The world’s smallest gull had recently been spotted in a flock of Bonaparte’s gulls at the San Lorenzo River mouth.
It was a rare west coast gull and the one spotted on May 13, 2022 was only the 5th Santa Cruz County record.
This is the appropriately named little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus). I had seen this rarity on June 9, 2004 at Pescadero March in San Mateo County but I had not seen the diminutive gull since.
My first attempt to add the little gull to my Santa Cruz County list was foiled by a foot race that closed access to the San Lorenzo River mouth. I would have to try again later. Luckily the gull hung around with the flock of Bonaparte’s gull.
I tried again the following weekend. The flock had moved from the river mouth, up river, just north of the railroad trestle. There were about 75 Bonaparte’s gull, so searching through the flock for a slightly smaller gull showing a brown “M” on it’s wings, proved to be a challenge.
I got fleeting and very unsatisfying looks of the gull as the gull flock burst into the air climbing ever higher into the sky, which made me want to come back another time to try to see the bird again. And to get good reference photos for a sketch. Which is exactly what I did the following Saturday morning.
I returned to the Riverway Trail, which is just north of the train trestle that crosses the San Lorenzo River. The Bonaparte’s gull flock had moved from the river mouth (south of the trestle) further up the river. I imagine the large amount of human traffic and off leash dogs on the main beach may have something to do with the relocation.
There where now just 21 Bonaparte’s gulls left in the flock and they were roosting on the western shore of the river, the same river that flows past my cabin, further up the San Lorenzo Valley. Because there where less gulls, picking out the world’s smallest gull would be much easier. It also helped that there was another birder on the trail, already looking at the little gull!
This time the little gull was roosting on a riverside rock 15 feet from the trail! The morning was foggy which was perfect flat, low-contrast light for getting great photographs.
The little gull was also roosting close to the Bonaparte’s, giving me a nice size comparison of the two similar species.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“We often forget that WE ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.” ~Andy Goldsworthy
During shelter-in-place I made some time in the evenings to rewatch some of my favorite movies.
These consisted of independent films, foreign language films, and documentaries. Here is a short list of some of the films I have watched recently: Amelie, Being There, Butterfly (La lengua de las mariposas), Chariots of Fire, Cria Cuevis, Delicatessen, The Fog of War, The Lives of Others, Odd Man Out, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Third Man, Spirited Away, Sunset Boulevard, and Rivers and Tides.
The last is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen about the artistic process (and a profile of an amazing artist.) This 2001 documentary was filmed, edited and directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer and it’s full title is Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time.
The English sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy, is an artist I am familiar with because I have sketched many of his pieces in the Bay Area. His medium is nature and his sculptures are often ephemeral, being destroyed (he would say altered) by the wind, rain, and the rising tide.
Rewatching Rivers and Tides, made me want to go out into the San Lorenzo watershed and make a sculpture out of nature. To do that, I needed river rocks and there was no better beach for this than Rocky Beach.
I headed upstream from the beach to Upper Rocky Beach, to gather stones. I tried to “shake hands” with the place and the stone and I worked on making a stone cairn, a pale imitation of Goldsworthy’s work.
Once I finished my Apprentice-piece, I sat down and sketched the work, much like Goldsworthy does. I do love sketching rocks, attempting to get the lines, contours, and textures onto paper.
On Mother’s Day I saw the merganser ducklings for the first time.
I was on Washington Way, a footpath that runs parallel to the San Lorenzo River. There was the female, in a cloud of young ones. The common merganser ducklings where actively diving and foraging so it was hard to get an accurate count but I estimated I counted 12 heads.
Common merganser nests in cavities near water and females may lay 6 to 13 eggs. The hatchlings may stay in the nest for a day and then the downy young jump out of the nesting cavity and they immediately can swim and hunt for themselves. No failures to launch in the merganser world.
The next day, on my daily walk, I saw the wood duck family from Washington Way. They were foraging on Middle Beach. The group included two adult males, a female, and three ducklings.
Later that day, at about four in the afternoon there was a late spring rain. I stood at the backdoor, looking out past the deck and the trees towards the river and I wondered how the wood duck ducklings were handling their first rain.
So I did want I always did when I am inspired by the natural world: I wrote a poem and did a sketch. What else should I have done? (As Mary Oliver would have asked).
To the three wood duck ducklings on the river, this was their first rain.
Did it seem odd to them that it was wet from above as well as below?
Did they wonder if the whole world was river?
I imagine that before they got lost in thought (as much as ducks get lost in thought)
mother presented her downy breast and they sought shelter before an answer came.
“Adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
With the rest of the school year relegated to distant learning, I decided to spend the remainder of the last trimester at my cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
This was an easy decision because I could be in a place that I love and also have access to everything I needed in my digital classroom to stay connected with my students, parents, and coworkers. In the wooded hills I could really stretch out and breath fresh air while experiencing the world coming alive as Spring was upon us in the San Lorenzo River Watershed.
The calls of Wilson’s warbler, California towhee, and song sparrow was the soundtrack to my mornings and the hoot of the great horned owl dueting across the valley was my evensong.
There is also much more elbow room in Santa Cruz County. A comparison of the population and area of Santa Cruz and San Francisco Counties is telling. The 2019 population of Santa Cruz County is 273,213 compared to 881,549 in San Francisco. The City and County of San Francisco is much smaller, it being hemmed in on three sides by water. The City is 231 square miles compared to the expansive 607 square miles of Santa Cruz County.
It also gave me a opportunity to do one of my favorite activities: nature-loafing. I define nature-loafing as being in nature and actively doing nothing. This definition really captures the oxymoronic nature of this non-pursuit. No agenda, no plan, just being there and being in the moment. All the stress and strain of sheltering in place and distant learning just drains out of me and flows downstream to the Pacific.
Of course I never just nature-loaf because I am also nature sketching at the same time. Like the feature sketch for this post of my hammock-view with my feet pointed upstream and my head downstream.
One of my favorite places to nature-loaf is on the banks of the San Lorenzo and one of my favorite actives is Power Hammocking.
Near Rocky Beach are two alders that are lined up parallel to the course of the river. They are about 15 feet apart and demand that a hammock be strung between; a perfect nature-loafing platform!
Many think of New England as being associated with covered bridges. I certainly saw many during my fall trip when I was in New Hampshire. But there has been a west coast covered bridge in my life for as long as I can remember.
This is the Powder Works Covered Bridge, which was built in 1872. This bridge was built across the San Lorenzo River (the largest river in Santa Cruz County). The bridge was built by the California Powder Works in the site of the plant that produced black power. The plant operated for 50 years but as the population of Santa Cruz increased combined by the decreasing need for black powder the plant was closed down for good in 1914.
When the original bridge over the river washed out in 1871, the Powder Works Superintendent hired the Pacific Bridge Company (in Oakland) to build a new covered bridge. The bridge was constructed in 71 days, at a cost of $5,250.
Above the fireplace of my family cabin, hangs a 1960 oil painting by my great aunt Marjorie Close. This is probably one of the best paintings ever done of the Powder Works Covered Bridge. And I’ve always looked at it with wonder what it’s amazing thick strokes applied with a pallet knife.
My grand aunt was born in a mining town in Arizona on November 11, 1899. She moved to San Francisco and was trained as an artist at UC Berkley and the Art Institute of Chicago. She was known for her still life work as well as a prominent jeweler and furniture designer.
I have painted this bridge before. One sketch of the bridge was from roughly the same position as my great aunt’s painting. For my new sketch, I wanted a different perspective.
I headed upstream to Rocky Beach, just upriver from the bridge. I found a spot on the beach and I looked downstream to the span. There was lot of trees and vegetation in my view. I did not go for realism when sketching in the flora, instead I wanted to sketch in the form and shapes that leads the eyes downstream to the bridge. So I embraced the form instead of each individual leaf.
I also took a minimalist approach to painting the sketch and keeping it loose was my objective. I left much of the drawing unpainted and I kept my paint palette to a few colors. It is a sketch after all!
With the current pandemic and the shelter in place order, I chose to shelter in Paradise during my Spring Break. My family cabin is in Paradise Park, just up Highway 9 from downtown Santa Cruz.
Here I have more legroom than my digs in San Francisco and the population density here is far less than the 7 by 7 mile County and City of Saint Francis. Another factor was that San Francisco had almost 1,000 Covid-19 cases and the larger (by size) County of Santa Cruz had just 90 (at the time of writing). This seemed like a no brainer! Head to Santa Cruz for my two week Spring Break.
This move allows me to spread out, breath fresh air, and be amongst the redwoods and river. It also gives me a very familiar patch to sketch from. Here I know all the birdsongs and paths, all the secluded river beaches, and the places of solitude and rest. And I certainly needed both after three weeks of distant teaching.
Some of my favorite sketching locations in the Park are my redwood deck and different locations on the San Lorenzo River, certainly the most important landform that runs through the Park. A beach that I have always loved both as a place of repose and sketching is what is known in my own person geography as Corona Beach (this was named long before the infamous virus).
To get to Corona Beach involves heading up stream with some bush whacking, fording the San Lorenzo (which was trying to take my feet from under me), and then a little more bush whacking to arrive at a small, sloped river beach. Today it was occupied by a young couple, so I headed up stream (social distancing, dontcha know) and arrived at Upper Corona Beach. A smaller bit of sand on the river side. This is clearly a feral beach, wild, rugged, and something Mary Oliver might write a poem about. Well Mary is no longer with us so I guess I will have to give it a go. . . . a poem hasen’t blessed my brain at the moment (the trouble with poetry) so I did a sketch instead (featured sketch).
I also like to be in open air and sketch the green treescape of the view. This was a excise in creating depth in a sketch. In this desk sketch I included a poem:
I headed to the bluff on the east side of the San Lorenzo River. This is where the river ends into Monterey Bay.
On my left was the Monterey Bay and beyond was the Municipal Wharf (sight of great fork-tailed storm-petrel sightings last year) and to my right was Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, now in winter dormancy. I knew that any time a large river entered the ocean, where fresh water meets salt, there would be bathing gulls. Lots of gulls.
Down below, there were hundreds of gulls. This multi age and many specied gathering contained mainly California, herring, mew, and western. I scanned the gathering and found no rarities. But it did give me an opportunity to observe the dynamics of gull bathing and preening.
The mighty San Lorenzo River is a major winter gull bathing and resting location on Monterey Bay. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is on the west side. The Logger’s Revenge to the right and my favorite roller coaster, the Big Dipper, is on the left.
Using my not-so-secret powers of observation I noted two areas that the gulls used: river and sand. The river is used for washing and the sand for preening, resting and playing.
The gulls used the river right in front of the railway trestle which was featured in the 80’s vampire flick Lost Boys. The birds were doing their indelible flappy wing dance followed by a head plunge and a wiggle. Yes very scientific I know.
The gulls on the sand spit where resting or preening. I noticed a few juvenile gulls playing with slicks on the spit point. They would carry a stick around and then drop it and pick it up. Repeat. I can only guess that they are practicing their eye-beak coordination.
The spread I sketched was a not-to-scale gull’s eye view of the river mouth. I love to make my own maps, using my own names for the land. This map contains my own: Seaweed Island, the “Wash”, Stick-Grab-Point, Gull’s Rest Spit, North Spit, and the “Stump”. Most of these land and watermarks are ephemeral, changing and disappearing with the tides and the winter rain, washing down from the Santa Cruz Mountains.