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A Sketcher’s Prep

Before any great journey, I do some sketcher’s prep.

In this case, the featured sketch, is a spread about my Colorado birding wishlist featuring such birds as scaled quail, sharp-tailed grouse, American three-toed woodpecker, and white-tailed ptarmigan. I did quick thumbnail sketches of each species, in other words, you would never use this spread as an identification guide.

While these sketches are no where near David Allen Sibley standards, they help me to see each bird better. To sketch from a photo requires close attention, once when the sketch is penciled in, then when it’s inked and finally a third time when the image in painted.

I also wanted to use a new travel palette for Colorado and I documented it’s creation in another spread.

I first sketched out the layout of my new palette in my landscape Delta Stillman & Birn softcover sketchbook. As I added each color to the wells of the palette I painted it in and added a swath on the opposite page. This will provide a good reference of what the colors look like on the heavy weight Delta paper.

I love using Stillman & Birn sketchbooks and I love the feel of a panoramic, landscape format but I dislike the fact that this book is not made in hard cover but softcover only. It does not provide a solid sketching surface to paint on. I will see how this book holds up on this trip.

I also carry a small notebook that help me prep before a trip. I writing down my itinerary, addresses, lodging information, any travel notes, random poems, target life birds, and a targeted sketch list.

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Lifer Drought Ends: Least FC

My world life list has been hovering around 1,647 species for a long time now. I was hoping to break 2,000 with a planned trip to Peru but of course it was canceled due to the global pandemic.

The pandemic also meant that I have not gotten out to bird across the country or the state as much as I would like. It is great to get out and be amongst nature looking at birds but sometimes when it is a rare species that has been reported, social distancing becomes a real issue as more and more birders show up to a certain site looking into the nearby bushes.

When I found out there was a least flycatcher being seen in the Presidio I rushed over hoping to get a glimpse of it before sunset. I whiffed on the flycatcher, missing it by about an hour. But I was determined to try again the following morning.

I was in place by quarter to nine the following day. I was soon joined by two other birders. A least flycatcher in California is a rare bird! This is a flycatcher that is normally found on the east coast and it is an Empid, a genus of small flycatcher that can be notoriously hard to distinguish from one another. Some call only be told apart by song.

Within the next hour birders reached critical mass at eight.

To pass the time there was plenty of passerine action and a few raptors too. A white-throated sparrow was foraging with golden and white-crowned sparrows. Another birder called attention to the continuing yellow-bellied sapsucker high in the eucalyptus trees. This woodpecker is considered rare in California. A stunning adult red-shouldered hawk was perched above, warming itself and preening in the morning light.

An Adult RSHA, squinting into the morning sun.

After an hour’s wait, by about 10 AM, a birder informed me that they had the flycatcher further down W. Pacific Ave. So I headed down and seven birders where looking into the forest edge. I followed their gaze and got on the least flycatcher!

This was a very active bird, hawking insects on the wings and occasionally landing on the ground to capture prey. The least flycatcher forages low to the ground, which can help with identification.

The diminutive least flycatcher, looking down for insects to catch.
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Lifer #503

After striking out on three separate occasions on the ultra rare dusky warbler in South San Franciso, I was in need of a life bird. Once you have crept into the 500s, a completely new North American species can be very hard to find. But with time and patience, anything is possible.

Nicasio Reservoir in western Marin County has always been a great place to bird. In September of 2012, DICK and I had great views of a pectoral sandpiper on a fall afternoon. What brought me back to this reservoir, just across the channel from where I first saw the pectoral, was a small twitcher of a bird with a streaky back and a buffy wash. It was a rare red-throated pipit. This Eurasian pipit has a very limited breeding range in Alaska and a few red-throateds make their way down to the California coast each fall.

When I arrived I scanned the eastern shoreline from Nicasio Valley Road. The first birds to catch my attention were two killdeer and then I noticed smaller birds working their way among the grass, American pipits. This was a promising sign. The red-throated tends to associate with Americans during migration.

I scampered down to the shoreline and headed towards the channel off to the northwest. There were at least 15 pipits on the shoreline ahead. I scanned the flock for the one that looked different, the one with the streaky back. No luck.

I returned to the shoreline where the pipit had been seen over the past few days. I sat  on a boulder and waited for the bird to come to me. Slowly small groups of pipits returned to work the shoreline. I carefully examining each bird, trying to turn the plain back of the American into streaks.

Then at 12:20, a pipit seemed to appear out of the grass, directly in front of me. This was a pipit of a different sort, bluff wash, white wing bars, and a streaked back. Bingo, North American life bird #503, red-throated pipit (Anthus cervinus).

I called DICK to coax him out to western Marin, which was not hard to do. While I waited for him to arrive, I sketched the shoreline of the reservoir. He arrived half and hour later with containers of golden hoppy celebration. He raised glasses, then we raised glasses, toasting to a new life bird.

A fellow birder on the beach commented, “You guys sure know how to bird!”

And indeed we do!

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500! The Emperor!

As I headed out the door on The Quest for 500, the light rain that constitutes fog in San Francisco, was heavy, making visibility limited to a few blocks. I wondered how I was going to find a needle in the haystack, a single goose among thousands of other geese, in a thick blanket of fog.

As I headed north into Marin County, blue sky started to appear over Mt. Tam. I was on my way to pick up DICK and then we headed northeast on Highway 12, past the riverside town of Rio Vista to green fields, framed by a levee to pick through the thousands of greater white-fronted and cackling geese. Our prize was a pied-headed marine goose that usually forages through the tidal flats on the islands of the Bering Sea, where it breeds, and winters on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. A few individuals wander south to Washington and Oregon and an even fewer number, the needles, head farther south into California. Since 1884 there have been only 38 accepted sightings in California. This was the quest for the Emperor goose.

We had a vague idea where the goose might be, other birders had whiffed on it earlier in the week and our best case scenario would be that we come upon a group of birders that already had the Emperor in their scopes and we check it off our lists. Once we turned off Highway 12 I was surprised to find only one Prius load of birders. It looked like we had to find this goose on our own.

Over the vast green fields we could see little grouped specks as far as the eye could see. This was going to be a tough lifer.We turned right on the levee road, Seven Mile Slough to our left and the fields to our right. A herd of sheep grazing the hill appeared to the right. On one sheep was a “sheep” egret, a small white bird that associates with livestock. Lifer for DICK.

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The “sheep” egret on its movable perch, otherwise known as cattle egret, Bubulicus ibis.

We stopped every time we saw a flock of foraging geese and scanned the groups for the beacon. No luck. We approached a turn in the road, leading back north towards Highway 12. We stopped and surveyed the vast mass of geese that were forging on either side of the power poles that bisected the field. They were close enough that we didn’t need a scope but there were a lot of geese to pick through. The tall green grass and the up and down feeding dance of the geese made our search even more difficult.

Five minutes into the search DICK said, “I’m looking at your 500th lifer!” I raised my glasses and looked at the flock of geese just to the left of the power pole. The Emperor raised it’s head like a beacon of light, standing out, an exclamation point that announced itself amid all the white-fronted and cackling geese. Life bird No. 500!

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Corvidsketcher looking at life bird No. 500, Emperor goose, Chen canagica.

We were soon joined by another birder and his two dogs. Then another and another car stopped to see the goose. One couple, Nevada Bob and his wife, had left Nevada a 6 AM to see the Emperor. In all we we had great looks with the sun at our backs for about 30 minutes until something spooked the birds and the flock erupted into the air and the geese and the needle disappeared. The show was over.

Coda

Like the Emerpor’s unique head and neck, a contrast of black and white, light and dark, the experience was also mixed with pathos. Directly across the creased and pock-marked levee road  from where we found the Emperor was a handmade wooden cross with the name Tony Paul Ludricks painted across the top. I later learned that on May 24, 2015, a car veered off the levee road and into the slough. The 20 year old passenger was able to swim to safety but the driver was not so lucky. Tony was 16 years old.