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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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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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The Rime of the Ancient Murrelet

On Veteran’s Day Weekend, consisting of a birding and camping adventure with Dickcissel, I had one bird on my wishlist: the ancient murrelet (Synthiloramphus antiquus).

I have been to the Mendocino Coast many times but had not put the effort into a dedicated seawatch to see this small alcid. (I also did not bring the scope required for finding this bird.)

Before heading up to the Mendocino Coast, I did a study sketch of this small alcid (the featured sketch). When I did this sketch, using the Sibley Guide, photos, and Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, it was a way of creating a mental image of this bird; It’s field marks, behavior, and flight. This helped me single out the other birds and find the two toned “flying penguin “. A bird named “ancient” because of the gray feather of it’s head, giving the impression of being really old.

We started our Seawatch on the observation decks at Laguna Point in MacKerricher State Park just north of Fort Bragg. It was a beautiful day, clear and calm which makes for great seawatching with the sun at our backs providing great light to see the passing birds on the water. There was a lots of birds moving south, mainly loons and surf scoters that flew close to shore, low across the water.

Now it was just a matter of finding a small gray-backed alcid with white underwings, a light, short bill and a twisting and turning flight pattern. Really there where not too many birds that we could confuse it for.

About 30 minutes into our watch, I got on a two small alcids, heading south. I panned the scope with them and they checked all the boxes! Ancient Murrelet, ABA lifebird #570!

Scoping the Pacific. There was lots of southerly movement at Laguna Point. Mostly loons and surf scoters and the alcid I wanted to see: the ancient murrelet. Does this hat make me look ancient?

We also scoped from the Mendocino Headlands State Park.

A little nature loafing in between seawatches at Mendocino Headlands State Park. We had a glorious day on the Mendocino Coast. From here we spotted a peregrine, loons, black oystercatchers, mergansers, and five snow geese. The latter had never been recorded for this location!