The California Zephyr Train # 5 was early coming into Denver’s Union Station. And we departed from the Mile High City, right on schedule.
We climbing up into the Tunnel District, so named because the Zephyr passes through 28 tunnels. The king of all tunnels in this stretch, if not any stretch in North America, has to be the Moffat Tunnel. The tunnel is 6.2 miles long and crosses under the Continental Divide meaning that once we come out of the west portal of the tunnel, the waters will be flowing to the west coast and behind us, the water flows east. At 9,239 ft, the tunnel is the highest point anywhere on the AMTRAK system.
On the western side of the Moffat Tunnel is the stop of Fraser-Winter Park. The next stop on the western route is the small Colorado mountain town of Granby. The conductor told us the little story of Marin Heemeyer and his Killdozer.
Heeymeyer was from South Dakota but moved to Colorado where he became a popular member of the community and one of the best welders in the area. He opened a successful muffler business in Granby. Over the following years Heemeyer feuded with the city and others over zoning, building permits, sewage lines, and entry roads to his business. Over that time many in the community crossed Heeymeyer, which was a big mistake because Marv can really hold a grunge.
He bought a Komatsu D355A bulldozer and he sold his business and property and then rented a building on his former property from the new owners where he secretly modified the bulldozer. For over a year he worked on his bulldozer by fortifying it with steel and concrete creating an indestructible machine of destruction. On June 4, 2004 at about 3:00 PM Heemeyer put his plan into action.
During the two hours and seven minute bulldozer rampage, Heeymeyer destroyed 13 buildings (including the city hall, police station, the former mayor’s house, and newspaper offices). The killdozer caused seven million dollars of damage. The police where helpless to stop the bulldozer and the rampage only ended when the killdozer got stuck while destroying Gambles hardware store and Heeymeyer ended his own life.
While I would have liked my 500th post (an amazing milestone that I can scarcely believe) to be about a positive subject I have learned never to turn away from the difficult, the complex, and the sorrowful. While school shootings still happen, we as educators and citizens must not turn our collective backs on the causes and reasons these shooting continue happening. What is it about our county and our values and the way we fund and support mental health and the ease of availability of high powered weaponry that lets these killings happen at an astounding rate?
What have we learned in the 23 years since Columbine? I will let you answer that question for yourselves but I do want to share a few statistics: according to the Washington Post, since Columbine, there has been at least 554 victims in school shootings. It is estimated that 311, 000 children have been exposed to gun violence in a school setting.
I returned to the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colorado this time with my mother, a former educator , Steve and Sharon. Since my first visit I am convinced that every educator in the land (if not every resident) should come to this shine of death, destruction, and renewal.
I had visited the memorial in April of 2021, when there was still snow in the deep shadow areas that will not see sun for another few months.
We visited Clement Park, the park behind Columbine High School, and we could not find any parking near the memorial because, and I’m not making this up, of a Unicorn Festival.
Sharon dropped us off and we walked up towards the memorial to the 13 killed and the many injured and changed forever by the acts of two Columbine High seniors on April 20, 1999.
To me, this should have been a clarion call for major reforms in gun controls, mental health, and school protocols. Sadly the killing in schools just keeps happening. What have we really learned from Columbine?
On Friday morning I made my third visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in almost a year. This time I was with mom and Steve and their friend Sharon.
At this time of year, in the summer, visitors have to reserve an entry time (this is a very popular National Park). Our time was between nine and ten AM.
Our first stop, just west of the Fall River Entrance, was Sheep Lakes. Here we scanned the meadows and lakes for bighorn sheep, moose, and elk. We saw none. So after a sketch (featured sketch), we moved on.
We then climbed up Trail Ridge Road towards the Alpine Visitor Center. A few miles up we encountered many cars pulled off the road and people looking off to our left. This meant only one thing: large mammals. In this case a moose cow and calf!
Some of our party got fair to no looks at the moose, as the world’s largest deer disappeared into the trees. We continued climbing up towards the highest point of the road at 12, 183 feet. But before we got there we pulled over at Rock Cut to see my favorite mammal of the Rocky Mountains.
This is not a black bear, elk, moose, bighorn sheep or even the yellow-bellied marmot. This is the endearingly cute if not edging toward extinction pika (Ochotona princeps). The pull out at Rock Cut did not disappoint, we saw marmot and pika.
The California Zephyr Train number 6 pulled into Colfax Station running about 30 minutes late.
I was boarding the Zephyr with my mom and her husband Steve and we were heading to Denver, Colorado. We would be spending the night and eating three meals a day on the Zephyr. This is AMTRAK’s longest daily route and it is a village on rails.
I did a few pre-trip sketches. The first is of the predicted consist of our train. A consist is the make up of the train, for instance: two locomotives, a baggage car, three sleeper cars, a diner car etc. I anticipated two locomotives and eight cars. Turns out I guessed right. I sketched them in and I would label them later during our first stretch break in Reno, Nevada. The second was the baggage cart outside Colfax Station, which I did the day before we boarded the Zephyr.
I was familiar with sketching from the California Zephyr from my previous trip last April. You have to sketch fast, taking in passing information creating an overall composite or impression. The brush pen was the perfect tool for Zephyr sketching.
One of my favorite Zephyr sketches was done in Room A (Mom and Steve’s room) during happy hour. We where somewhere east of Reno.
The world’s smallest gull had recently been spotted in a flock of Bonaparte’s gulls at the San Lorenzo River mouth.
It was a rare west coast gull and the one spotted on May 13, 2022 was only the 5th Santa Cruz County record.
This is the appropriately named little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus). I had seen this rarity on June 9, 2004 at Pescadero March in San Mateo County but I had not seen the diminutive gull since.
My first attempt to add the little gull to my Santa Cruz County list was foiled by a foot race that closed access to the San Lorenzo River mouth. I would have to try again later. Luckily the gull hung around with the flock of Bonaparte’s gull.
I tried again the following weekend. The flock had moved from the river mouth, up river, just north of the railroad trestle. There were about 75 Bonaparte’s gull, so searching through the flock for a slightly smaller gull showing a brown “M” on it’s wings, proved to be a challenge.
I got fleeting and very unsatisfying looks of the gull as the gull flock burst into the air climbing ever higher into the sky, which made me want to come back another time to try to see the bird again. And to get good reference photos for a sketch. Which is exactly what I did the following Saturday morning.
I returned to the Riverway Trail, which is just north of the train trestle that crosses the San Lorenzo River. The Bonaparte’s gull flock had moved from the river mouth (south of the trestle) further up the river. I imagine the large amount of human traffic and off leash dogs on the main beach may have something to do with the relocation.
There where now just 21 Bonaparte’s gulls left in the flock and they were roosting on the western shore of the river, the same river that flows past my cabin, further up the San Lorenzo Valley. Because there where less gulls, picking out the world’s smallest gull would be much easier. It also helped that there was another birder on the trail, already looking at the little gull!
This time the little gull was roosting on a riverside rock 15 feet from the trail! The morning was foggy which was perfect flat, low-contrast light for getting great photographs.
The little gull was also roosting close to the Bonaparte’s, giving me a nice size comparison of the two similar species.
Whenever I’ve seen a booby, it is usually flying away from view or sitting still, like a statue. Of course I’m referring to a bird!
In Santa Cruz County, I have seen a red-footed booby at the Concrete Ship at Seacliff State Beach on November 3, 2018 but I have always wanted to add the more common brown booby but none have stuck around long enough for me to see it.
Until an adult female brown booby had been spotted roosting on the cliffs just south of Fern Grotto on the Old Cove Landing Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park. I just hoped she would stick around long enough for me to get a look!
Wilder Ranch State Park is a 7,000 acre State Park that reached from the Santa Cruz County Coastline up to the peak of Ben Lomond Mountain. It is a popular destination for hikers, bikers, birders, nature loafers, and wave watchers.
On Saturday morning I was heading out on one of my favorite hiking/birding trails in the park, the Old Cove Landing Trail. After parking on Highway 1, I headed down a trail and into the historic farm site with contains houses and farm buildings.
It was here, in the and around the buildings, that Lindsey, Stevie, Christine, John, and Mick appeared in the video for “Little Lies”. It is from the album Tango in the Night (1987), which has sold over 15 million copies. “Little Lies” was the highest charting single from the album, reaching number 1. It is still played on 80’s hit radio stations today. Maybe Wilder Ranch had a little to do with it.
I headed through the farm buildings and I was about to crossed the railroad track to the Old Cove Trail when I spotted a California thrasher at the top of a coyote bush. They are more visible and more vocal at this time of year.
It is about a mile hike on the Old Cove Landing Trail to get to the place where the bobby had been seen. I arrived at the coastal bluffs just south of Fern Grotto Beach.
In front of me was a long flat rock. I scanned the rock: western gulls, lots of Brandt’s cormorants, a lone black oystercatcher, brown pelicans but no brown booby. It must be out to sea fishing or it was just gone. I had decided to give the bird an hour. So I waited for the brown booby to appear. I scanned the southern horizon looking for a booby flying towards my position. I saw none.
I tried to turn a roosting brown pelican into a brown booby, it’s large bill was tucked into it’s back feathers but the feet color was wrong. No booby.
Below me a bird flew into view and landed on the cliff next to a Brandt’s Cormorant. It was the brown booby!! It must have been roosted out of view on the cliff I was standing on.
For the two past years, because of Covid, we had to cancel our annual adventure to the gold discovery site in Colma, spending three days and two nights as part of the Gold Rush Program at the Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS). Our school has been going to CODS for the past 25 years and it was tough to see two groups of 4th graders missing out on what is one of the most memorable experiences in elementary school.
As a substitute for Colma, my teaching mate suggested a day trip to Roaring Camp & Big Trees in Felton. In the Santa Cruz Mountains we would walk among giants, pan for gold, and take a steam railroad trip through the redwoods. I thought it was a great idea because, in a sense, it was almost in my backyard.
As I like to say, I rent in the city but I own in the country. My family cabin is in the San Lorenzo Valley between Santa Cruz and Felton. From up the valley I can hear the lonesome whistle of the shay locomotive from my deck. While the steam railway is narrow gauge, the standard gauge branch runs just uphill from my cabin, taking passengers from Felton to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
On the Friday morning of our trip our school buses were ten minutes late. Most mapping apps time the trip from San Mateo to Felton to take one hour. In a yellow school bus you have to add 10 to 20 minutes. So when we arrived at Roaring Camp were already behind schedule. Two words in teaching trade that are the most important in this situation are flexibility and patience.
We unloaded our bus (no one lost their breakfast on the journey over the curvaceous Highway 17) and we had a pleasant surprise, just before we crossed the covered bridge on our way to the station.
We arrived late, so our planned schedule was already out the window. We had time for a bathroom break before we queued up at the station as the No 1 Shay “Dixiana” backed into the station with her consist of brightly painted yellow and green passengers cars. We had the two cars behind “Dixiana”. We really would have front row seats to the sites, sounds, and smells of a live steam locomotive!
The two truck Class B Shay on point, was built in 1912 at the Lima Locomotive Works. It was originally built for the Alaculsy Lumber Company as a geared narrow gauge logging locomotive capable of climbing grades of 8% (most standard locomotives can handle a 1.5% grade). It served six other railroads before ending up in Dixianna, Virginia (hence the locomotive’s name). It was designated No. 1 because it was the first locomotive acquired by the railroad and she is now the workhorse of Roaring Camp.
The founder of Roaring Camp, Norman Clark, purchased the Shay in 1962 for his vision of a replica logging town with a narrow gauge railway. The Shay was loaded onto a flatcar and then shipped, via mainline rail, to her new home in Felton.
I could feel the excitement of our fourth graders as they found their seats. These tech-savvy ten year olds were about to experience cutting edge technology of the early 20th Century! And we would be pulled up the mountain by a 110 year old steam locomotive.
With two toots of the whistle, our train rumbled into life headed out from the station and past the water tower. Our train turned right into Schoolhouse Curve on it’s way up to Bear Mountain. Our top speed was about five miles an hour. Shays were built for their motive power on steep logging grades not for swift passenger service.
Once we crossed over the Indian Creek Trestle, the No. 1 labored up an 8.5% grade to the burned out trestles at Spring Canyon. The trestles were burnt in a fire on June 27, 1976.
After the trestle burned on July 27, four months later, a switchback was constructed to make up the elevation needed to summit Bear Mountain. On first section of the switchback, the train has to back up meaning that Shay No. 1 is pushing, instead of pulling, her consist up the hill. This section of track is the steepest portion of narrow gauge railroad in the United States. This grade reaches 9.25%!
Dixianna pushed our train up the grade with no problem, after all this is what she was designed to do. On the way up my some of my students caught their first sighting of a banana slug!
We headed up the last leg of the switchback and labored towards the summit of Bear Mountain, which is really more of a hill. Once our train reached the summit and we stopped for about 15 minutes. We kept our students on the train because we didn’t want to leave anyone behind. I detrained and took a few photos on Dixianna, one of which was the reference for the key sketch.
A toot from the whistle announced that it was time to board the train because we where heading back down the hill to the station.
The black-legged kittiwake has been on my Santa Cruz County wish list for sometime. You figure with 29 miles of coastline, this pelagic gull or more correctly, seagull (kittiwakes drink salt water), would be far easier to see in the county. But sadly, it isn’t. The kittiwakes keep to the offshore waters.
The winter is the time to see this gull on the California Coast. Every winter, a few kittiwakes stop for a rest on coastal beaches or cliffs. The county north of Santa Cruz, San Mateo County, can be a good place to see a kittiwake as it rests, bathes, or preens, at gull roosts, usually on a beach where a freshwater creeks flows into the ocean. But every season can be different with many kittiwake sightings on year but some seasons, hardly any.
Perhaps because much of Santa Cruz County’s coastline lies within Monterey Bay and not facing the open ocean, kittiwakes tend to be even scarcer than in counties to the north.
Many times I had searched gull flocks on the northern Santa Cruz coast with no luck. I could not find the smaller gull with the bowlegged walk, wearing black earmuffs with a yellow beak. Waddell Beach, the most northerly beach in the county, has been a good place for large concentrations of roosting gulls. I picked through these flocks in search of a lone kittiwake and had always come up empty.
Now there was another lone adult kittiwake being seen on the rocks at Westcliff Drive and Woodrow. And in the middle of May!
After getting another look at the scissor-tailed flycatcher in Davenport, I headed back to Santa Cruz and walked parts of Westcliff Drive in search of the kittiwake. No luck.
One early morning on the following day, a Sunday, I headed to the San Lorenzo River mouth to look for the recently reported little gull but the whole area was closed off because of a foot race. So I thought I would check Westcliff Drive to see if I could add a county kittiwake. I had missed so many times that I did not have high expectations.
I parked on Columbia Street and I looked east down Westcliff, toward the lighthouse and there was a large feeding flock of gulls, pelicans, and cormorants. I sure hoped the kittiwake was not amongst the hundreds of birds.
I turned and walked west, towards Woodrow and I soon saw a lone whitish bird perched on the rocks. It was a bit too far to identify conclusively but I had a hunch that this was the kittiwake. I picked up my pace and then stopped to raise my bins. It was most certainly a kittiwake! I was now almost jogging because I wanted to take a few photos before the bird flew.
By the time I was inline with the bird on the cliff, I was about 20 yards away and the kittiwake showed no signs of leaving anytime soon.
I was able to get some great shot of the kittiwake in the even gray morning light. It did not seem threatened by my presence, this was a bird that spent the majority of it’s life at sea after all. It then took to the air, circled around twice and them flew west.
Just then a local birder arrived and I gave him the news that he had just missed the bird. We stood around chatting about attempts to see kittiwakes in the county and he then turned to leave, heading towards his car parked on Woodrow. Just then, the kittiwake returned to the cliff and I called out “Kittiwake!” and the birder returned to confirm it’s existence.
Clearly the “squirrel-proof”, pepper-infused suet is not working. When I restocked four suet cakes into the suet feeder for the first time this season, it didn’t take long for the local gray squirrels to visit the feeder.
The squirrels do have a habit of eating some suet, pausing, as if thinking, “Damn this is hot!” before going back for a second helping. The chickadees, juncos, Steller’s jays, and song sparrows enjoy the spicy suet but it is definitely not squirrel proof!
On the first night that I set out the suet, at about 8:20, I heard an audible thump on the deck.
When I went to have a look, I fully expected to see a raccoon, which are infrequent nocturnal visitor to the feeder. But instead I was surprised to see a gray fox, having a nibble at the feeder.
The fox instantly turned around and sprinted across the deck railing and then jumped off the deck and into the night leaving me gobsmacked. What an amazing encounter! This was the first gray fox I had ever seen in the park! And it had come to visit my suet.
The only other gray foxes I had seen in the county were ex-gray foxes lying by the roadside.
This sighting increased my yard mammalian list to five: grey and red squirrel, raccoon, striped skunk, and now gray fox. (I could add mountain lion but a neighbor reported this apex predator passing between my cabin and my neighbors, but I didn’t see it myself.)
I knew I wanted to do a sketch about the encounter but I wondered how I could do a sketch of a gray fox. I wanted to shy away from copyrighted photographs online , so I chose to sketch an ex-fox, at the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum.
I went to the museum and found the display that included the taxidermy gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). These mount museums are a sketcher’s delight because you can sketch many reptiles, butterflies, fish, birds and mammals that are not moving. I felt like I was channeling the sprit of John James Audubon.
While Grasshopper and I were birding Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon, a rare flycatcher for the West Coast was found on a barbed wire fence just north of Cement Plant Road in Davenport. I wasn’t going to able to look for it until the following Friday, that is, if it hung around.
This is arguably one of the most beautiful flycatchers in North America. This is Tyrannus forticatus, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. The flycatcher looks like a kingbird (it is actually related to the western kingbird) with a forked tailed that is twice the length of it’s body. In the book 100 Bird to See Before You Die by David Chandler & Dominic Couzens, the authors rank the scissor- tailed on the list at number 79, ahead of vermillion flycatcher, magnificent frigatebird, angel tern, paradise tanager, tufted puffin, and greater flamingo (all birds I have seen in the wild.)
The adult scissor-tailed was not where it was supposed to be (something all birders love). The bird summers and breeds in the southern middle of the United States, in Texas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and western Louisiana. But all this kingbird needs is an open pasture, some cows, lots of hunting perches( like a barbed wire fence), and a sky full of flying insects.
I got off work early because of a buy back day to pay us back for the extra hours of open house and I headed to the coast on Highway 92 and then south on Highway 1 toward Davenport.
Some birds are extremely hard to add to your life or county list such as rails, wayward warblers, and some thrashers but it is always nice to have a bird handed to you on a plate (a live bird of course!). This was the case with the “Long-tailed Kingbird of Davenport”. As I rolled up, five birders where already peering into the cow pasture along Cement Plant Road. The flycatcher was perched on barbed wire about 30 yards out. This was much closer than it had been seen by others over the past six days!
This is not only a beautiful flycatcher but it is also a pleasure to watch as it is in motion for most of the time, pursuing flying insects from it’s fence perch. It would also fly down to the grass to catch insects on the ground.
This was a wonderful and unexpected Santa Cruz County bird!