Ben’s Bird in the City of St. Francis

A rainy afternoon is alway a great time to visit one of San Francisco’s museums. In this case I used my recently purchased membership to return to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

I brought my sketching kit and started to sketch an African penguin as it swam around before feeding time. This was a challenge because I did the sketch in small bits because the penguin did not hold still so I took mental snapshot while the bird was facing the right way and eventually pieced together a few penguins for a sketch.

Swimmiing Ass

I then went out of the African Hall to sketch something more stationary. A giraffe mount will do. It was amazing to read that the taxidermy giraffes were first put on display in 1934 at the old Steinhart Aquarium. Here was another connection with the past.


I next went into the Amazon exhibit and sketched one of the blue-and-yellow macaws. It was nice to have them perched for me to sketch but is was even better to see them free flying over the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil last summer! That beats a zoo or aquarium any day!

B and Y Macaw

I overheard one visitor ask the other if she had ever seen a macaw in Hawaii. If she did then that macaw would be very lost but she was referring to a pet that some street performer had as a means of loosening coins from tourists.

I went down to the aquarium and tried a sketch of California’s official marine fish, the garibaldi. This fish was in constant motion and it was hard to capture it’s essence. And the low light in the aquarium didn’t help. At the end I repeated my mantra to perfectionism, “It’s just a sketch.”

I headed over to the alligator exhibit, a direct link with the old aquarium, to look at the seahorse railings and the albino gator. That’s when I saw something very odd, just outside the window.

It was a large bird perched on a railing, almost condor sized and I though to myself, “Is this a new exhibit?” As I walked closer I realized that it was not a condor but a wild turkey.

Which reminds me of the time when I was birding on the Big Sur coast at Grimes Point. At that time, in one view, I had seven California condors in front of me, including a group that was sitting at the edge of the road. A German tourist came up and asked me if they were turkeys! Now how the table had turned! And how condor-like Ben Franklin’s favorite bird can appear.

Perched on the railing was probably one of the only wild turkeys in the county and city of San Francisco. This is listed as a rare bird in San Francisco and one had been seen in this area of Golden Gate Park. According to the staff this female had appeared just after Thanksgiving, nearly two years ago.

So the turkey perched calmly on the railing which gave me an opportunity to do a quick sketch of the bird from behind. (Featured Sketch)


Sketching at the California Academy of Sciences

On a recent field trip we took 90 fourth graders to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I had come here myself when I was in elementary school, back then it was known as the Steinhart Aquarium. The museum was completely rebuilt in 2008 and bears little resemblance to the museum of my youth.

When the museum reopened, which is about a 45 minute walk from my dwellings, I bought a membership and visited some of the 46 million specimens on display many times. I had since let my membership lapse, but on our recent field trip I thought I would take advantage of the teacher’s discount and reconstitute my membership.

So the week after our field trip, after work, I headed to Cal Academy and bought a teacher’s membership. This museum is a wonderful resource for the natural world and I came prepared with my sketchers kit.

At mid-afternoon, after all the school groups had departed, it seemed that I had the museum to myself. I took advantage of this time and did five quick sketches.

I started by sketching an African penguin. This bird is also referred to as the Jackass penguin, a name that makes fourth graders blush and laugh at the same time, but refers to their braying call. These penguins were easy to sketch as they were roosting on their rocks and posing for me. (Well that statement was very anthropomorphic of me!)

I then headed up to one of the best features of the new building ( well it’s just over ten years old), the living roof. I did a quick sketch with Sutro Tower in the background.

living roof

I then headed into the basement where the aquarium is located. Here I sketched a massive but stationary red-tailed catfish(all sketched in pen) in the drowned Amazonian flooded forest tank. I had a grand time sketching a moon jelly with my sepia brush pen, all without a underlying pencil drawing (featured sketch).


On the way out I passed under the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the entrance. When I was a kid I remember an allosaurus skeleton in a similar place. I liked this little reach back to the past and I sat on a bench for a final sketch. Sketching the entire skeleton with the museum soon to close for the day seemed a daunting task so I just sketched the skull.


I look forward to many more visits and more sketchbook pages filled with knowledge and life!