Black Swift

Birding is a form of maddness.

It can make us wake at ungodly hours, spend ten hours in an ocean going fishing boat, or drive hours to search for a rarity! All for adding birds to a list or seeing a species for the first time.

This evening I was driven to hike a mile through fields and farmhouse to stand at the edge of the ocean, my face to the wind (a small sacrifice I know). I was standing above the sea caves at Sand Hill Bluff, about five miles from the city limits of Santa Cruz.

The caves are used as a nesting and roosting site for a Santa Cruz County target bird: the black swift (Cypseloides niger).

The black swift is our largest swift and is not often seen because it forages for insects high up in the air column, sometimes as high as 10,000 feet. They live much of their life on the wing, including copulating on the wing. But they return to terra firma to roost and nest. They have a limited distribution in North America, hugging the western side of the continent. Sadly, the black swift population has diminished by 90% since 1970.

I arrived on the bluff at 6:30. The black swifts seemed to be returning to roost just before sunset, which was going to be at 8:10, so I had a little time to wait.

I reflected on the fact that there is so much that is unknown about the black swift. It’s nest was left undiscovered until 1901 when a swift nest was found on the cliffs near Santa Cruz.

After reflecting I set up my sketching stool and sketched the cliffs looking west (featured sketch). Western gulls and Brandt’s cormorants where roosting on the rocks and off shore a steady line of sooty shearwaters where heading west. I estimated that there might be 2,000 shearwaters in this flock. Closer in, there where four sea otter foraging in the kelp beds.

At about seven I was joined by another madman, err, I mean birder. He had come from Sacramento to see the appearance of the black swift. It is always great to have a second set of eyes. In the past the swifts appear for a short time before flying into the sea caves to roost.

At about 7:30 I noticed an uptick in bird movement. The movement of westward sooty shearwaters had diminished and disappeared. The always vocal Caspian terns were heading east to their roost sites and long lines of “checkmark” formations of brown pelicans were flying low over the water heading west. I was waiting with anticipation as I scanned the skies for the arrival of the black swifts. Nothing yet.

At 7:55 PM, the Sacramento birder alerted me of the presence of a lone swift that disappear into a sea cave. I missed it. This was followed quickly by two other swifts that flew just east of the bluff and stayed in sight for about four minutes. County lifer 210!


West Coast “Snow Day”

PG & E gave me a gift by cutting off power in the Highlands neighborhood because of high winds and dry conditions. I found out late Sunday afternoon that we would be without power and school was cancelled. Call it a Bay Area “snow day”.

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County was making San Francisco smell like a camp fire so I planned to get out of Dodge and head south, on Highway One, and bird some of my favorite places in San Mateo County: Devil’s Slide (it was closed), Fitzgerald Marine Preserve, Pillar Point, Tunitas Creek Beach, Pigeon Point, Pescadero Beach, Ano Nuevo, and Gazos Creek Road. I have birded some of these locations for almost 20 years and they are always points of solace and repose. And some amazing birds and wildlife!

I started the morning with breaking the fast at Java Beach, across from the San Francisco Zoo on Sloat Boulevard. My first planned stop was Devil’s Slide. The gates to the parking lot were closed. Driving through Pacifica told me why. The power was out and all hands where helping to direct traffic at intersections where traffic lights where down, which meant all of them.

I drove on to Pillar Point and walked out to the point. Highlights where common loon (I just saw this species on Squam Lake in New Hampshire), red-breasted nuthatch, spotted sandpiper (which I’m always surprised to see, not sure why), and brown pelican. Brown pelican is such a common bird on the west coast but we should never forget how close to extinction this species was (because of DDT). This is such an amazing bird to see in flight. Let’s not forget the power of the commonplace.

I sat back against the rocky levy and did a loose sketch of the hills (the Coast Range as I teach my students).


The view from Pillar Point, looking northeast.

My next stop was Tunitas Creek Beach, where a week ago I have seen the Bar-tailed godwit. This rarity had flown but was now replaced by the Hudsonian godwit that was associating with a group of marbled godwits. I was joined by four other birders from the Sierra Nevada who were out on the coast to see a west coast rarity. And I was happy to point it out to them.

IMG_6882The Hudsonian godwit (left) and two larger marbled godwits on Tunitas Creek Beach.

S Plover

Pen brush field sketch of a snowy plover on Tunitas Creek Beach.

I headed further south and my main focus on the open plains of the San Mateo Coast was raptors. I found red-tailed hawks, American kestrel, northern harrier, white-tailed kite, but no ferruginous or rough-legged hawks. I  had seen a roughie  on October 18 at this location.

IMG_6315I found this rough-legged hawk as I was driving south to my cabin in Santa Cruz. This is an infrequent bird for San Mateo County and I’m glad some birders got to add it to their county list. On my return visit, I did not see the hawk.


The Sea Ranch

I recently spent a few days at The Sea Ranch on the Sonoma Coast. This is a place to recharge your batteries, write, sketch, hike, and do report cards. The Sea Ranch is about two and a half hours (100 miles) north of San Francisco and runs ten miles south from the Mendocino County border at the Gualala River in a narrow strip in between the rocky-coved coastline and the San Andreas Fault.

It was developed in the 1960’s and it is renowned around the world for its innovative and influential architecture. The original concept was to create buildings that worked with and not against the rugged Sonoma coast landscape. The design and style was influenced from it’s setting and the existing farm buildings on the former sheep ranch. As founding landscape architect Lawerence Halprin expressed it:

I was convinced that Sea Ranch could become a place where nature and human habitation could intersect in a kind of intense symbiosis that would allow people to become part of the ecosystem

I stayed in the iconic Sea Ranch Lodge ( featured sketch) which was among the first four buildings erected on the site to be a place where the community meets, picks up their mail and has a cocktail and a meal. This building is bookended by the iconic stylized rams heads that is Sea Ranch’s logo, designed by Barabara Stauffacher.

Room #2

I stayed in room number 2. The room had the feeling of being in an elegant coastal barn but with an expansive view out to the west of Big Blue and the lines of pelican and cormorant that passed over Bihler Point.

Sea Ranch Chapel

I headed north on Highway One to sketch one of the touchstones of my sketching universe, the Sea Ranch Chapel. I sat on a stone bench in front of the chapel, which was created without a blueprint. I started to sketch, using a Micron “Brown” pen. A visitor wandered out of her way to see what I was doing. She asked knowingly, ‘Doing a sketch?” Then she looked toward the uneven, shingled lines of this odd aquatic sea slug and offered, “Good luck.” But I thought, finally I get to sketch a building, without using a single straight line.

My father once paid me a compliment as he looked over the architectural sketches in one of my journals. He said, “You draw really good straight lines.” This coming from my father who was an engineer and always thought in straight lines. This has always been the best compliment I have every had about my sketching.

So I went into the chapel  and said a few words to close and holy golden light, a message to my departed dad.