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!


Las Gallinas

Las Gallinas Sewage Ponds.

These three ponds in northern Marin County, hold many avian riches. On one side of the trail, you have the ponds with ducks, egrets, pelicans, and cormorants. On the other side you have fields with hawks, falcons, harriers, rails, and owls

The mammalian fauna is also rich with coyotes in the fields and river otters in the waters.

On one Sunday I circled the ponds with binos and sketchbook. A treat was a Merlin perched along the “Merlin Highway”. You rarely see merlins perched in trees, because these small feisty falcons are always   on the move, always moving with a purpose. So a stationary Merlin perched in a tree, scanning the fields for its avian prey, is a temptation that a birder-sketcher cannot pass up!

I then added two more field sketches of a great egret hunting in the reeds and a line of double-crested cormorants drying their feathers in the winter sun. To this I drew a map as a visual journal of my day at Las Gallinas.

Least Bittern

I’ve seen a few life birds in and around the ponds at Las Gallinas. One was a juju bird, that is a bird that I have consistently whiffed on. This bird is  seemingly a mystic ghost that has never filled the lens of my binoculars.  This bird had evaded my life list for years, but a visit to Las Gallinas never let’s me down. This was the secretive and diminutive least bittern. I saw this bird in the reeds on the eastern end of pond one.  Whenever I see a life bird I create a journal spread, and United States life bird No. 452 is the subject of the sketch above.



My 50th Post: Maps

Maps, a way to find yourself or a way to document a passage.

Sketching has always been a journey, sometimes a physical one and other times an internal one. The byproduct of the journey results in a journal page, something that is left behind. That’s really what the sketcher tries to do: leave a record of an experience, a cityscape, a natural encounter, or a hike. In some of these leavings I have used a map to record the experience.

On my recent trip to The Sea Ranch I hiked along the coast from the Sea Ranch Lodge to the Olson Rec Center. There was nothing physically left of the journey but afterwards I memorialized the passage in a journal spread that noted the path and places names of the hike, as well as  the birds I encountered along the way. One being the Official Sea Ranch Bird (proclaimed by the sketcher): the northern flicker.

Bolinas Lagoon

This spread records a birding trip out to western Marin and  Bolinas Lagoon. This sketch was again done after the trip but it records the birds seen: great blue heron, bald eagle, Caspian tern, and Clark’s grebe. I also noted the mammalian life: harbor seal and coyote. When I look back at this page and the insert map, I am brought back to that May day in 2012.


An extremely rare bird sighting is always a subject for a spread, in this case the uncommon, common cuckoo seen at Watsonville Slough, south of San Francisco on September 29, 2012. This cuckoo was only the second record in the lower 48, a bird that brought people from all over the country to add this rarity to their North American life list. Luckily I didn’t have to go far to see this bird. I was able to get a quick sketch in the field (on the right side above my hanko) and I then added the cuckoo, both clock and bird at a later time. The map shows where the bird was first seen and where I (and many other birders) found the bird on the following day.


Another lifer and another sketch with a map. This time a pectoral sandpiper in western Marin.

RSHA Highlands

And finally a sketch that is not about a wayward rarity, lost on the west coast but a rather common raptor in the Bay Area: the red-shouldered hawk. This sketch records a series of  sightings of the resident pair of hawks that hunt my school’s playing field in the early morning before students arrive. I included a map to document the bird’s movements from hunting perch to the ground, to the soccer goal post (the “woodwork”), back across the field to the baseball backstop. On some wet mornings I have observed a red-shouldered eating worms like an American robin.

I have used this spread to teach my students how to take notes. It includes a lot of note taking strategies: writing, images and diagram, and of course a map. Ultimately it teaches students to pay attention to their environment, where the mundane is often extraordinary. But the first step is to look around you and see the wonder.