Nature Notes

Being out in nature, whether I am birding, hiking, or simply nature loafing, always rewards the observant sketcher. I notice interesting behaviors from common species, which I have never seen before.

On a recent “big loop” hike in Fall Creek State Park, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I decided to created a few pages based on field notes from observations in the park.

I hiked up the Fall Creek Trail and then headed up to the ridge on the Big Ben Trail and then skirted the edge of the Fall Creek watershed on the Truck and Ridge Trails and then looped back to the trailhead.

I made three observations on my six mile hike that I wanted to illustrate: a singing Pacific wren, a western grey squirrel climbing up a Douglas-fir, and two observations of North America’s largest woodpecker: the pileated woodpecker.

I made my sketches once back at the cabin and I used the Grinnell Method as a guide for my notes. The Grinnell Method was created by Berkeley Field Biologist Joseph Grinnell as a way to make precise notes about species behavior.

As I was headed down the Truck Trail (named I assume, because you could drive a truck on this wide fire road) I noted a western gray squirrel on the ground off to my left. When it saw me, it does what most arboreal squirrels do: head to the nearest tree. In this case it was a Douglas-fir. I noted that he squirrel did not head straight up the tree. Instead it corkscrewed up the bole at a 45 degree angle, keeping the tree between itself and the threat (me). It appeared on a short branch about 20 to 25 feet above the ground and observed the observer.

Now this squirrel is common species in Redwood/Douglas-fir forests but because I was present and open to nature, I wondered why this behavior benefits the squirrel. Was this a latent response to hunting? How would the squirrel react if the threat came from above, like a red-tailed hawk or great horned owl? I may not have any answers but it always pays to question nature because the answer always make sense, even if we cannot quite figure them out.

The Truck Trail turns to the left and the Ridge Trail begins. About 0.5 of a mile down the trail I heard a must sought after bird. I heard the raucous almost prehistoric call of the pileated woodpecker. I got a brief look of the crow-sized woodpecker as it flew south down the tail.

Further down the trail I had an even better sighting. Another pileated flew to a Douglas-fir snag near the trail. The male stayed at the top of the snag and started drumming. Woodpeckers drum as a way to communicate with other woodpeckers as a way to proclaim territory and also to attract a mate. The pileated’s drum is powerful and loud. The male’s drumming was answered by the drum of another, presumedly the other pileated I had seen further up the trail.

These two sketches where not done in the field. The sketch on the left was from memory and the portrait of the pileated is from a Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Birds (1941).


Cabin Birds (Earth Day 2020)

My love of birds was born by spending time at my family’s cabin above the backs of the San Lorenzo River in the Santa Cruz Mountains. My grandma put up a feeder on one corner of the deck that attracted the local chestnut-backed chickadees, pygmy nuthatches, and Steller’s jays.

While I was planning to spend my Spring Break traveling on the California Zephyr to Chicago, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the works (and changes the lives of others across the world). Instead I headed down to my cabin to shelter in place.

The spring is one of my favorite times at my cabin. Things are finally starting to dry out and temps are gradually warming up. You really start to feel, see and hear the changing of the seasons.

First you feel the air warm against your skin. You start to see the world of green slowly coming alive on the trees and bushes from the desk. And you start to hear the sounds of the neotropic migrants arriving on there summer breeding grounds.

These are the birdsongs that I have not heard in almost a year and I sometimes have to become reacquainted with them, like hearing the voice of a forgotten friend.

The most vocal newly arrived avian member is the diminutive Wilson’s warbler. This little flash of gold is a very vocal member of the spring choir. It calls constantly from the midsts of trees out back. The males at this time of year are setting up their breeding territories and also hoping to attract new-arrived females.

Another migrant is the Pacific-slope flycatcher, of the tricky genus Empidonax. Most of these similar flycatchers can be identified by call alone and I far more ofter hear the “pee-wheet” call of the Pac-slope. Welcome home.

A resident that becomes very vocal at this time is the diminutive Pacific wren, which boasts one of the fastest songs in the avian world at about 32 notes per second! What is amazing is that such a small, drab looking bird can create such a loud and splendid song. I painted a wren from a photograph of a singing male in my backyard bramble.

A pair of common mergansers roosting near the waters of the San Lorenzo River.

Cabin Birds Part Two (Audubon’s Birthday)

“Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm.” —John Muir

“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”. -Mary Oliver

Spending two weeks during my Spring Break at my cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains gave me the opportunity to slow down and notice the most important things in life. That is life itself. (A nod to you Mr. Ebert)

Birding just adds another layer to experience. It is a soundtrack that not many hear. To those aware, the signs of spring are everywhere. To the calls of the Pacific wren and dark-eyed junco to the sounds of the newly arrived neotropic migrants like Wilson’s warbler, Pacific-slope flycatcher, and black-headed grosbeak. The latter bird I heard on my last day at my cabin, when I heard a district “clip” contact call. I headed out to the deck to see this beautiful flash of orange, back, and white.

This was a First of Season (FOS) bird for me. The males arrive on their breeding grounds from Mexico just ahead of the females and the males proclaim their place in the world with their robin-like song. This has always been a favorite cabin bird and it arrives in mid April most years.

The sky above the San Lorenzo River is filled with newly arrived swallows at this time of year. The most common species are tree and violet-green swallows. Swallows are insectivores and are aerial acrobats that catch flying insects on the wing. Like the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano, swallows are a sign of renewed and the turning of the season from winter to spring.

The aerial insectivore, one of North America’s most beautiful swallow.

Just as I was packing up the car to return to San Fransisco, the natural world gave me a parting gift. I noticed that a pair of chestnut-backed chickadees were cleaning out one of the nesting boxes that I had built and hung on a redwood near the parking lot. This gives me such a sense of joy that I have played a small part in helping to create life.

The two weeks I spent in Paradise was a great was to slow down and really appreciate life.