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Mendocino Whale Watch

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).

This sign at Point Carrillo Light Station was one of my better “whale” sightings.
This gray whale mural in a back alley in Fort Bragg was probably the “best” whale sighting of the trip!
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A November Snow in California

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.

The snow bunting about to take a bath in the creek.

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.

The shining white diamond was a much sought after lifer. It save me a trip to Alaska!

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.

This was world lifer 1,706!

The bunting post-bathing preening.
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The Ultimate Mammal Migration

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”.

Gray whale skeleton at the Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz.
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M*A*S*H, Malibu Creek State Park, Part 1

I headed out early from my Topanga Canyon digs on a 23 minutes drive to Malibu Creek State Park.

I would be hiking just over two miles (2.37 miles to be exact), on a fireroad called Crags Road, to the location set for the popular television series M*A*S*H (1972-1983). This state park was once the filming backlot for 20th Century Fox and many other tv shows and films where also filmed here, including the original Planet of the Apes. More on that film in a later post.

The level trail, which paralleled the rain-swollen Malibu Creek, was muddy from the rain over the past few days. Mist hung below the beautiful mountainous peaks of the Goat Buttes. The buttes are part of the Santa Monica Mountains, the only mountain range in California that runs west to east. I felt I was already in the “Korean” landscape of M*A*S*H. This landscape looked very familiar.

After I passed the side trail to Rock Pool, Crags Road began to climb upward in a muddy assent. The trail briefly leveled out and I headed down towards the former location of Ape City, built in the late 1960s for the sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes. But more about that in another post.

The fireroad now narrowed as it continued to parallel Malibu Creek. At this point I had not encountered a single person on my hike. I hoped that I would have the M*A*S*H site all to myself! The early bird, indeed gets the worm!

The beautiful long shadows of winter sun. On Crags Road less than 0.8 mile from the M*A*S*H site. But first I had to cross the creek.

I followed the sign to the creek crossing only to find a wooden staircase the led into the waters of Malibu Creek! The creek was impassable here, unless I was willing to swim. I looked upstream and I could just make out a makeshift “bridge” constructed of logs and tree limbs. Perhaps “constructed” is too much of word to describe the crossing but I had to chance it to get to the M*A*S*H site, which was on the opposite side of the creek.

I started across the “bridge”, carefully choosing each footfall on wobbly and far too thin sticks and logs. Here having trekking poles helped afford two more points of balance during the crossing. One pole slipped off a log and I attempted to put the pole down on the bottom of the creek, only to find that it was so deep that my pole was suspended in midwater. I made it to the opposite bank without becoming fully or partial immersion. I made sure my journals were safely stowed in a dry bag.

I now bushwacked to find the trail, which at this point did not resemble a fireroad but a single track trail. I was now very close, perhaps 0.5 of a mile and I was waiting, with childlike anticipation, for my first glimpse of the filming site. As I rounded a corner, I saw a Korean War era ambulance by the side of the trail. This marked the edge of the filming set.

This is a restored Dodge WC54 ambulance, which, despite what other have stated online, was not actually used during the filming of M*A*S*H. When you come up this vehicle, you know you about to enter the set.

I briefly scanned the site, which included three interruptive signs, two burnt out vehicles (a jeep and an ambulance) from the series, picnic benches, and a replica of the iconic signpost that was placed just outside of The Swamp. But before I explored the site properly, I headed up to the helipad to do some sketching. And yes, I had the site to myself, in beautiful clear winter weather!

This burnt out ambulance was used in the series. An ambulance similar to this is featured in the opening credits. A brush fire burnt the set during the final episode in 1983 and the fire was written into the script.
The replica signpost with the distinctive outline of the Goat Buttes.

The featured sketch is a map of the M*A*S*H site. I drew this before I head down to Malibu and it helped orient me when I was visiting the location for the first time.

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Suicide is Painless, It Brings on Many Changes

The hugely popular television series MASH, had it’s initial run from 1972 to 1983, spanning the first eleven years or so of my life.

The series became a backdrop or soundtrack to my life. While my family did not watch the show religiously, I knew the theme song (“Suicide is Painless”), the iconography, and characters of the show. Today, it seems like somewhere, around the world, one of the 256 episodes of MASH is being aired somewhere as a rerun.

The dramatic/comic series follows the doctors, nurses, soldiers, and patients of the MASH (Mobile Army Service Hospital) Unit number 4077 during the Korean War. Often in conflict are the civilian doctors (Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John, and later B. J. Hunicutt) with the enlisted officers of the unit. The popular series ran for 11 years while the Korean War lasted for just three.

On my winter break, I planned to head to the southland to do some field sketching of one of the most iconic locations using during the MASH movie and the television series. This was the former 20th Century Fox backlot used from many films (Planet of the Apes) and television series (MASH) which is now Malibu Creek State Park.

Of course I started my planning with a map. In this case, a map of the Malibu Coast covering Topanga, Malibu, Zuma Beach. and Malibu Creek State Park.

I often like to do some sketches before I leave on a trip to put my mind’s eye into the location. The featured sketch is based on a screen shot of the pilot episode of MASH, the television series showing the iconic opening as Radar looks on as two helicopter fly towards the helipad with wounded soldiers. The second sketch is of the famous MASH signpost. This was based on a photo of a replica of the sign. The original signpost is in the Smithsonian in Washington DC. I used a little artist license as I changed two of the locations to reflect the real location of the set: Malibu and Topanga (where I would be staying).

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California Western Railroad: The Skunk Train

For my second road trip of the summer, I chose my base camp: Fort Bragg on the Mendocino County Coast. I knew that one adventure I wanted to experience was a ride on the Famous California Western Railroad, also known as the Skunk Train.

The Skunk Train runs from Ft. Bragg to Willits, a train journey of 40 miles. A round trip of seven hours. The former logging railroad crossed 30 bridges and trestles and travels through two long tunnels.

The Skunk at Ft. Bragg. The water tower is for No. 45, a Mikado steam locomotive. Our train (No. 65) was pulled by a former Southern Pacific GP9 diesel built in 1955 by EMD.

The Skunk is a poor reflection of its former self because of the April 11, 2013 partial collapse of the 1,200 foot Tunnel No. 1. The tunnel was built in 1893 and it is in an area known for hill slides. This means that the Skunk Train only runs from Ft. Bragg to Glen Blair Junction, a distance of 3.5 miles. It seems like just when the train gets going, it stops 30 minutes later.

The railroad has also been without an operable steam locomotive. The 2-8-2 No. 45, was built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1924. The locomotive is currently being restored and may be once again under steam in the upcoming year.

The end of the line, for now. Plans are underway to open the line in about a year. In the background is the western portal of collapsed Tunnel No. 1.

It is a pleasant ride on the “Pudding Creek Express”, although “express” is hyperbole of the highest order! I chose to get out and explore the area and then catch the second train back to Ft. Bragg. There are a few hiking trails and I hoped to get in a few sketches before the train returned, so I had time to sketch and paint and had extra time to let the paint dry!

I started by sketching the caved in western portal of Tunnel No. 1. The tracks were covered in dirt and rocks filled the entrance. Vegetation was growing up, almost threatening to cover the portal. A train has not passed through here in almost eight years. A maintenance worker told me that they hoped to have the tunnel open in about a year. I’m not sure they could move a mountain but I’m sure that have the funds and the manpower to clear a tunnel.

Motor car M-100 at Willits, facing west towards Ft. Bragg.

On the following day, on a flight of fancy, I decided to drive to Willits to see the eastern end of the line. From Coastal Ft. Bragg to Willits was about an hour with temperature difference of about 30 degrees! I pulled up to the beautiful redwood station in time to see the eastern Skunk pull into the station. The Willits train is a two hour,16 mile, round trip. This trips travels to the highest point on the line (1,740 feet) and travels past the “”Wolf Tree”, a large coast redwood.

The line at Willits is isolated from the Ft. Bragg side of the railroad because of the collapse of Tunnel No. 1 so what ever motive power and cars are what ever was here, prior to April 11, 2013.

On the Ft. Bragg side of the line sits the Motor car M-300 (sketched in the featured sketch). These gas powered cars where used for passenger service in 1925. These motor cars gave the railroad it’s name, because the locals named the cars “skunks” because, “you can smell ’em before you can see ’em.”

The M-100, which is on a siding in Willits, was built by the Edwards Rail Car Company in 1925. It is still operable and used when ridership is down instead of using a diesel with passenger cars.

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Underpainting

I wanted to experiment with underpainting for some recent field sketches. First I put down a loose, cool, blue wash and on another page a warm orange-red wash. I kept it loose with some paint splatter and some ghosting.

Now I had to find a subject to lay over the wash.

My first subject was to be found at Harvey West Park in Santa Cruz. It was a Southern Pacific 0-6-0 switcher that is on static display in the picnic area. Southern Pacific Number 1298 is an S-10 class yard switcher that was build by Baldwin in 1917. The locomotive was retired in 1956 and was put on static display in Santa Cruz in 1961. In an earlier era, when things was less litigious, children where able to climb on the locomotive and tender. Now the tender was sold and the rusting Number 1298 sits fenced in, in need of a lick of paint.

The word static, implies “not moving”, which is a perfect sketching subject because, well, 1298 is not moving. It was a great subject to capture the form of the locomotive and the trees in the background. For this sketch I chose the page with the cool blue underpainting. I figured it would also work with the sky.

I loosely sketched in the form of the locomotive, tiring to keep details to a minimum. I failed to some degree because I think I added too many details, a problems I have with sketching a highly detailed subject like a locomotive or architecture. The running gear (the driving wheels that propel the locomotive) I simplified and left out a lot of information.

When you put wet watercolor paint over dried paint, it is called glazing. When you glaze in watercolor you can build up layers and depth. Because watercolor is transparent, the underpainting shows through in unexpected ways. And with using a fairly random underpainting the result can be a bit jarring but somehow seems to work. It’s just a sketch, after all.

For my sketch I laid over the warm orange-red wash I choose a jarring subject.

Just outside of Los Gatos, off of Highway 17, are two stone lynx-like statues that guard the driveway to Poets Canyon. The sculptures where created by Robert Paine and are named “Leo” and “Leona”. The sculptures have been in place since 1922. To get to this location is challenging because you can only turn west on Highway 17 (the direction whence I came).

Lucky for me, two 8 foot replicas are to be found at the Los Gatos Shopping Center on Santa Cruz Ave. The new cats are carved out of white marble and weigh in at 6,500 pounds each!

The underpainting is warm and I made no concessions to the true color on the statues. I like the way the sketch turned out (featured sketch).

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Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen was the final National Park in California that I needed to visit in order to visit al the National Parks in my home state. It always seemed less well known and remote than other parks in the state, with the exception of Channel Islands National Park because you have to take a one hour boat ride to get there. California has the most National Parks in the Union with nine.

Lassen Volcanic is an apt name for this National Park because volcanos and Lassen Peak dominate the landscape of this northeastern part of California.

A pre-trip sketch of the four types of volcanos and their examples, found in Lassen Volcanic National Park: Cinder Cone (Cinder Cone) Composite (Brokeoff Mountain), Shield (Prospect Peak), and Plug Dome (Lassen Peak). Lassen Peak is the largest example of a Plug Dome volcano in the world.

This 106,000 acre park features all four types of volcanos and Lassen Peak represents the last volcano to erupt in California. Even through that was just over one hundred years ago, that eruption, or more accurately, eruptions, left its mark all over the landscape. This is easily seen in the part of the park northeast of Lassen Peak called the Devastated Area.

The view of Lassen Peak from the Devastated Area.

The short interpretive trail features giant boulders that had travelled over three miles to find their angle of repose after an avalanche on May 19, 1915. Some of the massive boulders are estimated to have travelled at over one hundred miles an hours on their journey from the summit.

Lassen was active between 1914 and 1917 but it’s largest eruption occurred on May 22, 1915 when a massive eruption sent gas and ash 30,000 feet into the air. The eruption could be seen 50 miles away to the west in Anderson. The flows headed down the Lost and Hat Creek waterways, destroying everything in it’s path. This is now the area called the Devastated Area. The trees and vegetation has grown back but the large volcanic boulders tell of a turbulent time.

I picked a spot on the ground near the trail and sketched a large reddish dacite boulder formed about 27,000 years ago. Reading about this boulder’s journey helped understand these erratic rocks. It’s reddish hue reflected the origins of it’s birth, the reds I was seeing at the peak of Lassen.

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Lassen Volcanic N. P.

Before most trips I like to create a map of my travels in my journal to help me get the lay of the land. For my fall break I decided to keep it local and visit one of California’s least visited National Parks: Lassen Volcanic National Park. This remains the last National Park in California that I have yet to visit.

This National Park gets about 500,000 annual visitors compared to Yosemite’s 4.4 million. It can be hard to find solitude among the masses at Yosemite, which is California’s most visited National Park. So I was looking forward to the solitude I would find on the trails, lakes, and meadows at Lassen during the fall.

Volcanoes dominate the landscape, history, and name of Lassen Volcanic National Park. The volcano in question is the last volcano to erupt in California and only the second volcano (the other is Oregon’s Mount St. Helens) in the Continental United States to erupt in the 20th century. This of course is Lassen Peak.

This is a sketch taken from a famous Benjamin Loomis photograph of Lassen eruption in 1914. This is also the first sketch in my Stillman & Birn Zeta Series watercolor journal. I love breaking in a new journal and I hope to fill it’s pages with Lassen sketches.

The first major eruption of Lassen occurred on May 22, 1915 and ash was spewed high in the air drifting as far east as 280 miles. Lassen continued to be active until 1921. In August of 1916, Lassen became a National Park and Lassen became a sleeping giant.

The landscape around Lassen still show signs of the last eruption in the early years of the 20th century. I can’t wait to sketch this volcanic history.

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The Skies of Mars

But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.

—John Milton, Sonnet 23

The morning skies of Wednesday September 9, 2020 where an odd orange hue. This dawning day looked like a sepia colored night from a Film Noir based in the foggy, hilly streets of the City By the Bay (think: Out of the Past).

The sun was shrouded by a high, smoky fog. The street lights were on, motorists had their headlights bright, and the birds where silenced by the false-night.

There are currently 28 major wildfires burning in California that have consumed over 2.5 million acres. The smoke from these fires lay thickly in our upper atmosphere, above the coast marine layer (fog) creating the sun’s orange-tinged light.

Many forecasts predicted temperature highs to be in the 90s but the smoke blocked out so much sunlight that many areas in the Bay Area could only muster temps in the 60s.

The only bird that broke the silence was the local California scrub-jay. All other life seemed silent and shrouded in a apocalyptic nightmare!

This photo was taken at 11:30 AM, you could not drive in the gloom without your headlights on!
Looking north down 27th Avenue. The Golden Gate Bridge is out there somewhere!