, the Hawaiian subspecies of the black-necked stilt.
The akispolaau is probably one of the most sought after Hawaiian honeycreepers. It is only found in high-elevation rainforests on the Big Island. I will definitely try to add this amazing and endangered species to my life list!