Saw-whet in Paradise

In mid- January, my neighbor from down the hill from my cabin, emailed me that she heard an owl calling, just after dark.

She thought it could be a saw-whet or a western screech-owl. On following evenings the mystery owl called again and again, just after dark. She confirmed that she thought that the owl calling was a northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus)!

This would be an amazing Santa Cruz County bird to add to my list and especially so to hear this diminutive owl in my own backyard! Well, close to it anyway.

The Northern saw-whet owl is can be common or uncommon resident of the California coast, favoring mixed conifers and deciduous woods. This owl may be much more common than believed because if it isn’t calling, this owl goes undetected. It is one of our smallest owls with a length eight inches and weighing in at 2.8 ounces. In other words, this owl weights as much as three standard sized envelopes.

The northern saw-whet gets its common name because it’s incessant “toot-toot-toot” territorial call that reminded early ornithologists of the whetting or sharpening of a saw; a common sound in the forests as lumberjacks felled trees to fuel a growing nation.

I have never heard a saw-whet call in Paradise Park. This may be because wildlife has been displaced by the destructive CZU Lighting Complex Fire. This fire burned in the late summer of 2020 for 44 days, consuming almost 400,000 acres of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some of those animals are now wildfire refugees and are now establishing a new territories.

I planned to head down to Santa Cruz and do some owling, to see if I could confirm the existence of a saw-whet in Paradise Park. So I set out at 5:30 PM and walked around as the diurnal birds stopped calling, one by one as they sought out their nighttime roosts. The last diurnal call was the “chip” of a California towhee. It was now time for the night shift.

I centered my search at the picnic grounds. This is where my neighbor had recently heard the saw-whet. Now it was a matter of waiting a time with patience. A time to focusing the senses, to filter out the sounds of traffic on Highway 9 and seek the repetitive toots of the saw-whet.

At 6:10 I heard the first call of the saw-whet. It seemed distant and tough to locate. The saw-whet’s call is very loud for such a small bird, it can be heard from half a mile away.

I moved along the road to try and locate the owl, but as always, owls are elusive. At times it seemed the saw-whet was close and at other times far. As if the owl was frequently changing locations. In reality the owl was probably changing the dynamics of it’s song. It would be silent for a short time and then resume it’s name token song. I now had a new Santa Cruz County bird in my own backyard!

On Saturday evening, I went out for another owling ramble, to reconfirm the saw-whets presence in my world. Would I hear it two nights in a row? I also wanted to get a better sound recording of the owl. The evening before I recorded a faint but distinctive recording.

This time I set out a little later. I was at the picnic grounds at 6:30 pm and it wasn’t long before I heard the saw-whet calling up the hill.

I walked up the road toward where I thought the sound was coming. Hanging from my belt loop was my bluetooth speaker (an indispensable piece of equipment for any tropical bird guide).

I was going to use a recorded call of a call-whet to try to bring the owl closer so I could get a better recording of it’s call. In birding terms this is called using “playback”. When I played the recording through the speaker, the saw-whet seemed to accelerate it’s song. The call was getting louder as if the owl was coming closer to my location.

An owl’s flight is silent so I could not hear if the saw-whet was flying towards me. But what I did hear was the owl’s wings brushing against the branches above me. I was able to get two recordings with my iPhone and then I left the saw-whet to it’s “day”of establishing it’s territory and hunting for small rodents.

Here is a link to my eBird checklist with the two recordings I made:

I headed back to my cabin, satisfied with my night revels but I had one last trick up my sleeve. I stopped outside my neighbor’s house and I turned my bluetooth speaker on and played the saw-whet call at full volume! Within a minute, she came out surprised that it was just me and not a saw-whet. I thanked her for telling me about the saw-whet owl in our backyard!


California Wildfires: CZU Lighting Complex

In the early morning hours of Sunday August 16, 2020, I was awoken by the low thud of thunder. A few minutes later, white light temporarily illuminated my bedroom. A summer thunder and lighting storm! This was a rare occurrence on the California coast.

I lept out of bed and headed to the deck in the same spirit that John Muir climbed up a Doug-fir to experience a windstorm! In this case my survival instinct prevented me from climbing to the top of the tallest tree in an electrical storm. Instead I stood in the open doorway.

I looked upriver and another flash of lighting silhouetted the sloping tree-line and then a clap of thunder filled the darkness. I heard the first drop of rain hit the deck and I reached my hand out from the doorway to feel the life-giving rain. It rained for a very short time, this was a dry thunderstorm.

I stood in the threshold of the back door until that survival instinct willed me to close the door and return to bed. Of course I couldn’t sleep in all the climatic excitement. The center of the storm cell was now moving over my cabin. One clap of thunder was so close that it rattled my bedside lamp.

The whole storm lasted for about 30 to 45 minutes. At that time, little did I know, that this storm sparked wildfires that would create more damage in Santa Cruz County than the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

I finally drifted off to sleep and when I awoke and looked out across the deck to clear blue skies, I knew the day was going to be warm, extremely warm.

That day I chose to drive over Highway 9 through the San Lorenzo Valley. I rarely drove this route but I had many memories of the area including the town of Boulder Creek, where I worked at a coffee shop just after college. This highway would be a fire line in upcoming weeks. Over 900 structures would be destroyed to the west of Highway 9.

Monday August 17, was the first day of school and it proved to be one of the oddest first days in my teaching career because I was not greeting my students at the classroom doorway but online in my digital “classroom”. Well that was the plan until I got to school and found out that the power was out and PG&E later looked at a power pole on campus that had been struck by lighting (part of the same storm system that started the fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains) and destroyed a transformer. Power would not be restored until two days.

As the news came that a series of forest fires (a complex) was growing into one big wildfire, I kept an eye on Cal Fire’s updates on the contagion. At the same time trying to be present for my students who were no doubt anxious and nervous with the first week’s jitters, especially so because we where all in isolation and we where only seeing a facsimile of ourselves on a screen.

I was also planning for a digital Back to School Night on Thursday and I knew there would be many questions about Distance Learning and I surly did not have all the answers. I ended the presentation by sharing the poem I had written last April about how we were all like pioneers on the Oregon Trail. There would be many hardships but with perseverance and hard work, we would get there.

Back to School Night went better than I had expected and it was very odd not to see my parents and greet then in person. Half and hour later, at 7 PM I received work that a mandatory evacuation order was in place for Paradise Park and my family cabin was in danger of being consumed by the CZU Lighting Complex fire!

At the time of writing the fire that was named the CZU Lighting Complex had burned for 19 days and have consumed over 86,000 acres across San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties. As of the morning of September 5, the fire is 61% contained.

Cal Fire were able to create fire lines to protect the UC Santa Cruz campus, Santa Cruz, Scott’s Valley, and Paradise Park. The evacuation order was lifted after seven days and residents were able to return to their homes. I headed back to my cabin, a week later, almost 20 days since I had left.

The first thing I noticed was the smoky air and when I looked down the ground was covered in fine white ash, like a light dusting of snow that hadn’t melted away yet. Then I headed to my deck and I heard the rumble of a Cal Fire Huey helicopter with an empty water bucket trading behind.

I looked down and that’s when I noticed the leaves. They were bay laurel leave but they were drained of color and were a charred sepia. How far from the fire storm had these leaves travelled to land on my deck? This evidence of fire was somehow more “real” than the smoky air or the Cal Fire helicopters passing back and forth.

A burnt bay laurel leaf on my front steps.

The suet feeding on the deck was empty and the trees around the cabin were eerily empty of birds. I wondered some animals, like the humans of the community, had fled to less smokey quarters.

I replenished the water in the bird bath and I added some suet to the feeder. Slowly, life was returning. The first bird to visit the feeder was a chestnut-backed chickadee. Life was beginning to return to “normal”.



At length did cross an Albatross, 
Thorough the fog it came; 
As if it had been a Christian soul, 
We hailed it in God’s name.

~The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Into each life some rain must fall, but too much is falling in mine.”

~Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots


Most people know the word. Some know that it is a bird. Fewer know that is is a bird of the sea. And even fewer have ever seen one in the wild.

I have seen albatross. But only two species, of the almost 21 species that ride just above the seas. They are a bird to behold. Long and thin, graceful wings that rarely flap as they soar on the ocean’s winds. A turkey vulture of the seas.

The most common albatross in the northeastern Pacific Ocean is the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes). It is uncommon to see Laysan albatross on an all day pelagic boat trip.

I had booked a pelagic trip out of Santa Cruz Harbor that was scheduled for August 30th. This trip was sponsored by the Santa Cruz Bird Club (founded in 1956) and was open to members only. The trip was limited to 18 birders because of the continuing pandemic. It sold out in a very short time.

This trip is a reconstituted version of a very popular “Albatross Trip” which was an annual pelagic trip first taken by the club in the 1950’s. As many as 60 club members would depart the Municipal Wharf in June on one of the Stagnero’s fishing boats. They headed out 12 miles to the rock cod fishing grounds and the bird on everyone’s wish list was black-footed albatross.

The albatross is the figurehead of the Santa Cruz Bird Club. Since the club’s inception in 1956, the newsletter is named “Albatross”. And the only way to see an albatross in Santa Cruz County is to get on a boat and head offshore. Most pelagic birding trips leave from Monterey and not Santa Cruz. So this Santa Cruz pelagic trip was a rare treat.

Albatross is a species I like to see at least once a year and I have never recorded a black-footed in Santa Cruz County waters and this pelagic trip was my chance! Along the way to the fishing grounds we also had a chance to pick up shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, skua, murrelets, Sabine’s gull, and Arctic tern.

An adult black-footed albatross seen on an August 17, 2018 pelagic trip off the coast of San Mateo.

And then came a fierce, dry electric storm on the morning of Sunday, August 16. I was at my cabin the Santa Cruz Mountains and I first heard the deep rumble of thunder at 3 AM. This was a rare treat in the Coastal Region of California: thunder and lighting. I walked out on my deck and reveled in the sights and sounds of the power of nature.

This treat came with a trick. Lighting struck the extremely dry earth many times and ignited a forest fire, that was named the CZU Lighting Complex. At the time of writing the fire has consumed 78,769 acres and had been burning for eight days. 330 structures had been destroyed, including the Big Basin State Park Visitor’s center and taken one human life. (There is no tally for the lives of trees, plants, and animals killed in the fire.)

So with distance learning starting during a global pandemic, and a fire slowly creeping towards the cabin that has been in my family for almost 80 years I was especially looking forward to the opportunity to escape to the sea and look at the marine life; the whales, dolphins, and pelagic birds (including the black-footed albatross).

But it was not meant to be as the trip was postponed because of the wildfire and the displacement caused by mandatory evacuations in Santa Cruz County.

But this gives me hope. The fire is now 17% contained and I look forward to heading out to sea with the Santa Cruz Bird Club to see our first albatross appear through the rolling waves!


The Search for the American Dipper or Dipping On Dipper

Once, perhaps 35 years ago, I saw an American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) flying downstream on the San Lorenzo River, between Middle and Sandy Beach in Paradise Park. What an amazing sighting. The bird of John Muir, the aquatic songbird of clear, turbulent mountain streams was on the San Lorenzo!

At the time I did not keep records so I don’t know the month or year of the sighting but since that time I have been looking to find another dipper on the river. This bird is an indicator species for the health of a river. Dippers are considered a rare bird in Santa Cruz County but there was suitable habitat upriver in Henry Cowell State Park that look promising. Large granite boulders, turbulent river water. This is where a dipper should be, I reckoned.

I first checked the location of my first sighting on the San Lorenzo on the turbulent turn in the river between Sandy and Middle Beach. This rocky bend looked like good habitat for dipper and I walked up river, checking river rocks for the tell tale signs of whitewash, bird poop. There was some but this could be from a black phoebe. I did not see a dipper here.

On another day I next searched Rincon Gorge upstream from Paradise Park. Dipper had been reported here in May 1988 and again in May 2009 where a nest with young was seen. That was a long time ago and there were no current reports on eBird. So I searched and I again dipped on dipper.

Now it was time for a bigger expedition on the San Lorenzo, to explore some of the best stretches of river between Coon Gulch and Garden of Eden Beach in Henry Cowell State Park. This effort would require traversing down to the river from the railroad tracks on what only could be called a mountain goat path and then hiking up and often in, the San Lorenzo, towards Garden of Eden.

I parked on Highway 9 and headed down the Ox Fire Road towards the railroad and Garden of Eden. When I was halfway down the trail I heard the primeval calls of our largest woodpecker: the pileated. On a Douglas-fir snag, about 100 yards from the railroad, I spotted a family group of four pileated woodpeckers! Either this was a good omen for my dipper search or a great consolation for dipping.

After leaving the pileated family I headed downstream on the railroad and took the trail down to the popular beach, Garden of Eden. Perhaps this beach should be renamed Garden of Trash. I was appalled at the amount of cans and bottles, random clothes and towels, and toilet paper. Beachgoers clearly ignored the “Pack Out Your Trash” signs.

The amount of discarded cans and bottles along the banks of the San Lorenzo was truly disgusting!

I headed upstream from Garden of Eden to check the granite boulders for dipper. I was further appalled at all the graffiti on rocks and logs. It seemed far from the favored pristine rivers that the dipper preferred. And I did not find any dippers upstream from Garden of Eden.

What makes someone come to the San Lorenzo and spray paint a rock, I will never know! No wonder I didn’t find dipper on this stretch of the river.

When I returned to the main beach a young man was wiping graffitti off a sign post that no longer contained a sign. I’m sure the sign said, “Don’t Litter” or “Respect The Trees, Dippers, and Rocks!” or “Save the Painting For Sketchbooks and Canvas!” Turns out he was an interpretive ranger from Henry Cowell State Park who comes to Garden of Eden, before his shift, to clean up the beach. I asked about beach clean-ups and he told me that when litter is removed, there is more to replace it on the following days. Shameful!!

I returned to the railroad and hiked downstream towards Coon Gulch. I paused at the osprey nest where both adults were perched near the nest, indicating that there might be chicks hidden in the deep nest.

A view of the osprey nest and the two adults from below on the banks of the San Lorenzo. I did a brush-pen sketch of the nest on my journal.

I then headed down the steep mountain goat trail towards the river (this seemed so much easier 30 years ago). The final pitches of the trail had rope tried to trees to aid in the descent. This was a far less accessible part of the river and is not visited as much and seemed a little more “pristine” then upriver.

I traded my hiking boots for river sandals, made sure everything was secure in my dry bag, and I grabbed a hiking stick and headed upstream.

This, to me, is the most scenic and “wild” stretch of the river. The stream bed was lined in large granite boulders, perfect foraging perches for the American dipper.

Heading upstream on a beautiful stretch of the river, between Coon Gulch and Garden of Eden. If there was any place on the San Lorenzo that contained dipper, I reckoned this was it.

Progress was slow going as I was hiking in the river, reminiscent of The Narrows in Zion National Park. I had to pick my path through the large boulders often crossing and recrossing the river bed to find the path of least resistance. A bonus was finding a Pacific wren nest built under a fallen Doulas-fir tree that spanned the river.

The river veered to the right and I was in the stretch of river that when viewed from Highway 9 is known as Inspiration Point. I needed some avian inspiration at this point!

The river hike was an adventure in itself but the closer I came to Garden of Eden, I knew the the chances of seeing American dipper on this stretch was diminished. The habitat seemed right but the pollution and semi-turbid waters of the San Lorenzo did not look like the pristine mountain stream that the dipper require.

I have made the journey with no mishaps or injury and as I came in sight of Garden of Eden, which was now full of family groups, I took this time to slip and fall. It’s always good to have an audience. And as Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” And so I recovered and stood up again only to see that no one noticed. 



The Voices of the Steller’s Jay

Depth and nuance. That is something I strive for when journalling and sketching. And spending time in nature, on my deck in the Santa Cruz Mountains, for instance, really deepens my understanding and appreciation of nature.

Depth and nuance. When the casual observer, if they are observing at all, will hear the loud call of the Steller’s jay they might describe their call as “jarring”, “annoying”, “unmusical”, or “head-splitting”. But spending time with these birds really makes you love the depth, variety, and dynamics of this western jay’s vocabulary.

For me, this comes with time and awareness. Depth of time and the nuance of the subtlety of sounds these birds produce.

One morning, when the Steller’s jays were thick around the trees near the suet feeder, I decided to log the different sounds the jays made during a 15 minute interval. I tried to give a name or a onomatopoeia facsimile of the sounds I was hearing. Purely a subjective and unscientific exercise but a fun one at that!

The jays were especially vocal and I could only wonder at the meanings of their varied sounds. Even ornithologists do not fully understand the meaning of all the Steller’s jay’s calls. Why, for instance, do they imitate the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawk call?

In the space of 15 minutes, I counted about 15 different calls. I scribbled down in those 15 minutes calls such as: Faster chirp, Red-shouldered Call, rusty huge (Old gear), One grunt, Alarm clock (old school), tri-chump, Accelerated tri-chump, shirk-shirk-shirk, Reep!, red-shoulder whisper, silent whispser-ramble, Reet-Reeet!, and Ray-gun.

The “Reet-Reeet!” call was the call that called attention to an avian predator is close proximity. This was most likely the local Cooper’s hawk. This warning call not only alerted other Steller’s jays of the threat but also other birds in the area that seemed to know the jay’s warning cry.

Pygmy nuthatches can be tough to photograph well in low light because they are always in constant motion and images contain lots of motion blur. That is not the case then the nuthatches are frozen.

A few days before I noticed two frozen pygmy nuthatches on and near the suet feeder. Upriver I heard the masses mobbing calls of the Steller’s jay. This seem to be a warning that there was a predator in the area. I wondered what makes a pygmy nuthatch freeze? Was this a response to a predator in the area, just to hold absolutely still.

This is the duality of the Steller’s jay. On one hand they are nest robbers and on the other, they are the avian warning system of the confer forest than saves other bird’s lives.


DIY Birdbath

I wanted to add a new birdy feature to my cabin so headed to the local hardware and garden stores for a birdbath.

Some stores were out of stock while other had baths that were of the cutesy type with frog or bird figurines on the rim. These baths were about three feet of the ground. There was one bath that caught my attention, it was shaped like a whale’s tail rising out of the ground but the high price tag had me moving on.

I finally went to the local big box hardware store thinking they would have a large selection of birdbaths; they did not.

Now it was time for Plan B: which was to repurpose something in the garden section that was not designed as a birdbath. I was drawn to a large 16 inch terra cotta saucer. The type of saucer that you would rest a large pot on. This seemed to me to make a perfect birdbath that could be placed in the ground.

I placed the saucer in the middle of the freshly weeded dirt patch between my cabin and my neighbors. I leveled the ground with a spade and set the bath so it was slightly unleveled, so there was a “kiddie” end and a deep end. In the deep end I placed four small rocks, I was thinking of them as the ladder at the deep end. I then stabilized the bird bath with larger stones and rocks.

Now it was time to fill it with water and wait for the first bathers. I figured it would take a good two week before the local birds became used to the new water feature in their environment.

A song sparrow was the first bird I saw using the birdbath. Not to bathe but to drink.

I was away in Tahoe for a week and when I returned my neighbor reported that she had not seen any birds in bath but noted feathers in the bath and most of the water was gone. That was certainly promising news!

The first bird I saw using the bird bath was not a bather but a drinker. It was one of the local song sparrows coming in for a sip on a warm summer afternoon!

The first bather I saw came a few days later. It was a dark-eyed junco. There is nothing more enjoyable than watching a bird bathe, propelling water droplets in all directions.

A dark-eyed junco taking an afternoon bath!

I noted that the species that used the bath to bathe or as a drinking fountain were song sparrow, dark-eyed junco, and California towhee. These were bird species that spend time on or near the ground. I wondered if the bath was too low to the ground to be used by species that foraged further up in the trees, such as Steller’s jay, chestnut-backed chickadee, and pygmy nuthatch. It will be interesting to see if there birds could be lured down for a bath, especially on a warm summer’s afternoon.

A few days later I saw a California towhee taking a bath. It gives me such joy, in a joyless time, to see nature using something I’ve made. It’s just a small gesture to help species get along in life.


Bat Map

I have always loved that crossover between the ariel insectivores, between the swallows and the bats. Between the diurnal and the nocturnal. In a word: twilight.

Looking to the southwestern skies, framed by silhouetted redwoods, I watched for the appearance of the first bat. The change over of swing to graveyard. At 8:30 PM there were still a few violet-green swallows catching insects on the wing. At 8:32 the unmistakeable flap-flap-flap of a flying mammal appeared from stage right, while the last swallow made it’s last foray. This is the time of the bats!

I wanted to sketch a bat map, a record of bat movement over a finite time period. I mean really finite, I mean three minutes.

Before the bats appeared, I sketched the silhouetted redwoods as a way to frame the composition and as a way to give me points of reference when it came time to map their flight across the sky.

I may be able to identify all the common species go birds by sight and sound that inhabit the area around my cabin but I have no clue how to identify the 12 common species of bats that live in Santa Cruz County. There are over 1,400 species bats worldwide and the are the second numerous order of mammals after rodents! I know, by default, that they are micro bats because mega bats don’t occur in North America.

Once the two bats appeared it was about going from the eye to the hand as I traced their path in the twilight sky, a sort of flittermouse Etch A Sketch. I felt like a vessel and the bats were dictating the line through their flight path. The bats were creating the sketch, I was just taking notes!


The Banana Slug

Around my cabin there is a gardener that eats weeds. At a slow but steady pace. And dead weeds at that.

There are a few slugs that favor the steps, entry way, and pathway to the cabin. This is the second largest slug in the world, growing up to 9.8 inches (25 centemeters) long. And one of the world’s slowest animals, moving about 6.5 inches a minute. This is the California banana slug Ariolimax californicus.

Their slow pace means that are easier to sketch than the other animals around the cabin such the hyperactive Wilson’s warblers or the violet-green swallows that are always on the wing or the common mergansers that seem to disappear underwater as you are about to put pencil to paper. When sketching banana slugs you can take your time, they’re not going anywhere, anytime soon.

As I was going for a noon time walk, the local banana slug was climbing up the front steps, so I headed back in and got my sketching things. Oddly enough, the slug was still where I found it (banana slugs are hermaphrodites and prefers the pronoun “it”).

A banana slug on the front steps. I sketched this slug.

I am an alumni of the University of California at Santa Cruz. This youthful university (founded in 1965) was built on land that Henry Cowell donated to the state of California; a land in the moist forests of Douglas-fir and coast redwood. This is the ideal habitat for the banana slug.

The University’s chancellor supported name “Seal lions” as the mascot of the University but this was slowly overruled (in slug time) by a strong and determined student body that eventually caused the banana slug to be adopted as the UCSC’s mascot.

Now when I return from my walk, I always look down as I head towards the front steps and I see the two banana slugs on their patch. One is about twice the size as the other and I’m not sure what the relationship is between the two but I am glad to see them, slowly munching away at the weeds that line the pathway.

Fiat Slugs!


The Old Ways

“No hay camino, se hace camino al andar” -“there is no road, the road is made by walking”. ~ Antonio Machado

As an omage to Robert McFarlane’s incredible book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, I decided to revisit some of the old pathways traveled both by my father and my younger self.

To connect, once again, with the journeys on foot, made me feel a part of the landscape as well all who had also travelled this way, the people and the deer and mountain lion. These were the tracks that marked the land like the slime trail of the banana slug, weaving it’s way, often finding the path of least resistance.

The previous Friday I headed out of Paradise Park along the fire road to the railroad grade. This was a route taken by my father and his friends when he was a teenager. He would frequently hike up to the old rock quarry, which is now part the campus on UC Santa Cruz. (It is the quarry where my graduation ceremony was held). I’m sure he also hiked upstream, as I did, toward Henry Cowell State Park and the osprey’s nest.

Today afterwork, I wanted to hike up a water way to a waterfall. I had hiked up here, from my cabin, many times. Although it has been a while since I have hiked up Powder Mill Creek. My destination was Powder Mill Creek Falls, which was a short ramble up the creek.

From the very start of the hike, there is a clearly defined trail, but once you cross the creek it seems to be a “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” type of hike . There are no correct paths, it just depends on how wet you want to get.

I paused along the way to look at my favorite fern, the five-fingered or western maidenhead fern, (Adiantum aleuticum). This fern favors damp habitats usually near small turbulent streams. Native Californians use it’s dark veins to weave baskets.

The hike is maybe a quarter of a mile but it can be a tough scramble and progress is slow as I favored a methodical approach rather than a reckless bush-whack! (the path of youth). The way has been constantly reformed by the waterway and the trees that have fallen into the watershed, making the pathway ever changing and ever challenging. I was not traversing this old way in my youthful self but as a middle aged shelter-in-placer. This was the first time I had used trekking poles on this hike. I need all the points of contact I can get!

I made it to the falls and I love the feeling of arrival, like coming into camp after a long trudge with a 40 pound pack. I was here and I found a good vantage point and I do what all sketchers would do in my situation, I started sketching. I settled on using my sepia brush pen to keep things loose and bold. There was a lot to take in and I simplified the scene with ink strokes.

Try to keep it simple stupid. I succeed and fail in equal measures.

There is a price to pay with a bush-whack in the San Lorenzo Watershed on deer trails, and that was an unwelcome traveller, a deer tick, firmly attached to my left side. This was the first tick in almost 50 years to have found purchase on my flesh. A fair price to pay for a sketch I think.


The Osprey’s Nest

One of my neighbors knew I was struck with the affliction of birding and told me about the osprey’s nest on top of a Douglas-fir along the railroad about a 30 minute hike up river from my cabin.

After work on Friday, I hiked out of Paradise Park via the fire road and scrambled up a deer trail to the even grade of the railroad. This railroad is now operated by the Santa Cruz, Big Trees and Pacific Railway and takes tourists from Felton to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. At one time the railroad went over the Santa Cruz Mountains to Los Gatos but now does not go very far beyond Felton. I have hiked this railroad since my youth and it had been a few years since I played hopscotch on railway ties up the San Lorenzo Valley.

Walking along this rustic railroad always feels like I’m participating in a scene from Stand By Me on a quest to find a dead body. But in this case I was in search of a big bunch of sticks on top of a fir, high above the San Lorenzo River.

I kept one eye on the rails and one on the trees off to my right. My neighbor had given me good directions to the nest and when I was 30 minutes out of Paradise, I thought that maybe I had passed the nest. But how could I miss it? So I continued hiking upstream.

Ten minutes later the osprey nest appeared across the river between a break in the redwoods and firs. I put bins on the nest and could not detect any occupants. But osprey nests are deep and the osprey could be laying low. The only sign of life were the acorn woodpeckers that looked to have used the fir as their granary tree, their acorn larder, for years.

I was at a point in the line where the railroad curves gracefully over a curved viaduct. The concrete arched bridge was build by the Southern Pacific Railroad in March of 1905 and spans Coon Gulch. At this point the San Lorenzo River takes a turn and you can get an amazing view upstream. This point in the line is known as Inspiration Point.

It didn’t take long to see signs of life. An osprey flew in and briefly alighted on the nest. Bingo! The nest is occupied after all. The unseen osprey, presumedly sitting on eggs, sat up in the nest and became visable.

The osprey that flew in could have been the male who is responsible for bringing fish to the nest while the female does most of the incubating of the two to three eggs. The male perched near the nest on a Doug-fir and preened.

First sign of life at the osprey’s nest. Perhaps the male dropping off fish.

I stood by the railside and sketched the nest. On the left side of the spread is my field sketch (first in pencil then in dark sepia pen) of the Douglas-fir crowned by the osprey nest. The osprey perched on the right was drawn from a field photo I took of the presumed male. The title and text were added back at the cabin. In the end, I decided to create a spread that is almost monochromatic. I resisted the urge to paint in the sky because I didn’t want anything to distract from the form of the Doug-fir and nest.

The osprey doing a little housekeeping at the nest. This is presumedly the female who does most of the incubation of the eggs. Both sexes build the nest. A hiker who stopped to look at the nest told me that the nest had been there for past two or three years.
Ospreys reuse their nests each breeding season. A lot of work has gone into this nest over the past two or three seasons.