I started my whale watch just down the street from my digs at the Mendocino Art Center at the Mendocino Headlands State Park.
I set up my scope at 7:45 AM and looked for blows just below the horizon.
I looked and I looked. I looked at gulls and I looked at oystercatchers and I looked at the constant stream of common murres heading south.
But no blows.
I looked at a bottling harbor seal and I looked at the lone snow goose on a bluff to the north, and I even turned around to look at the perched white-tail kite and harrier.
Where were the migrating gray whales? Perhaps I was too early.
Perhaps there was a gap in the southern stream of pregnant females on their journey to the birthing lagoons of Baja California. Or maybe they were farther off, just on the other side of the curvature of the earth. But whatever it was, after two mornings of whale watching, I saw zero whales.
The plus of being a sketcher is that you are never bored, and if you have a pen and sketchbook handy, you can pass the time with a sketch (featured sketch).
Curses for not checking the rare bird alert before leaving work on Friday! A rare California bird, and a lifer, was seen in Half Moon Bay, just about 20 minutes from work. I would have loved a after work lifer, but alas it was not meant to be.
I eventually saw the post when I returned home and the northern visitor was last seen at 4:30 PM before the early winter’s eve turned out the lights. This was a good sign because it meant that the bird might overnight and be re-found on Saturday morning.
Wit this in mind I got up early on Saturday and drove down to Half Moon Bay and walked out to Venice Beach and the Pilarcitos Creek mouth and hoped the snow bunting has overnighted.
Oddly enough there was a snow bunting that was being seen in the Noyo Headlands in Fort Bragg a few weeks ago but had disappeared, presumably flying south. I wondered if this could possibly be the same bird, although it’s very tough to tell.
I arrived at the creek mouth just after 7 AM, and I was the first birder in the area. Below me, on the creek bottoms, were many mallards, killdeer, and Wilson’s snipes. But no bunting.
I continued looking for the next hour, at which point about 15 other birders were scouring the dunes and the beach for the rare visitor. With all these eyes looking for the bird, I figured it was a matter of time before someone would relocate the bird, if it was still in the area.
I decided to head north on Highway 1 to Pillar Point Harbor to look for the northern gannet that had been recently roosting on the breakwater. This is presumedly the same gannet that has been in the area for about eight years. I had first seen it on Alcatraz and it is often seen on the Farallon Islands. In also is seen in Pillar Point,
The snow bunting had not been reported on any birder lists so I headed over the hill to San Mateo to have lunch with my friend. After lunch I checked Sialia and saw a post that the snow bunting had been re-found so I headed back over Highway 92 to the same location I had spent looking for the bird a few hours earlier. But this time I was a lot more successful!
I arrived near the closed down parking lot and restroom and headed down towards the creek. The bunting shown like a white diamond amongst the dark sands.
It also helps that there where three birders already on the bird. I took a seat on the dunes and watched the bunting as it foraged in the creek bottom and then took a bath in the creek.
The bunting did not seem fazed by the attention and was within about ten yards of birders. This was in stark contrast to the Wilson’s snipe that where so skittish that they burst into flight at any provocative.
I took some reference photos which was a challenge because the bunting was in constant motion but after it’s bath, the bunting paused so I could capture the bird’s unblurred likeness.
The caboose at the end of a freight train is a thing of the past. They have been replaced by technology as railroads cut wages and other expenses. In their place is a small box on the end of the train called a ETD (end of train device).
It is not uncommon to find cabooses on static display at museums or near historic railroads. In Auburn, California, an example of one of the last batch of a caboose ordered by Southern Pacific is outside the old Auburn Train Depot. This is a bay window C-50-7 caboose that was built by SP in 1978. This is a very young caboose indeed because ten years later, it was uncommon to see a caboose at the end of a freight train. SP # 4604 was coming to the end of an era.
I headed to Auburn with the intention of sketching the SP caboose. I set up my sketching chair and took up my position behind the caboose and if I was watching a freight train receded down the tracks. Only this caboose was going nowhere anytime soon.
To my left is the large concrete sculpture of a Chinese “Coolie” railroad laborer. This 22 foot tall , 70 ton statue was created by Dr. Kenneth Fox. Fox was a local dentist who created other large concrete statues. Some of the other statues can be found on the opposite side of Highway 80. As well as the gold panner representing Claude Chana near the historic downtown.
Dr. Fox passed away on November 17, 2020 at the age of 95. His massive sculptures are sill found around Auburn including his controversial nudes of mythical warriors that stand outside of his former dental office. They are collectively known as the “Great Concrete Statues of Auburn”.
Most of these statues where created in the 1960s and 70s but they were a little too graphic for Auburn at the time. School bus routes were rerouted so buses would not pass by the topless Amazonian women.
I would love to return to Auburn and sketch these oddities in concrete.
The first red-footed booby (Sula sula) I had ever seen in Santa Cruz County was perched on the pier out to the Concrete Ship at Seacliff Beach. But the booby that has recently been hanging around Santa Cruz Wharf was a much more incredible and close bird.
The booby was first seen towards the end of the wharf on November 3. At the time, local birders assumed the booby was sick because it appeared very lethargic and allowed a very close approach from viewers, including some selfies seeking tourists. A local birder had to put up yellow caution tape to keep the booby admirers at bay.
The red-footed booby is a bird of the tropics and not the foggy coast of Northern California. The common name comes from the Spanish “bobo”, meaning buffoon. This refers to the ease in catching the bird and it’s awkward gait on land. Many of these seabirds experience “island syndrome” and because of their isolation from humans, they show little to no fear of them. (Think of the now extinct dodo). This tropical visitor showed no fear to the humans walking up to it when even a gull would fly away.
On Friday afternoon, I drove out to the end of the wharf. The booby had been reported across from the Dolphin Restaurant, which is one of the last eating establishments at the end of the wharf.
I parked across the street from Stagnaros and looked up and 20 feet away was the red-footed booby perched on the wharf railing! There was also a small audience taking pictures of the wayward rarity.
I got out of my car and snapped a few photos and then I took out my sketchbook to get a sketch in. It was easy to sketch the booby because the bird was about six feet away and seemed completely unfazed by the birder paparazzi.
It was great to observe the booby up close with the naked eye. It was a little challenging to sketch as it was in constant motion, preening or tucking it bill into it’s feathers for a quick nap or keeping a western gull at bay.
From my observations, the booby was well and thriving. It had been seen fishing with gulls, cormorants, and pelicans in the bay so I assume it was finding plenty of fish. It landed on the wharf rail to preen and rest.
Let’s hope the world’s smallest booby stays with us throughout the winter!
The great thing about sketching bones is that they don’t move.
And there is a set of bones that I wanted to sketch in Fort Bragg. These are the bones of a male orca or killer whale. The orca (Orcinus orca) is not a whale but the world’s largest dolphin and these bones are from one of the largest specimen.
These impressive bones are to be found at the Noyo Center for Marine Science on Main Street (Highway One), in Fort Bragg, across the street from the Guest House Museum.
This orca was trapped in some netting off the Mendocino County Coast. In the summer of 2017, the skeleton was articulated or put together by experts ranging as far away as Alaska and Canada who came to Ft. Bragg to give the orca skeleton “life”. It’s the impressive centerpiece of the museum’s collection.
Before setting out on my adventure to Mendocino, I wanted to do a little coastal whale watching in the Bay Area. So I met Grasshopper Sparrow (he has wheels now!) in Half Moon Bay and we headed south to Pigeon Point and turned our lenses west.
We found a point overlooking the ocean just to the north of Pigeon Point Lighthouse. It was a beautiful, clear day and the seas were calm with a lot of bird life flying both north and south. Perfect conditions for land-based whale watching.
We scanned the horizon looking about an inch below, to see if any blows were visible. This is the telltale sign of a whale. Blows happen when their warm breath makes contact with the cold air and the white exhaust can be seen from a long ways away. We were looking for a short bushy blow which is a sign of a migrating gray whale.
I wandered off a few yards to the north to get a look at some roosting surfbirds when Grasshopper exclaimed, “Whale!” I turned my bins to the horizon, scanning about and inch below. Near the horizon I picked out a white blow in the middle of a flock of birds on the water and circling above. These attendant birds are also a great sign of cetacean activity.
Now we just needed to identify the whale by its unique blow. Grasshopper noted that the whale he saw through the scope had a dorsal fin. Now this would exclude grays because they do not have a fin but a dorsal ridge. Also the blow looked taller than the heart-shaped gray whale blow.
After a few more observations, with a few of the whales showing their pied flukes, I knew we where looking at a group of three humpback whales!
I later headed south down Highway 1 towards Santa Cruz. I pulled off just north of Davenport to have a little lunch and scan the Pacific for whales. I didn’t have to wait long before I saw my first blow with the naked eye. I put a scope on the whales and identified a few more humpbacks but I did not see any grays.
I would have to drive north to meet them “halfway”. Well, that was the plan all along.
My thoughts and sketches were turning north to my road trip along the California Coast.
I would be using the quaint coastal town of Mendocino as my base camp to explore points north and south along the Mendocino County Coast.
Since I was making my visit during Thanksgiving week, I planned to turn my scope and pen towards the west, to witness one of the longest mammalian migrations in the world.
This is the annual migration of the gray whale. In mid November, I was hoping to spot the southern migration of pregnant females as they headed south to the birthing lagoons of Baja California from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic.
Just down the street from my Mendocino digs at the Mendocino Arts Center, is Mendocino Headlands State Park, one of the best whaling points on the Mendo coast.
Before I headed out on my three hour road trip to the north, I wanted to understand the life cycle and form of the whale that whalers dubbed “Devilfish”.
And to do this, I opened my new Stillman & Birn Beta Series journal and started to fill some pages. Any adventure for me, always starts with a map, in this case, the migration route of the “California” gray whale.
I also did a spread about the morphology of a gray whale. I drew a whale and added labels to various parts and then added a description of the whale’s dive sequence (a valuable tool for identifying grays in the field), and specs of the whale
I set a goal for myself, that I would fill in all the pages of this journal on my weeklong Thanksgiving Break. Let’s see if I can do it. I have cheated a bit by filling in 11 pages so far, some of which are included in this post.
But art is always a bit of a cheat. As Picasso said, “Art is the lie that helps us see the truth.”
And the goal of my sketching life is always to see the “truth”.
There is always a lot of downtime at an airport. I am the type of traveller that always arrives early, hence the downtime.
Sometimes I read or listen to music but I always try to do an airport sketch.
On my recent trip to the Windy City, I sketched the airplane that would be taking me there. In this case it was United Airlines largest plane in their fleet: the Boeing 777-222A. This plane has a capacity of 28 first class passengers and 336 economy. It’s cruising speed is 639 mph and we made the journey from SFO to ORD in about three and half hours.
I was told that you don’t mess around with Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. O’Hare is the fourth busiest airport in the world with 54 million passengers passing through in 2021. It had the moniker of the “busiest square mile in the world”.
So I headed out of Chicago for the 45 minute journey to O’Hare with plenty of time to spare. Even though it was a weekday morning, the security checkpoint lines took almost half and hour to navigate. There is a reason you don’t mess with O’Hare. It’s better to be early then to miss your flight.
I found a window seat at a pizza restaurant (deep dish of course), opened my sketchbook and started to sketch the gate and airplane before me.
Illinois is known as “The Land of Lincoln”, even though he was born in Kentucky. Lincoln cut his political teeth in Springfield, first as a lawyer and then governor and then later a Senator for the state of Illinois. In 1955, “The Land of Lincoln” became the official state motto.
There was one historical artifact that drew me to a corner of Lincoln Park to visit the Chicago History Museum.
On a past visit to Washington D. C., two highlights of my visit was Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln memorial.
Ford’s Theatre was where Lincoln was assassinated on the night of April 14, 1865 by the actor John Wilkes Booth during a performance of Our American Cousin.
Lincoln was moved across the street to the Peterson Boarding House where the president was placed on a bed on the ground floor, towards the back of the house. Lincoln was too tall (he was 6 ft 4 in) for the small bed that he was laid at an angle, with his feet hanging off the end. He remained in a coma, never regaining consciousness.
Over 90 people came to pay their last respects to the President who had led the country through the Civil War. He died at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865. Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, saluted Lincoln and said, “He now belongs to the ages.”
I had heard from a docent at the Peterson House, which is now a museum, that the bed on display was a replica and the real bed was in a museum in Chicago.
There is only one historical figure that has more books written about them than Abraham Lincoln and that is the son of god himself: Jesus Christ Superstar.
Now that is saying a lot about Lincoln’s impact to our country and his influence around the world.
But I was here to see and sketch a historic bed.
In the same display was a life mask of Lincoln that captured the presidents features shortly before his death. I added this to my sketchbook.
I wanted to sketch Chicago’s skyline but I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. I had to find a vantage point away from the high rise of the Loop.
I found the vantage point near the northern steps of the Field Museum on the shores of Lake Michigan. I found a shady bench and sketched the skyline to the north.
I approached the sketch focusing more on shape and form over detail. To achieve this goal I used thick ink lines by inking my pencil likes with a Faber-Castell 1.5 black ink pen. I had seen this technique to urban sketching used by British sketcher James Hobbs.
I like Hobbs’ quote, “The idea of a drawing being ‘finished’ suggests to me a kind of polished death. I would rather have four quick drawings than one ‘perfect’ work.”
After my sketch, I walked further north on the Lakefront Trail, until I found another skyline view and another shady sketching bench.
There is a deadly side of all this verticality in our urban centers. These buildings steal the airspace for our migrating birds who often migrate at night. While the reflective wall of glass windows make for great photos and sketches, these mirrored walls are deadly for birds.
It is estimated that 600 million birds are killed each year from building strikes according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. That’s 600 million! And Chicago is one of the deadliest cities in the United States for bird deaths.
The Chicago Tribune noted that about one billion birds die each year from flying into buildings, making it the deadliest city for migrating birds in the entire country.
It is one thing to read about these statistics, it’s quite another to witness it for yourself. One morning while I was walking a block away to get coffee, I saw a bird sitting on the ground. It was an ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla).
I could see it’s orange crown, which is difficult to see in life, framed by two black stripes. As I looked up above the canyon of skyscraper on West Chicago Avenue, I could see how this migration met its match.
While there is beautiful architecture in the Windy City, the migrating birds of America pay a heavy price for our “progress”.
Coda: I walked back willing that the ovenbird was just stunned but looking down, the bird was squashed underfoot.