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Santa Cruz County Brown Booby

Whenever I’ve seen a booby, it is usually flying away from view or sitting still, like a statue. Of course I’m referring to a bird!

In Santa Cruz County, I have seen a red-footed booby at the Concrete Ship at Seacliff State Beach on November 3, 2018 but I have always wanted to add the more common brown booby but none have stuck around long enough for me to see it.

The red-footed booby at the Concrete Ship being harassed by a juvenile brown pelican.

Until an adult female brown booby had been spotted roosting on the cliffs just south of Fern Grotto on the Old Cove Landing Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park. I just hoped she would stick around long enough for me to get a look!

Wilder Ranch State Park is a 7,000 acre State Park that reached from the Santa Cruz County Coastline up to the peak of Ben Lomond Mountain. It is a popular destination for hikers, bikers, birders, nature loafers, and wave watchers.

On Saturday morning I was heading out on one of my favorite hiking/birding trails in the park, the Old Cove Landing Trail. After parking on Highway 1, I headed down a trail and into the historic farm site with contains houses and farm buildings.

It was here, in the and around the buildings, that Lindsey, Stevie, Christine, John, and Mick appeared in the video for “Little Lies”. It is from the album Tango in the Night (1987), which has sold over 15 million copies. “Little Lies” was the highest charting single from the album, reaching number 1. It is still played on 80’s hit radio stations today. Maybe Wilder Ranch had a little to do with it.

I headed through the farm buildings and I was about to crossed the railroad track to the Old Cove Trail when I spotted a California thrasher at the top of a coyote bush. They are more visible and more vocal at this time of year.

One of the many “California”birds I saw on my quest for the brown booby. The others where California towhee, gull, quail, and scrub-jay.

It is about a mile hike on the Old Cove Landing Trail to get to the place where the bobby had been seen. I arrived at the coastal bluffs just south of Fern Grotto Beach.

In front of me was a long flat rock. I scanned the rock: western gulls, lots of Brandt’s cormorants, a lone black oystercatcher, brown pelicans but no brown booby. It must be out to sea fishing or it was just gone. I had decided to give the bird an hour. So I waited for the brown booby to appear. I scanned the southern horizon looking for a booby flying towards my position. I saw none.

I tried to turn a roosting brown pelican into a brown booby, it’s large bill was tucked into it’s back feathers but the feet color was wrong. No booby.

Below me a bird flew into view and landed on the cliff next to a Brandt’s Cormorant. It was the brown booby!! It must have been roosted out of view on the cliff I was standing on.

This is the angle where I first got looks at the brown booby.
I moved to a position directly above the booby, without falling over to join it, to get some better photos.
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Fern Grotto Beach

On Saturday morning I headed out on one of my favorite coastal trails, the Old Cove Landing Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park. This is a great trail for hiking and birding featuring coast chaparral and great ocean views. This is also a nice place for sketching.

A very accommodating male California quail perched out in the open at the beginning of the Old Cove Landing Trail.
Another California namesake, a singing California thrasher perched up in coyote brush. I could hear the thrasher’s warbling song from Fern Grotto Beach.

I headed down the trail to Fern Grotto Beach. This beach is framed by sandstones cliffs that are crowned with lush vegetation. I wanted to sketch the view from the beach and a log dictated where I would sit and my perspective.

For this sketch I used a panoramic Moleskine watercolor journal which was perfect for the expanse of the scene. I first laid in the cliffs with loose washes, letting colors runs into each other in a wet-on-wet extravaganza. I kept all of the painting loose rather than detailed. Once the paint was mostly dry I tied the sketch together with dark sepia pen strokes. I held then pen toward the end in order to keep the lines loose and lively.

This hike is not just for the birds! Harbor seals at a seal haul out.
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Wilder Ranch

On a foggy morning, most mornings are foggy in the summer, I headed northbound on Highway 1. My destination was just out of the city limits of Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch State Park.

Wilder Ranch is a former dairy ranch on the coast. In 1871, two partners Baldwin and Deloss D. Wilder bought 4,160 acres of the a former rancho. In 1885 the partners split the acres in half and for the the next century the Wilder family farmed the land and their farm was prosperous enough to build a new Victorian farm house in 1897. The Wilder family farmed until 1969 when the farm became unprofitable.

The property became part of the State Park system in 1974. The park today includes 7,000 acres and is visited by hikers, mountain bikers, and birders. And a few sketchers too.

The closer I got to the coast, the thicker the fog. Fog and watercolor don’t always go together.

I parked on Highway One and headed down to the historic ranch buildings of Wilder Ranch. While most people hike or mountain bike on the 35 miles of trails of Wilder, I set up my camp chair in front of the Horse Barn.

This is a rather fancy barn, looking almost more like a house than a barn. Today this barn no longer houses horses but the interior provides a substrate for a bird’s nest, the appropriately named barn swallow. This year’s swallow fledglings where perched on the wires and buildings of the farmstead. I made sure to sketch a few in on the wires before they flew off on newly fledged wings.

After I finished sketching the horse barn, I walked a few hundred yards to get a vantage point of the Victorian farm house with the palm tree in the background. For this sketch I keep things a little loose, urban sketching style. For example I kept the sketch of the vegetation loose, and focused on the details and perspective of the house. I carried this over to the watercolor, I only painted the farmhouse and the roof in the foreground.

On my way out, I did a quick sketch of the scarecrow. The scarecrow was wearing proper face protection and was social distancing. There was not another scarecrow in sight! Nor a crow for that matter.

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Spring Birding

I took young Grasshopper Sparrow to one of my favorite birding locations in Santa Cruz County, the Old Cove Landing Trail, at Wilder Ranch State Park.

Birding in the spring is a pleasure as you see returning migrants and signs of newborn life. Males are defending their territories in song and are frequently seen perched on prominent singing perches giving a birder great views!

One lifer on Grasshopper’s list was a pigeon guillemot, an alcid that is not a pigeon but a bird of the near shore. Once we hit the coast the guillemots were an easy tick with many on the water or resting on cliffs. We had sensational views and we moved on down the coast in search of more signs of spring.

The spring pleasures are not only reserved to the avian world. As we were about a mile down the trail which follows the contours of the coast, a long-tailed weasel crossed our path! Perhaps an adult hunting to feed its growing kittens. We watched as it’s black-tipped tail disappeared into the green grass.

My young acolyte, Grasshopper Sparrow’s spread about our brief encounter with a life mammal.

We continued on and were rewarded with a black phoebe nest with a near fledgling. Grasshopper thought the chick was dead but I suggested it was just in instinctual frozen mode at the sight of two large bipeds approaching.

We then headed back, adding more lifers to Grasshopper’s growing list and I wanted to check in on another sign of spring just south on Highway One at Natural Bridges State Beach. The eucalyptus grove here is known for the 150,000 wintering monarch butterflies. Most were gone now. We were here for owls!

From the butterfly viewing platform we easily spotted the two adult great horned owls with their recently fledged owlet. These owls start their breeding cycle early as the don’t construct their own nests. Instead they borrowed a red-shouldered hawk’s nest.

As we headed out, the local male Bewick’s wren was perched up, proclaiming his place in the world.