Mendocino Sketches

I really wanted to sketch more of the very sketchible town of Mendocino but I was off non-whale watching and sketching lighthouses and orca bones.

I did head up north on a short drive to Russian Gulch State Park to sketch the 1940 bridge over Russian Gulch Creek.

I set up my sketching chair on the sandy beach looking west under the arches of the bridge.

Behind me, a group of kids gathered around to offer an assessment of my sketching progress. (They where heading out on a spearfishing expedition with their father.) This tends to happen when sketching in the field and children tend to lack a filter when it comes to their artistic opinions.

One piped in, “That’s really good!”

Another echoed, “Yeah, that’s really good!”

Phew! I passed the test! I chatted with the kids about how cool the bridge looked and they agreed. They then wandered off to get into their wetsuits.

On my last morning in Mendocino, I wasn’t going to spend time looking for whales, besides, there was a long line of fog on the horizon. Instead I set out with my sketching chair and bag, to sketch some structures in town.

My first sketch was the Temple of Kwan Tai on Albion Street, which is one of the oldest Chinese Taoist Temples in California. It was built in the mid-19th century and is dedicated to the Chinese God of War. The temple has been restored and is now a California Registered Historic Landmark No. 927.

After my temple sketch, I headed down Albion about half a block and sketched a converted water tower.

Mendocino has a really big water problem, as in, the lack of it. Wooden water towers rise in the town like trees. Some of these towers have been converted into rental units. The first time I stayed in Mendocino, I stayed in a three story converted water tower at the MacCallum House. It was a very unique experience.


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!

Point Cabrillo Light Station

After a whale watch, sans whales (let’s just call it a sea watch), I headed a few minutes north on Highway One to a lighthouse.

I parked and walked west for half a mile and the lighthouse came into view.

This is the Point Cabrillo Light Station. The lighthouse, which looks more like a house with a light attached it, was built in 1909. The building houses the foghorn but is not in use today.

I walked around the lighthouse and started a sketch. I didn’t like it so I moved to another angle, changed pens and I produced one of my favorite sketches of my Mendo trip. 

Sometimes changing position and pens can propel you on a different direction, a different perspective, and a better sketch. Sometimes it make a difference to pass and move!

And I sure like the result.


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.

Mendocino Coast

The Mendocino County Coast is a sketcher’s paradise with many interesting buildings, coastal views, and flora and fauna (who doesn’t love sketching coast redwoods?).

I have sketched many buildings in and around Mendocino and there are infinite subjects to sketch in this area.

In Ft. Bragg I walked out to Glass Beach. The rock formations appealed to me and I did a loose brush pen sketch from my folding sketcher’s chair (featured sketch). Sketching these rocks was recording a moment in time because the sea coast is always in a state of flux. Rocks crumble and reform, arcs collapse and the unrelenting tide shape and sculpt the coastline.

There seemed to be more common ravens in Ft. Bragg the I remember before. These very intelligent and adaptable birds have been expanding their range along the coast. As I was sketching I was watching these large corvids (the world’s largest songbirds) foraging among the rocks and seaweed like a black oystercatcher. I even slipped one in on my sketch.

I headed south to the scenic and historic town of Mendocino. Here a had a building in mind that I wanted to sketch. This building was built in 1901 by Portuguese settlers and as it turns out, it is the largest hall in the town of Mendocino. This is Crown Hall.

Crown Hall is on a side street (Ukiah Street) that parallels Main Street. The hall can be rented out for weddings and other events. The building features a kitchen, a bar, and a stage.

The stage is what really attracted me to doing a sketch of Crown Hall. This was a venue used by a legendary Northern California folksinger, Kate Wolf. She preformed at various locations in Mendocino and the last Kate Wolf recording released, Live in Mendocino, features live recordings from concerts in Mendocino County, including a concert at Crown Hall in 1982.

Kate Wolf was born in San Francisco in January 27, 1942. When Kate was 27, she visited Big Sur and heard locals playing music in their living rooms. So inspired, she moved to Sonoma County and stared writing and performing music in local bars.

Kate’s following grew in the 1980’s and she performed all around the Golden State and was even featured on the music show, “Austin City Limits” and on the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion”. In 1981, Kate released “Closer to You”, which is probably her best album featuring her own compositions. In 1983 she release the live album “Give Yourself to Love”, the title track becoming one of Kate’s most well known songs.

Sadly, Kate Wolf died at the age of 44 on December 10, 1986 after a long battle with leukemia. In her honor, the Kate Wolf Music Festival was held in June of 1996 in Sebastopol. Since 2001 it has been held at Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, ca. The three or four day music festival traditionally ends with a cover of “Give Yourself to Love”

I included the first verse and chorus of this song to my sketch.


Van Damme Gray Ghost

Dickcissel and I stayed at Van Damme State Park at campsite #9. Van Damme is just south of the town of Mendocino, right off a lovely sandy cove.

This campground is legendary amongst birders because of one of its feathered residence. This is a bird that is sometimes known as the camp robber or the Gray Ghost. This is a bird that suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere, that is usually quiet, which is unusual for a member of the jay family. This is the southern edge of it’s range in California and as it’s name implies, the Canada jay is a creature of the far north.

Seeing a Canada jay, formerly called the gray jay, is not always guaranteed at Van Damme. While you may never see this sometimes-elusive bird, it certainty sees you. This jay is extremely curious and often bold.

The bird that is usually first encountered at the campground is the bold and raucous Steller’s jay. This is the west’s only crested jay and it is a bird that I have loved since my childhood. The Steller’s jay is often the first visitor when you pull into camp. Like the Canada, this jay is also very curious.


Since childhood, I have always loved this much maligned jay, with a raucous call and it’s bold jayness. The lesson (and some times struggle) is to see the beauty in everything.

As we set up camp we saw and heard Steller’s but there was no sign of the grey ghost. As dusk approached, a young great horned owl called from the forested hillside and an adult responded from across the way. The owls called for most of the night, which along with the ringing of a buey bell just outside of the cove, were the soundtrack of our Van Damme slumbers.

In the morning, as the owl calls slowed to a stop, the first diurnal call that I heard was the acorn woodpecker. This was soon joined by Pacific wren, Dark-eyed junco, American robin, northern flicker, ruby-crowned kinglet, common raven, red-breasted nuthatch, and the ever-present Steller’s jay. I ticked all these bird calls off as I stayed in the warmth of my sleeping bag.

But then I heard a soft call. I call that I had trouble recognizing. As I sorted through the calls in my memory bank, I knew it could only be one bird! The ghost had arrived!

I zipped open my tent and peered out into the morning half-light. There in the tree over the picnic table was a Canada jay! I loudly whispered over to Dickcissel’s tent, “They’re here!”

I threw on my clothes, putting on one sock upside down in the process and stumbled out of my tent. In the tree were a family of four Canada jays, coming in to investigate our camp. Dickcissel and I watched these beautiful corvids as we ate our breakfast.


This gray ghost is getting a little too close to my morning oatmeal! This very inquisitive,  and fearless jay is not called the “camp robber” for nothing!

Doing a little field sketching of the Canada jays of Van Damme State Park. The sketcher is looking a little “gray” himself.

IMG_7314The Canada jay is very much attracted to the presence of humans and are a very intelligent and curious critter! This jay is perched on our food larder at campsite #9.


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!