San Mateo and Santa Cruz Whalewatch

Before setting out on my adventure to Mendocino, I wanted to do a little coastal whale watching in the Bay Area. So I met Grasshopper Sparrow (he has wheels now!) in Half Moon Bay and we headed south to Pigeon Point and turned our lenses west.

My scope pointed west at Pigeon Point.

We found a point overlooking the ocean just to the north of Pigeon Point Lighthouse. It was a beautiful, clear day and the seas were calm with a lot of bird life flying both north and south. Perfect conditions for land-based whale watching.

We scanned the horizon looking about an inch below, to see if any blows were visible. This is the telltale sign of a whale. Blows happen when their warm breath makes contact with the cold air and the white exhaust can be seen from a long ways away. We were looking for a short bushy blow which is a sign of a migrating gray whale.

I wandered off a few yards to the north to get a look at some roosting surfbirds when Grasshopper exclaimed, “Whale!” I turned my bins to the horizon, scanning about and inch below. Near the horizon I picked out a white blow in the middle of a flock of birds on the water and circling above. These attendant birds are also a great sign of cetacean activity.

Grasshopper spotting blows just below the horizon with the lighthouse to the south. It always helps to have a set of young eyes along for whale watching.

Now we just needed to identify the whale by its unique blow. Grasshopper noted that the whale he saw through the scope had a dorsal fin. Now this would exclude grays because they do not have a fin but a dorsal ridge. Also the blow looked taller than the heart-shaped gray whale blow.

After a few more observations, with a few of the whales showing their pied flukes, I knew we where looking at a group of three humpback whales!

While looking at the rare red-footed booby I spotted this billboard on the Santa Cruz Wharf.

I later headed south down Highway 1 towards Santa Cruz. I pulled off just north of Davenport to have a little lunch and scan the Pacific for whales. I didn’t have to wait long before I saw my first blow with the naked eye. I put a scope on the whales and identified a few more humpbacks but I did not see any grays.

I would have to drive north to meet them “halfway”. Well, that was the plan all along.

Mendocino, here I come!


Grasshopper Sparrow Sees a Grasshopper Sparrow!

Birding in the spring is a treasure. Many species are perched out and singing making them easy to see and hear.

Grasshopper Sparrow had a few lifers he was hoping to check off his list. Western kingbird, lazuli bunting, and of course his namesake: grasshopper sparrow.

Our destination was in San Mateo County near the small mountain town of La Honda. This is La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve. This OSP contains open meadows surrounded by the curvaceous green hills of California’s Coast Range.

Within 100 yards of the parking lot, as we walked along the wide fire road, we heard our first grasshopper sparrow!

Birding is made easy at La Honda Creek OSP with a graded fire roads with open views of the meadows, perfect habitat for the grasshopper sparrow.

As we walking down the fire road that bisects the meadow, we heard and saw five grasshopper sparrows. They where either perched up on coyote brush or singing from a barbed wire fence.

At this time of year, the grasshopper sparrow are singing their insect-like song, incessantly.
Corvid Sketcher and Grasshopper Sparrow as Grasshopper gets his namesake lifer: grasshopper sparrow.

After getting our fill of singing grasshopper sparrows, we continued on down the road where we were greeted by two wild turkeys. Then we headed into a habitat with a bit more tree cover and we saw our first flycatcher, the ash-throated flycatcher.

Are pair of wild turkeys in the tall, green grass.
Love is in the air, a sure sign of spring: copulating lark sparrows. These beautiful sparrows are considered rare in this location.
A singing male lazuli bunting.

County Birding: San Mateo and San Francisco Counties Part 1

On Saturday morning, Grasshopper Sparrow and I headed east on Highway 92, our destination was Parkside Aquatic Park in San Mateo. Our plan was to do some San Mateo County birding. I hoped to add some new birds to my San Mateo County list and Grasshopper was hoping to add some lifers to his list!

This park lines Marina Lagoon and it is a great place for ducks, geese, herons, and waders. But we where here for the rare county duck, the redhead. After a short search, we spotted the distinctive duck with two females.

The appropriately named redhead. This is a male at Parkside Aquatic Park.
A pouch of American white pelicans foraging in the lagoon.

There were plenty of other birds to looked at such as a green heron, a group of American white pelicans, and the stunning hooded merganser.

I love the contrast between this beautiful male hooded merganser and a white house’s reflection on the lagoon.

Our next stop was to Bair Island Wildlife Refuge. Our target bird was a Pacific golden-plover that had been seen a few days early by the legendary San Mateo county birder Peter Metropolis. When we arrived, it was low tide which meant that we were looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack or a plover is a vast mash that was full of other birds. We joined Chris Hayward, a local birder who is also a spotter on many pelagic trips leaving from Pillar Point Harbor. Chris had not yet seen the plover. We were joined by another birder, the more eyes the better.

In the marsh were many ducks and peeps. Grasshopper spotted a male Eurasian wigeon. That was the only rare bird we recorded at the refuge. So we left Chris to continue the search and we headed back north on Highway 101 to the next exit to look for some more county ducks at Nob Hill Pond, so named because the pond is located behind a Nob Hill supermarket.

When we first arrived , when checked the channel near the San Carlos Airport for the continuing female long-tailed duck. We had tried for this bird for about five times, without success. We failed again but we would try again after trying to get a very rare duck on Nob Hill Pond.

This duck is common in northern Eurasia but rare in Coastal California. This is the smallish diving duck called the tufted duck because of the prominent tuft of feathers emitting from the back of it’s head, most noticeable in the male of the species.

Grasshopper spotted the tufted duck through the scope. It’s tuft was growing in length like my Covid hair! There is nothing like young eyes! Well spotted Grasshopper Sparrow!

Finally, the tufted duck is ours!! On the right is a stunning male canvasback.

We headed back toward the airport to continue on search for the continuing female long-tailed duck. We had whiffed on this species on about five attempts but we adopted a now-or-never approach to this sought after species.

As the the time neared noon, the reflections where intense and from our position, the birds where backlit. Panning with the scope, all we where seeing where buffleheads. Being diving ducks they appeared and disappeared giving us renewed hope followed by disappointment when an bufflehead surfaced. No long-tailed.

After about a 20 minute search the female long-tailed duck appeared near some pylons on the east side of the airport. County bird and a lifer for Grasshopper!

After a three county duck day we headed back to the hacienda in San Mateo. Grasshopper had spotted a rare west coast sapsucker a few weeks before. Because it was rare, he was unsure of the ID, he submitted his photos to some San Mateo County birder and his sighting was confirmed. (This is the correct approach for a young birder, well learner Grasshopper!)

Over some afternoon suds, Grasshopper said excitedly, “woodpecker!” I was able to get some photos of the sapsucker in the oak in the backyard. A yellow-bellied sapsucker, a fourth San Mateo County bird! Not bad for a day’s worth of county birding.

On Sunday I found a bird in San Francisco on Lake Merced that had not been recorded in this location since 1977. Those were the days when birders were few and the optics were poor. But with a open buttoned shirt and bellbottoms, the 1977 birder must have looked sharp!

To be continued. . .

A great bonus was a backyard yellow-bellied sapsucker in Grasshopper Sparrow’s backyard. Four San Mateo County county birds!


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”.


First of Season (FOS)

The unfolding of the year
And now our season is here
All the balances are clear
Now that our time is here

~Season Song, Blue States

A student of mine, let’s just call her Amelia, keep requesting that I post more bird drawings. I’m sure she’s tried of trains and more trains. So I decided to do a bird sketch in these times of social distancing.

The previous weekend, before anyone really got the message about shelter-in-place, I headed out to the San Mateo Coast to do some sketching and birding. (Two sketches from that outing were posted in my blog: Sketch in the Time of Covid.)

I was birding mainly on the coast, looking for kittiwakes and northern fulmars but I decided to take a detour inland to do some birding in a riparian habitat.

I took a right turn off of Highway One on Tunitas Creek Road. I remember the first time I birded this road was on an afterwork excursion. When I told my fellow teacher where I was going. She said, “You going now?! I wouldn’t go there. Be careful.” She then told me that Tunitas Creek Road was haunted and she had grown up in Half Moon Bay and no sane local would ever be on that road at dusk or in the night. Yeah right, I though, sounds like the rural coast’s version of an “urban myth.”

I birded Tunitas Creek afterwork and had a nice experience and I didn’t see any ghosts. When I got back home I did and an internet search with “Tunitas Creek Road haunted” in the search window and I came across the website titled, “10 Scariest Haunted Roads in Northern California”. I looked at the website and I scrolled down, scanning the 10 entries, not seeing Tunitas Creek Road. I had to reach the bottom of the page until there was any mention of the road in question because Tunitas Creek Road was ranked number 1 as the most haunted road in Northern California!

There have been reports of a long-armed blue lady who had been seen haunting this road at night and also bodies strewn among the bushes, the spirit reminders of a long ago Native Californian slaughter. But I was here on a mild March Saturday to see what I could find in the roadside bushes. I was not looking for bodies but birds!

I parked in a dirt pullout and walked west down the road, birding by ear. This is the time when bird calls and songs that I have almost forgotten come back to me. These are the times when migrants from Mexico and Central and South American are slowly returning to their breed grounds, here in the trees and bushes of Tunitas Creek.

Across the creek came the song of a bird that I am very familiar with. A fellow birder described the call as sounding like one of those lawn water sprinklers. It was a call that I hear from the deck of my cabin in spring and summer. This was the call of the Wilson’s warbler.

This was the first Wilson’s that I had seen since the turning of the year and it would be noted as FOS, meaning “first of season”. This data provides ornithologist with an idea of the pattern of migratory birds over time. Are these warblers migrating at the same time every year or are the arriving earlier or later than usual?

I love this warbler. It’s one of our smallest warblers and the adult male is easily identified with it’s bright yellow face and body and it’s black “yamaka”. This warbler is always in motion and in the spring and summer, calling frequetly.

As I walked along the road I came across a loose feeding flock of bushtits and chestnut-backed chickadees. In the flock was a bird I hadn’t seen in a long while. This is a bird that is often confused with the over-wintering ruby crowned kinglet but once this bird sings, it is all vireo. This is Hutton’s vireo.

It was nice to see these migratory birds. It is nature’s way of signaling the changing of the seasons. From the cold dark days of winter to the longer, green days or spring. The air filled with the scent of flowers and sounds of birdsong.

A male Wilson’s warbler photographed from my deck in the Santa Cruz Mountains, last spring.

Menlo Park Station

It was now time for an after work train station sketch.

I headed south to one of the oldest stations in San Mateo County and one of the stations furthest south on the line before heading into Santa Clara County. Menlo Park Station is the oldest active train station in San Mateo County. Rail service to Menlo Park began on October 18, 1863. At that time, a simple shelter was on the site before the depot was built. It is considered the oldest active passenger railway station in California. It was built by the San Francisco and San Jose Railway in 1867. The Queen Anne expansion, included a Ladies Parlor, was added to the south side which is featured in the sketch.

When Southern Pacific consolidated the line (in 1870), Victorian ornamentation was added in the 1890s to appeal to the students (and parents) of nearby and newly built Stanford University.

At one time Menlo Park Station had two separate waiting rooms, one for men and one for women. In the office, Stanford University co-founder, Jane Stanford, wife of rail tycoon Leland Stanford, would wait for her train in a private room by herself. In 1905, Jane Stanford died of strychnine poisoning and her murder has never been solved. It is claimed that her ghost has been seen pacing back and forth in the station.

The station is on the same level as the main line just as it was when it was first constructed. The interior is no longer used as a passenger waiting room. Southern Pacific closed the station in 1959. It now houses the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce.

This fancy vending machine has replaced passenger stations on Caltrain. I always prefer to buy my train tickets from a human being. You can’t do that here in Menlo Park. Nor can you buy tickets on the train from the conductor. Although you can chat with the friendly people at the Chamber of Commerce.

I sat on a north facing bench and started to sketch the elevation view of the station. There was something very comforting about this sketching experience. All around me I was surrounded by commuters. Both high school students and high-tech workers with their bikes milling about the platform or sitting on benches texting their friends waiting for their train. The overall feeling was of a vibrant station that is still in use and gave me hope for transit in the Bay Area. The scene at 4:30 PM in 2020 could not be too much different from a weekday scene at this same station, 70 years ago. Of course it helps to squint.

Menlo Park is a busy station on a Wednesday late afternoon. A southbound and northbound train pull into the station.

Engine Number 905 “Sunnyvale ” is on the point of a southbound train to San Jose. This engine is named after my hometown.

The train station at Sunnyvale is long gone. I never remember it as being an amazing piece of Southern Pacific architecture. The station has been replaced with a ticket shelter that connected to a parking shelter.

Quenching my thirst after my sketch at the redesigned British Bankers Club. I raised a glass to my father, who had to come to Menlo Park when he was at “The Farm” to buy spirits because Palo Alto was a dry town.


San Carlos Station

If there is any historic station on the line that has been truly marginalized by the march of modernity then it would have to be San Carlos Station.

This beautiful and unique station looks like no other on the line. It was built in 1888 and is constructed with Almaden sandstone from Greystone Quarry in the Almaden Valley which echos the building material used at nearby Stanford University. The station is designed in an Richardsonian Romanesque style which is very unique for a railway depot in California. There are rumors that the architect that designed Stanford, Charles Coolidge, also designed San Carlos station.

The railway line has been elevated and the trains now tower above the station. There was a time when this distinctive station was the focus of the growing town of San Carlos but it has been hemmed in with the elevated railway to the east and the newly constructed residential buildings to the north and south.

Sadly this iconic station is in the shadow of all that surrounds it and speaks to the Bay Area in the 21 Century: over populated and addicted to cars.

It was hard to get a clear view of the entirety of the building because I couldn’t back up far enough without backing into the new residential buildings or having the conical tower disappear as I backed under the railway overpass. It felt a bit like the blind men and the elephant. I could only see bits of the station but never the whole thing.

This station also represents what I have seen at Colma, Millbrae, and Hillsdale. They are all buildings that no longer function as a passenger railway depots. In other words they are just empty shells that no longer serve a purpose other than being a bookmark in historical time. They are there for those who read the passages of time and I am one of those.

The San Carlos Station has housed many things: a post office, a church, a library, and lastly, a restaurant. And this restaurant now is closed and the interior is stripped bare. Sad really, that this architectural gem should serve some purpose other than just looking nice.

The San Carlos Station is now surrounded on three sides. The towering new residential building to the left makes a weak attempt to echo the sandstone look of the station.

My northbound train heading to San Francisco from Millbrae Transit Center. Don’t let it fool you, this is the end of the train, the diesel engine is pushing the train north. I was going to take BART to Daly City with three sketches in my bag.


The Ghosts of Hillsdale

As I was about to leave the Millbrae Depot, Peter, the docent, told me I should go and draw the Hillsdale Depot sometime before Monday. And it was now Saturday afternoon. “Why the rush?”, I wondered.

The reason he thought I should make haste to the depot was that it was going to be demolished, starting on Monday morning!

Hillsdale was not on my list of Historic Depots. It was true that it was squarely in San Mateo County, but the depot didn’t meet my criteria for age or architectural merit. The small depot, containing a ticket office and a tiny passenger waiting room, was built sometime in the 1950s. The building has a cupola topped by a weather vane, something I might imagine at Churchill Downs, an architectural reference to Hillsdale’s proximity (about half a mile south) to Bay Meadows Racetrack.

The racetrack was the longest running thoroughbred track in California. It opened in November of 1934 and was in continuous use until it’s last race on August 17, 2008. Many famed horses and jockeys raced here including Seabiscuit and Bill Shoemaker. It was demolished and housing was put in it’s place.

A southbound train on the main line, pulls into Hillsdale Station. The old station, on the left, is no longer near the railway which now has been raised above the station.

At Hillsdale, the mainline no longer passes in front of the platform. The tracks are now to the east and up a rise. The tracks were regraded and raised to cross over Hillsdale Boulevard. The grade separation project eliminates grade crossings (the intersection of automobile roadways and rail) and is part of a major transit development project which will move Hillsdale Station further north, near where the former race track lay. Hence the reason the older depot is now redundant and soon will be a few more spaces in the parking lot.

Engine Number 900 “San Francisco” pulls into Hillsdale Station.

I set up my folding camp chair on the south side of the abandoned station with a late morning winter sun at my back. I began to see the shapes and eventually, the beauty of the small railway station. As Zen sketcher Fredrick Franck noted, “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is.”

I also wonder about the memories and ghosts that have passed through or spent time in this station, the people who would have come to meet their loved ones on the platform as a commuter steam engine pulls into Hillsdale. The people who who worked here, perhaps the people met or fell in love here. The crowds returning from a race, either joyous or down on their luck. Or the young man who stopped to get a cup of coffee before boarding a northbound train to the City of Saint Francis.

All are silent now.

Corvidsketcher sketching in the parking lot of Hillsdale Station, the day before the building will be demolished. This may be the last drawing of the station while it is still standing.


Railway Depots of San Mateo County

I’ve been wanting to do a sketch project of the passenger railway depots along the current Caltrain line; at least the stations that are architectural and historically interesting. Caltrain runs passenger service from San Francisco to San Jose (and further south to Gilroy). I wanted to narrow the project down to the existing depots in San Mateo County, the county where I am employed.

My own interest in railways and railway depots comes from my own childhood. I have very vivid memories of being on the back of my dad’s bicycle as we went down towards to the Southern Pacific tracks after work. My dad was a huge rail enthusiast having grown up riding the streetcars and trains of San Francisco. We would watch trains from the pedestrian walkway as they came in and out of the Sunnyvale Depot, dropping off commuters. We also took the train north to Palo Alto or San Francisco and I always loved the all too brief visits to each station. I also noted that not all stations were alike. Some depots have architectural merit while others were merely weather shelters where you can buy tickets.

I wanted to start in the north and head south towards the Santa Clara County line. But I would not be starting on the current main line that runs along the eastern part of San Francisco and the Peninsula but the starting point for this project is a marooned station that is west of the main line. This station has been moved a short distance from its original location and now does not have any trains that stop at its platform. It is now part of a historical museum. This is the passenger depot in Colma.

The original mainline passed further west as it headed around San Bruno Mountain than it does today. The second stop, south of San Francisco County, which is in San Mateo County, was then called School House Station because of its proximity to the local one room schoolhouse. At the time this was one of 21 stations built between San Francisco and San Jose. The station was later renamed Colma.

In 1907 the Bayshore Cutoff came into service which straighten out the line to where the main line runs to this day. This new line left Colma off of the mainline like a rerouted highway, taking all the traffic away, leaving a ghost town in their wake. That may be appropriate because Colma is known for all it’s cemeteries. The number of dead in Colma, estimated at 1.5 million, outnumber the living. Hence the town’s motto, “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

So I set up a sketching chair, readied my supplies, and started to frame in the railway depot. Here I really tried to get the perspective correct before I added pen or paint. This starting part of the sketch takes the most focus and concentration.

Another reason the Colma Depot was a good starting point for this project is that it was the oldest depot on the line, built around 1863, beating out the actual oldest station on the Peninsula mainline at Menlo Park, built in 1867.

Starting with the Colma Depot was a bit of a cheat, because it is no longer an active depot nor is it on the main line. But because the river of rails have been diverted to the east leaving a pool that no longer flows to the sea, I felt it was important to start here, at least to get my feet wet. It was also helpful to start to learn the visual language of Californian train depots. It helps the eye see repeated patterns and forms when I move on to sketching other depots.

My next plan was to ride Caltrain from San Francisco down to all the historic stations in San Mateo County and sketch each one.

Sketch number one of this project is nearing completion. The rusted tracks in front of the station are just a short section. They go from nowhere to nowhere. Just like many of the visitors to Colma. Once they come here, they never leave.


Harlequin and Rails

On a clear and calm Sunday morning, I picked up Grasshopper Sparrow to make our fourth and hopefully last attempt, to see the over wintering male harlequin duck at the Coyote Point Marina. We had perfect conditions with calms waters and the sun at our backs, now all we needed was a little luck and a lot of patience.

We walked out to the end of the path and started to scope the bay waters, picking through the hundreds of scoters and goldeneyes to find the one bird that really should stand out. A duck with bold white markings and a reddish side. I checked the waters to the south while I let Grasshopper’s young eyes scope the waters to the east, just beyond the breakwater.

“I got the harlequin!”, he announced shortly afterwards. Of course he did. I looked though the scope and the bird had disappeared under the waters, which is no surprise because it is a diving duck. I asked him what the duck looked like.

“A harlequin duck!”, I told him that description wouldn’t cut it in the birding world and pressed him to recount details. He described the white facial patterns and colored sides. And just the confirm himself, the harlequin returned to the surface and I was able to get great views in amazing light.

IMG_9509The Bay Area rarity was finally ours. Male harlequin duck just beyond the breakwater at Coyote Point Marina.

The duck briefly perched on the breakwater and preened and I was able to get a few photos off to use for a painting study.


Our next stop was to Bayfront Park in eastern Millbrae. Our target bird here was an iconic species of the bay marshes, a bird that has been declining in the bay because of development of the bay’s shoreline (meaning the destruction of it’s favored habitat) and is now near-threatened. This is Ridgway’s rail (formally the clapper rail). It’s estimated population around the San Francisco Bay is about 1,100 individuals. So seeing a Ridgway’s is always special.

Bayfront Park is a small marsh, preserved near the Bay Trail. It sits just across the waters from the runways of SFO. So here I can really indulge two of my passions: birds and airplanes! I guess the two are really related. But perhaps not the Rigway’s rail, which seldom flies.

IMG_9558Touchdown for a massive A380 at SFO. A raft of ducks are in the foreground, apparently not disturbed by all the air traffic.

The tide was high, meaning that all the bird activity was very concentrated, which could be good for finding rails. Rails are very skulking birds that can be notoriously hard to see. Most of my rail sightings had been brief and unspectacular. But that was just about to change.

We scanned the shoreline and the pickleweed for rails but we found none. The somewhat reclusive birds could be right under our noses and we might never see them. We put in a good 45 minutes of searching and we did not hear or see any. We started to head back to the car when I decided to check one last time. That’s when the loud call of the Ridgway’s rail sounded from some tall reeds about ten yards from the Bay Trail.

We fanned out on either side of the reeds, willing a rail to appear. Again, Grasshopper found one, it’s head raised above the reeds. The rail stayed visible, in perfect light for a good five minutes, allowing me to take some photos and just as quickly as the rail had appeared, it disappeared. As if on cue, Grasshopper found a second rail, just to the north of the reeds, in pickleweed. The bird also gave us astounding looks!

Lifer for Grasshopper and a San Mateo County lifer for me.