The Land of Ice and Fire

I was planning where to go on my summer vacation and was leaning toward a domestic trip, but wasn’t sure I wanted to go on a lengthy South American birding tour. My pre-pandemic Peru trip was cancelled and I haven’t travelled with passport since.

I am limited by work for more of the desirable birding tours throughout the year, which limits my travel window to just two months during summer: June and July. (Yes I can hear the sound of the tiny violins).

There was a tour in the Northern Hemisphere that caught my eye: Iceland.

This was the land of puffins, razorbill, and murre. The white-tailed eagle, gyrfalcon, and snow bunting. Home to one of the largest seabird colonies on Earth.

Iceland: the land of fire and ice, home to the midnight sun and Nordic winds. Of the dancing Northern lights and Viking blood.

Sign me up!

And I did sign up with a ten day tour run by WINGS Birding Tours. Most of the tour will be focused on the western side of Iceland.

While this tour wouldn’t produce a treasure trove of lifers (I estimate between 20-25 lifers), I would have the opportunity to see many birds in breeding plumage because Iceland was their breeding grounds. I looked forward to seeing Harlequin and long-tailed duck, Barrow’s goldeneye, black-legged kittiwake, red-throated and common loons in their breeding finery. One bird I really looked forward to seeing on solid ground is the arctic tern. The only time I had seen this long distant migrant was on the deck of a pelagic tour boat. This tour really is about spending quality time with the amazing avian culture of Iceland!

My two Iceland journals. I decorated the covers with stickers in case anyone didn’t know these were Icelandic journals!

Before going on any great saga, I must first obtain a watercolor journal. For Iceland, I chose two Stillman & Birn Beta Series journals. One is hardbound 5.5″ by 8″ journal and a soft bound pocket journal. On the first page I sketched a symbol of Iceland: the Atlantic puffin (featured sketch). Seeing this bird would be a lifer for me. The alcid can be seen in the northeastern part of North America but when I was in Maine in October, all the pelagic puffins were far out at sea (they come ashore in the summer to nest in large breeding colonies).

I like to start my travel journals with a map and drawing the outline of Iceland seemed to be like tracing the undulating lines of a Rorschach test. This map was really not to scale!

A trip is always an excuse to add some new gear to my travel set up, and then do a spread about it. In this case I wanted a new stuff daypack that could stuff down to almost nothing and then be used as a daypack to carry my sketching kit and rain gear. I chose the Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack. This stuffs down into a 4″ by 4″ bag yet has a capacity of 18 liters while weighing in at just 3 oz. The pack features zipper pulls, padded straps, a water bottle pocket, and an easy access top pocket with a key clip.

I just couldn’t resist drawing an Osprey on a puffin.


The Ultimate Mammal Migration

My thoughts and sketches were turning north to my road trip along the California Coast.

I would be using the quaint coastal town of Mendocino as my base camp to explore points north and south along the Mendocino County Coast.

Since I was making my visit during Thanksgiving week, I planned to turn my scope and pen towards the west, to witness one of the longest mammalian migrations in the world.

This is the annual migration of the gray whale. In mid November, I was hoping to spot the southern migration of pregnant females as they headed south to the birthing lagoons of Baja California from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic.

Just down the street from my Mendocino digs at the Mendocino Arts Center, is Mendocino Headlands State Park, one of the best whaling points on the Mendo coast.

Before I headed out on my three hour road trip to the north, I wanted to understand the life cycle and form of the whale that whalers dubbed “Devilfish”.

And to do this, I opened my new Stillman & Birn Beta Series journal and started to fill some pages. Any adventure for me, always starts with a map, in this case, the migration route of the “California” gray whale.

I also did a spread about the morphology of a gray whale. I drew a whale and added labels to various parts and then added a description of the whale’s dive sequence (a valuable tool for identifying grays in the field), and specs of the whale

I set a goal for myself, that I would fill in all the pages of this journal on my weeklong Thanksgiving Break. Let’s see if I can do it. I have cheated a bit by filling in 11 pages so far, some of which are included in this post.

But art is always a bit of a cheat. As Picasso said, “Art is the lie that helps us see the truth.”

And the goal of my sketching life is always to see the “truth”.

Gray whale skeleton at the Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz.

Kona Kai Ki’i

Part of my planning for a journey is picking the right journals.

For the Big Island I chose two Stillman & Birn Beta journals. One a hard cover and the other soft cover. I like to break these journals in with a pre-trip sketch or two.

With my softcover Beta, I reached back into my very early connection with the Hawaiian Islands. This is not hard to do, considering I grew up in the state of California.

In the Bay Area in the 1950s there was a fascination with Polynesian or Tiki culture. The very first Tiki bar was open in Emeryville and it was called Trader Vic’s (opened in 1934). The restaurant soon became a chain and they claimed to have invented the Mai Tai cocktail. I remember a huge garlic shaped, wooden shingled Hawaiian themed restaurant on Stevens Creek Boulevard. The building was surrounded by a mote and tiki torches. It was called Don the Beachcomber and reflected the interest of all things Tiki. The restaurant is now gone but Trader Vic’s is still open and selling Mai Tais.

This also reflected that Hawaii officially became a state in 1959, which open the doors to its culture, food, and cocktails.

I spent summers swimming at the swim and racquet club where my family had a membership. It was named Kona Kai Swim and Racquet Club. The club was founded in 1958 and was an oasis in a sea of apricot and cherry orchards.

Kona Kai means “Sea of Kona” and the name of the club certainly does not reflect the club’s surroundings but reflects the Polynesian craze of the time (think: Trader Vic’s, Martin Denny, Mai Tai, Hawaiian shirts, and Don Ho.) The club still exists where it is still an oasis but among Apple’s buildings and the Kaiser hospital that towers above it.

To go along with the Hawaiian theme of Kona Kai, an artist from Maui was hired to carve a Ki’i or Tiki statue to greet members at the entrance. The sculpture was finished in 1967 and it remains at the entrance. It was this Ki’i that I intended to sketch on the first page of my Kona journal (featured sketch).

While I was sketching the statue a man got out of his car and we struck up a conversation about the statue. He told me that the previous week, the woman who hired the artist from Maui, had come to Kona Kai to take some pictures. The man turned out to be the tennis pro. He filled me in about the history of the Ki’i and he noted that it had recently been repainted.

It still looked good for being a wooden 55 year old statue that was exposed to the elements. And despite the astronomical rise in real estate prices in the area, Kona Kai still exists as a thriving swim and tennis club.

It was good to see that a piece of my Silicon Vally past was still in existence while many memories have been bulldozed and covered up.


The Sea Elephant, the Laughing Gull, and a Tsunami

After work, on my way down to Santa Cruz, I spotted a male elephant seal resting on Waddell State Beach. On the previous Friday I had seen a juvenile bald eagle perched above the beach. Waddell Beach had been good to me.

This weekend, on Saturday morning, I returned to Waddell Beach to see if the elephant seal was still there and if so, I intended to sketch it. But I found so much more!

I pulled into the dirt parking lot at about 7:30 AM. And there was the male elephant seal on the beach looking like a massive piece of driftwood. The seal’s stern was pointing toward the tide and it bulbous snout, facing east. This is only the second elephant seal I have seen on Waddell State Beach.

I planned to search the gull flock that usually rests and bathes in Waddell Creek on the beach near the creek mouth. At the end of the beach I could see the flock of about 100 gulls. I was hoping to find a black-legged kittiwake, a gull that I have been wanted to add to my county list for a while. But before I got to the flock, there were a few gulls foraging around the elephant seal. Indeed, they seemed to be in orbit around the massive mammal.

The dark gulls where juvenile Heermann’s gulls but there was one daintier gull that was actively foraging in the surfline. This gull really stood out. And that’s always a good thing when you’re gulling. The first thing that called out to me was the shape, size, and color of the beak. Now where had I seen that beak before?

This gull was smaller than the nearby Heermann’s gulls. I checked off the fieldmarks: dark bill, darkish smudge behind the eye (clearly one of the hooded gulls), dark eye with a white broken ring, grey back, brownish wing coverts, white undertail coverts (seen when in flight), dark wing tips, and dark legs. This could be only one gull, a gull I had seen on the Texas coast; even taking a dip in a hotel’s swimming pool. This was a first winter laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)! A rare gull on the west coast of California.

Three laughing gulls in the hotel swimming pool in Rockport, Texas. The gull in the center most resembles the gull I found at Waddell Beach. The two other hooded gulls are in adult breeding plumage.
A pinniped piece of driftwood. A battle-scarred male elephant seal, master of Waddell Beach.

After taking some photos of the very active laughing gull, I pulled out my Stillman and Birn Beta hardcover panoramic journal, picked a position, and started sketching the elephant seal. He was very accommodating by just doing his driftwood impression. I looked north towards the parking lot and I noticed that a park ranger’s truck had just pulled in.

My field sketch of the male elephant seal at Waddell Beach.
The first winter laughing gull of Waddell Beach. What a great find! A Santa Cruz County lifer!

The ranger got out of his truck and he began walking towards me. Here I was, about to get a lecture about being too close to the elephant seal, when I was keeping a 25 foot buffer from the pinniped. Or so I though. When the ranger came within hailing distance, (when masked this seems to be about eight feet), he told me there was a tsunami warning and the surge was predicted to hit the coast right about now. I looked at my watch and it was just after 8 AM. He recommended that I leave the beach, which I did. I asked him if there had been and earthquake and he told me that and underwater volcano had erupted!

The undersea volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, 40 miles from the island of Tonga in the South Pacific, had erupted. A tsunami warning had been issued along the entire west coast of the United States as well as across the Pacific in Japan. The only evidence of the tsunami I witnessed was a swell running up Waddell Creek which causing the mallards to take to the air. At the time I really thought nothing of it. Winter waves I though. (I later found out that the surge damaged boats in Santa Cruz Harbor).

When I made it back to the parking lot I encountered two local birders who where looking for the recently reported black scoters. It is always great to have fellow witnesses when you find a rare bird. I showed them where the gull was, just to the right of the elephant seal and further down the beach. They got on it and then put word out on Monterey Birds of it’s presence. The more witnesses the better! Birders in Santa Cruz County love to share.

Thank you Lois, for getting the word out. And thank you for the very uncommon cuckoo in Watsonville!

One of the birders was Lois, the finder of the common cuckoo in Watsonville in the fall of 2012. That was an extremely rare bird that brought birders from across the United States to see it. I was glad to partially repay the favor with this humble, wayward, hooded gull. We seemed to be almost even.

Well, almost.


Journals of the Civil War

Before I go one any trip I like to add a title page and a map to my sketchbooks.

For my trip to Civi War battlefields in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania I chose to bring two Stillman and Birn hard cover watercolor journals. One is my new go-to favorite, the panoramic Delta Series journal. And the other is a Beta Series 5.5 ” X 8.5″ sketchbook. I love both of these papers and they are great for sketching on the road with pen and watercolor.

In the Delta journal I created the title page based on the famous image from Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War, of a silhouetted canon and a glorious sunset in the background. This footage was filmed at Manassas in Virginia. This opening page is the featured sketch.

In my Beta sketchbooks I created a map of the places I would be visiting. All of the locations I would be visiting where within 90 minutes of each other. I distressed the map, covering it in mud and blood. Perhaps I added too much “blood”, but somehow since this is the Civil War it was fitting. It is estimated that about 620,000 Americans lost their lives during the Civil War.

In my Beta, created to spread to synthesize a lot of the information about my trip in a creative way. It is a montage of all the important facts of the trip. Well some of them at any rate. This was a fun page to do and involved a few different sketching techniques.