SFO Groundtime

I arrived at SFO at 6 AM on a Sunday morning, plenty of time for my 8:42 flight to Phoenix Sky Harbor. Or so I thought.

I leisurely had breakfast having made it through security in about ten minutes, not bad for a Sunday morning. Plenty of time to catch my flight.

After breaking the fast, I passed by the departure board and my flight was rescheduled for 11:30 AM because of a “ Crew Connection”. I later found out that our crew was delayed in Reno, Nevada due to inclement weather.

Now I had three extra hours to spend (for a flight lasting an hour and a half!) at San Francisco International Airport!

I definitely got some steps in wandering in the terminal-mall that is SFO. I parked in a comfy swivel chair and people watched, which is first class at SFO. I attempted to add a story to those passing by, very much under the influence of Barbara Kingsolver. (My travel read was her first novel The Bean Trees, which is set in Tucson, Arizona.)

What to do? Sketch of course! Airplanes parked on the tarmac are very obliging sketch subjects. They sit still.

As I was sketching the tails of a line of United planes, an arriving flight pulled in front of my subjects. Good thing I had inked most of my sketch. Planes do move after all. Just not the ways a sketcher may want them to.

I got in two sketches at SFO until I finally boarded my United flight to PHX.


Airport Sketching (SFO and ORD)

There is always a lot of downtime at an airport. I am the type of traveller that always arrives early, hence the downtime.

Sometimes I read or listen to music but I always try to do an airport sketch.

On my recent trip to the Windy City, I sketched the airplane that would be taking me there. In this case it was United Airlines largest plane in their fleet: the Boeing 777-222A. This plane has a capacity of 28 first class passengers and 336 economy. It’s cruising speed is 639 mph and we made the journey from SFO to ORD in about three and half hours.

I was told that you don’t mess around with Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. O’Hare is the fourth busiest airport in the world with 54 million passengers passing through in 2021. It had the moniker of the “busiest square mile in the world”.

So I headed out of Chicago for the 45 minute journey to O’Hare with plenty of time to spare. Even though it was a weekday morning, the security checkpoint lines took almost half and hour to navigate. There is a reason you don’t mess with O’Hare. It’s better to be early then to miss your flight.

A bar with a view. This is the view, sans foreground glass, for my O’Hare spread (featured sketch).

I found a window seat at a pizza restaurant (deep dish of course), opened my sketchbook and started to sketch the gate and airplane before me.


My Little Sketchbook: Airports

To me, there is no better way to pass time in an airport than sketching.

I always have my small Stillman & Birn Delta Series in my pocket. The reason I enjoy using this 3.5″ X 5.5″ soft-cover sketchbook is that it allows me to do quick sketches. There is not so much paper to cover as a “standard” sized sketchbook. If sketching because more easy, you tend to do more of it.

I always try to take a seat, facing a window and sketch the planes on the tarmac as they are lined up like a school of sharks at their gates. I try to sketch the plane I will be departing on. But any plane will do.

I have included a few of my sketches in this post. They were done at SFO (San Francisco) and DCA (Reagan International).


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.