Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bleeding mushrooms

These pretty little mushrooms, called Mycena haematopus, bleed deep red when the stem is cut, especially at the base. Although there are other bleeding Mycenas, this is the only one that fruits on wood, making it easy to identify. This piece of wood was barely able to hold it's shape and had no bark left on it. It was, in fact, so well-decayed that I can't say what kind of wood it was. There were Garry oak (Quercus garryana), Pacific madrone (Arubutus menziesii) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) in the area. In the four years or so that I've been paying attention to fungi, I've usually seen these mushrooms singly or, perhaps, with one or two others, so I felt as though I was attending a delightful little soiree while sketching this comparatively large group! If you look closely, you can see several new buttons poking out of the wood on the left.

For more about bleeding Mycena, visit these sites:

Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month, June 2002
Mykoweb: California Fungi

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The mushrooms are here!

After too much frost and not quite enough rain, it's warmed up here and there's a steady supply of water falling from the sky. Guess what that means? Mushrooms! Mushrooms in little armies marching under conifers and standing solitary under oaks. Mushrooms poking up out of the leaves in the forest and mushrooms sprouting from wet, decaying wood. I've been getting out as much as I can to find them. So far, it's a fabulous year for mushrooms and it's hard to choose which fungi to draw when I do get out.

In the past week, the deathly invader, Amanita phalloides has suddenly risen, in little groups, big groups, and by itself, scattered about Howarth Park, and elsewhere. This one was a bright beacon, as I walked along a trail, begging to be sketched. I felt compelled to oblige.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cormorant poop

It's almost winter and Double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) have returned to Lake Ralphine. They can be seen swimming low in the water then suddenly diving out of sight, only to return, often with a fish caught in their beak, which they flip about and swallow. Once they're done fishing, they fly up into this California black oak (Quercus kelloggii) or a Western cottonwood (Populus fremontii) that's nearby and spread their wings to dry and just generally hang out. Although the oak looks dead it isn't, not yet, anyway. It may be that being chosen by these large birds could eventually be the death of the tree. During breeding season Cormorants nest in colonies and the large amounts of....uh...poop that falls from the nests and from the adult birds makes the soil too toxic for the tree that the birds are nesting in, eventually killing it, forcing the birds to choose a new nesting site.

The Cormorants that spend the winter at Lake Ralphine aren't nesting but they certainly are loitering and congregating in one place, this California black oak.

Fairfax County Public Schools
All About Birds
BirdWeb (Seattle Audubon Society)
United States Environmental Protection Agency
United States Fish & Wildlife Service

Monday, November 29, 2010

Guinea pig in the wild

Last week, as I pulled my car into a parking space at Howarth Park, I saw something small moving oddly through the underbrush in the woods above the parking lot. I gathered up my gear and my dog and went closer to explore. Before I'd gotten very far, I knew that I was looking at a nearly forgotten friend from my early adolescence, though in a decidedly different habitat than that of my pet guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) from many, many years ago. This guinea pig was hopping awkwardly about, stopping every now and then to eat some of the new grass sprouting all over the park. He was decidedly unconcerned as I drew closer but only to a point, at which he scuffled off at a distance.

Chloe and I went on our way and when I got home, after our walk, I set about refreshing my memory about guinea pigs. I found that much of what I remembered was wrong.

Guinea pigs originated in the Andes and were domesticated long ago, as a food source. There are some close relatives still in the wild but but it's not certain that the domesticated pig is descended from any of them. Although Guinea pigs are still raised as food in in the Andean highlands, they were enthusiastically adopted elsewhere as exotic house pets beginning in the 16th century, when European traders brought them back from their travels to the New World. I was relieved to find that guinea pigs still retain a preference for cool weather over hot, as our night time temperatures have been about 30 degrees F (-1C) for nearly a week.

Back at Howarth Park, I returned the next day with some fruit and vegetables which the pig devoured with great enthusiasm, as long as I kept my distance. I began an internal debate about whether to attempt a rescue or allow the pig to live a shorter but certainly more exciting life at Howarth Park. I wondered if the pig missed the humans who  abandoned him, or if life at the edge of the park was a welcome and exciting change from the more sedate, but possibly very boring domestic life of a household pet in a cage. Trying to imagine myself in this guinea pig's place, I felt that life in the wild would be my choice, in spite of the increased danger and hardship. When I told a friend about my predicament, she thought she'd prefer the cage or, rather, the steady supply of food and easy lifestyle. So, I'm trying to split the difference by taking food with me when I go to the park to walk.

I hadn't seen the pig in a couple of days, because I've been going early in the morning when it's still cold and he seems to wait, as do many of the native inhabitants, for warmth before venturing out for breakfast. Yesterday I finally got a chance to see  the pig, in the late afternoon, when I dropped off some food but he's adapting well to life in the wild and was gone before I got close.

Cavy history
Animal Diversity Web
The Humane Society of the United States

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Watching the sun set

Most afternoons my husband, Chloe and I walk to downtown Santa Rosa to visit our favorite coffee place. We chat and watch the people and dogs that always seem to be bustling about. If we're not in a hurry, I'll do some urban sketching, mostly of the other people drinking coffee outside.

There are often quite a few birds about, especially in the winter, eating pieces of muffin, bagel and cookies that end up on the ground. There's also someone who puts out handfuls of seed most days. We see Brewer's blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus)and a few House sparrows (Passer domesticus). Last week,  a hawk dove from on high trying to capture one of the blackbirds but it missed and was gone so quickly that I wasn't even sure what I'd seen until I'd thought about it a while. Oddly, there aren't any pigeons, though there are some living near our house, a quarter of a mile away.

In winter the blackbirds begin to gather at around 4 p.m. on top of the building across the street, facing the sun as it rapidly sinks in the sky. Often, we'll see nearly 100 birds perched quietly at the edge of the roof, some of them preening themselves. Sometimes the whole group will suddenly lift off and wheel about over the small city of Santa Rosa before landing again, often when crows fly over, but usually for no reason that we can discern.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Insect ballet

One brilliantly sunny day, after days of rain many years ago, I was in our backyard when the air around me suddenly filled with graceful winged insects that drifted off and then disappeared. They seemed to be rising from the ground beneath me and when I looked I saw hundreds more crawling unsteadily about the flagstones beneath my feet. I captured one for later identification and watched as all of them became airborne and disappeared within an hour.

I was chagrined to discover that the beautiful flight I witnessed was the annual departure of reproductive termites from their nest. The one somewhere on our property. Uh oh.

The nice exterminator who came the next day couldn't find any sign of invasion of our home but still felt strongly that we should begin an toxic and expensive monthly pest control program. We decided against it and have been keeping watch for signs that the termites have moved from the old stump beneath the house to the house itself. So far it hasn't happened.

It turns out that termites, like the fungi I'm so fond of, serve an important function as one of the recycling crews of our planet. They recycle old, decayed wood and help keep the soil porous and rich with nutrients. Oh, and termites are considered choice eating by several species, including our own, some of whom consider toasted termite to be a culinary delight. Earlier this year I watched a Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) eat quite a few termites as they emerged from the ground to fly away.

Most of the information about termites seems to be provided by colleagues and employers of that nice exterminator that came to our house after the first termite flight we saw. Here's some less biased information, including a wonderful video of an amazing termite skyscraper in Nigeria.

University of California
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
David Attenborough video

Friday, November 5, 2010

Just before the rain

It had rained in the morning and was supposed to clear up in the afternoon, so I changed my day around and went to the park in the afternoon. Ha! Paying attention to weather forecasters is pretty much like gambling with your life savings. It was gray and chilly and felt as though it was going to rain at any moment. This really wasn't a bad thing because I love that gray light for the way it makes every other color so brilliant that they almost glow, even the faded golds and tans of late summer in Northern California. I was considered drawing a landscape until this Oak titmouse (Baelophus inornatus) landed in a manzanita (Archostaphylos sp.) and preened long enough for me to get a sketch. After the bird left I worked on the leaves and branches until the rain that wasn't supposed to fall did, indeed, begin to fall. Since I was in a meadow with no umbrella (remember the part about believing weather forecasters?) I cut the sketching short and toddled off to enjoy a delightful walk in the rain.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lion's mane

In my last post I mentioned looking for a fungus called Hericium erinaceus or Lion's mane. Although I didn't find the one I was looking for, I did find this one fruiting in the Black oak (Quercus kelloggii) in another part of the park. I actually saw my very first Lion's Mane fruiting from this tree about three years ago. It fruited the following year then skipped last year and here it is again.

If you find it early, this is an edible fungus, though not one I've ever tried to eat. Although my sketch only suggests it, the rounded white area at the bottom of the organism is comprised of slender "teeth" or spines which produce the spores, rather than gills. This fungus had already begun to produce spores and had a white dusting on top.

More written and pictorial information:

Monday, November 1, 2010


The voice of the Northern red-shafted flicker is what the beginning of fall sounds like here in Sonoma County. This year I heard the first flicker in August, which seemed a bit early, but now, in mid-October, it's hard to go anywhere in Howarth Park without hearing one or more flickers calling out to one another. My ears led me to this dapper fellow in an open part of the park with scattered Blue oak (Quercus douglassii), one gray day. I started to draw him with a fountain pen but it didn't work out the way I wanted so I switched over to ball-point and then got carried away by the whole scene, not just the bird. Thus, an inky ghost of a Flicker watches over the scene on the left side of the image.

Although the flicker is a woodpecker it's commonly seen on the ground, foraging for insects. This one was foraging in some dead wood high up in an oak and stayed a good long while. Up to 45% of a flicker's diet is ants, along with other insects, and in winter, some nuts, seeds and berries.

Here in the western part of North America, you're most likely to see the red-shafted flicker, while in the east the yellow-shafted Northern flicker is more common.

More about flickers:
Chipper Woods Observatory

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More stinging things

After getting all mushy about my (previously) sworn enemies, Yellow-jackets (Vespula pennsylvanica), I happened upon a large hanging nest near where the Yellow-jacket nest was destroyed. I'd actually been looking to see if a Hericium erinaceus, or Lion's Mane fungus had begun to fruit yet in an oak a bit off of one of the trails at Howarth Park. Instead, I found a huge wasp nest hanging in the Madrone in front of the oak. The nest was about the size of a basketball with two openings at the bottom. I watched it with binoculars for a while and was surprised to see a few stocky, black insects with white on their hind ends flying in and out. I recognized the nest structure as that of a wasp but had never seen a black and white wasp before and found myself looking forward to getting home to see if I could discover the identity of this new critter.

Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) are in the same family as my new friends, the Yellow-jackets (Vespula pennsylvanica) but are black and white with mostly white faces, hence the common name. While Yellow-jackets are very aggressive, the Bald-faced hornet is a mellower insect and will only go after those who mess with it's nest of, oh, only about 400 to 700 hornets!

To create their amazing nests, the hornets chew up wood and mix it with starch in their saliva to make a lovely paper-like substance. The nest is incorporated into the tree branches for additional strength and substance. The same predators that search out Yellow-jacket larvae, raccoons, foxes and skunks, will raid Bald-faced hornets nests, especially when they're hung low in the tree, looking for the tasty larvae.

After doing this rather quick sketch one afternoon, I planned to return to do a more detailed sketch but, after our first winter storm, this weekend, the nest was crumpled on the ground underneath the tree. Hopefully, it was the storm and not a predator.

To learn more about Bald-faced hornets check out these web sites:

North American Insects and Spiders
Good ol' Wikipedia
Fairfax County Public Schools

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sympathy for the devil?

It's because of Western yellow-jackets (Vespula pennsyvanica) that I no longer go outside without a hat. A couple of autumns ago, I was repeatedly dive-bombed by speeding yellow-jackets who proceeded to get tangled in my (very short) hair. The first time I thought it was a fly and tried to pick it out, only to get my fingers stung. The second time I beat the wasp and my head with a stick until it's mangled body fell to the ground. The third time I was able to prod it out with a stick. The fourth time I finally used my brains and wore a hat, which the yellow-jacket bounced off of and went on it's demented way.

These are the same merry insects that crash outdoor parties in the summer. It's quite amazing to watch one carve a small orb out of your meat dish and chow down or carry it away. However, they're not very good at sharing so we've learned to set a place for the yellow-jackets far away from our food. This actually seems to work most of the time, leading me to believe that they're chowing down and thinking, " How nice it is not to be bothered by the giant mammals for a change and, by the way, isn't this chicken just divine?"

Yellow-jackets only live one season and their time ends as the autumn winds down, so perhaps I can forgive them their wild attacks at this time of year. With my hat in place I can afford some magnanimity toward them.

This summer I've kept my eye on a nest of yellow jackets, in the ground, near one of the trails at Howarth Park that I frequently walk. I tried to observe the goings on but whenever I stopped, at a healthy distance, to look with my binoculars a few would head my way and start buzzing me in a way that just didn't seem friendly. About two weeks ago small rocks began appearing in the opening to the nest. The yellow-jackets dodged them the best they could and continued to come and go. Sometimes the rocks were removed and other times more were added. It seemed very odd and I tried to imagine the courage or stupidity it would take to stand close enough to put the rock in the opening. As the mornings grew chillier, I noticed that the wasps weren't very active so maybe it was someone roaming at night or earlier in the morning than I.

It remained a small mystery in the back of my head but one that I mostly forgot about until near the end of September, when  I found that the opening had been dug wider and there was honeycomb scattered everywhere with what I discovered were larvae within. Several of the larvae were being carried off by ants and a few adult yellow-jackets walked about the ground looking dazed. I was able to get quite close without any attacks. I really couldn't imagine why any human would want to risk life and limb and dig out a yellow-jacket nest. I made some sketches and notes and looked forward to trying to untangle the mystery.

Continuing my trek, I noticed some raccoon scat in the trail, not an unusual sight, but I began to wonder if, for some crazy reason, a raccoon or other mammal had been the digger. As it turns out, it may have been. Apparently, yellow-jacket larvae are mighty fine eating in some circles. Raccoons, skunks and possums are known to dig up these nests and feast on the larvae. So, that mystery....solved.

I still had one other mystery to solve, though. If yellow jackets die at the end of summer why was this nest full of larvae? As it happens, each spring, a single female queen that has overwintered begins to build a nest and lay eggs that become the workers who, in turn, take over nest building and provisioning as the queen lays more eggs, creating more wasps to populate the colony. At the end of summer she lays another set of eggs that will become fertile females who, in turn, go off and find a safe place to spend the winter before beginning their own new nests. I find myself feeling sympathetic toward this group of Yellow-jackets. They worked all summer, took care of their young, only to lose them in a moment. Hmm.

For more information and pictures visit:
The adventurous gardener
The Yellow Jacket Wasp
Bug Guide

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reminded of Woody the Woodpecker

One day, many years ago, I walked through some woods and heard, to my great surprise, the call of a cartoon character from my childhood, Woody Woodpecker. I followed the ear-shattering sound and beheld two enormous birds flying from tree to tree and calling loudly to one another. At home I found it was easy to identify them as Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), which are described at All About Birds as being nearly as large as a crow. They seem bigger to me but I've never had the opportunity to compare the two species side by side or to measure. There seems to be some question as to whether Woody, the cartoon woodpecker, was modeled after Pileated or Acorn woodpeckers. Julie Zickefoose, an naturalist and artist discusses this further at NPR.

More recently I came upon a male Pileated excavating in a small oak along a busy trail at Howarth Park. He worked silently and diligently, hacking away at a small black oak tree. I pulled off to the side of the trail and sketched for about 20 minutes before he took off. Soon after, I packed up and walked on toward some California ground squirrels and excitement for my canine companion.

More about the actual woodpecker:
National Geographic
Wild Bird WatchingPileated Woodpecker Central
All About Birds

...and the animated woodpecker:
Don Markenstein's Toonopedia
Universal Studios

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Quiet time

If you seek solitude at Howarth Park in the summer, it's best to arrive soon after the sun rises. It's a busy place the rest of the day. Now that children are back in school and families have gotten back to their school-year schedules, I've found that mid to late morning is the perfect time to walk. The sun brings warmth after cooler nights. It's lower in the sky, even this late in the morning, and throws deep, dramatic shadows. Depending on the way the wind blows, the sound of nearby traffic is a faint whisper, allowing me to enjoy the sound of the breeze rustling the dry grasses and leaves as I draw.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A quiet afternoon in the cemetery

Leaves have been falling around here like crazy, revealing the architecture of the trees that have released them, renewing my interest in drawing trees. A bubble of leaves atop a trunk just isn't as exciting as twisting, gnarly limbs reaching up and out and over. Last weekend I headed over to the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery which is populated with some beautiful old oaks, mostly Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and Interior live oak (Quercus wislizeni). Because much of the cemetery is on a rise, it's easy to get dramatic lighting in the early morning or late afternoon.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Still alive

Earlier this summer I more or less stumbled upon a pair of Skilton's skinks (Plestiodon skiltonianus) living under a rock that I like to sit on at Howarth park. I visited every day for a few days. They seemed curious, if not a bit put out,  about Chloe and I, and would lurk about for a while before heading off to hunt up some breakfast. Then I suddenly stopped seeing them. The ground around their rock had been dug into and I feared that they were no longer of this world. A week ago, though, I stopped by just to sit a while and, lo and behold, one of the skinks glided out from under the rock and sat a spell with us before heading out for some hunting. I've been back a few times since and there's been no sign of skinks.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Summer's end

At the very beginning of my walk at Howarth Park today, after I'd walked up a little hill to Camp WaTam, I found nine California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) gathered in the sun just outside of their den underneath a giant metal storage container. Amazingly, nobody walked by until I had most of the sketch done, a miracle because these intrepid rodents live at a busy crossroads.

The first year squirrels had a hard time staying still and would periodically pop violently out of the crowd as they rough-housed with each other, raising clouds of dust, while the more mature squirrels continued to bask serenely, undisturbed by the youthful eruptions of exuberance.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Preparing for winter

As I mentioned in a previous post I've found California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) to be excellent models as I learn to draw wildlife. After spending the summer drawing the rather tame squirrels that have made homes in the picnic areas where there's constant human activity, I decided to begin sketching some of the wilder cousins out along the trails in the old quarry areas of Howarth Park.

In early August, I noticed three juveniles basking in the sun as it rose and warmed the rocks. I didn't see any adults but heard alarm calls a few hundred feet behind where I sat. I stopped to visit and sketch one or two times each week and only saw the three youngsters, who generally appeared each morning as the rocks were warmed by the sun. They would bask, then move about the grasses, eating seeds and playing with each other while keeping an eye on Chloe and I as we watched them.

For almost a week, I only saw two of the young squirrels and feared that a predator had made a meal of the missing squirrel. Then, one day I saw all three together again and two adults, as well. One of the adults was carrying a large load of something in her cheek pockets. In fact, she seemed rooted to the spot, giving me the chance to get a drawing of her in all of her double-chinned glory.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Waiting for breakfast

One sunny morning I started my walk at Howarth Park at Lake Ralphine. The trail around the lake is above the water. There are several areas right on the water that have been cleared out and are used by picnickers and fishers. In the early morning the sun rises up over a low ridge, grazing the lake and the land near it and as I walked I saw a Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) perched on a rock waiting for the insects that were beginning to buzz above the water as the sunlight warmed the air.

Black phoebe was one of the first birds I learned to identify. The bird's coloring reminded me of a tuxedo and I always imagined the phoebe just getting home from a formal event. Phoebe's call is easy to recognize. Phoebe. Phoebe. Phoebe! Finally, if I saw a black and white bird bounce up out of a low tree or shrub, then circle back into it, then do it all several more times, I was quite certain I'd seen a Black phoebe. Because they don't seem to be so shy of people, they're much easier to spot than other flycatchers, who seem to stay high in the treetops and tend to blend better into their surroundings.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Life drawing class revisited

There are very few places in Howarth Park that you can't find a family of California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi). They're quite tolerant of humans, adapting easily to our ways. Those that live in the areas most used by humans have come to depend on us for a steady diet of junk food, often fed by toddlers getting their first introduction to what can loosely be called wildlife. Deeper into the park, the squirrels are wary of humans but still much more tolerant of our presence than other wildlife.

I've only begun sketching wildlife this past year. After several years of drawing fungi and plants, I found that I had no clue how to draw something that wasn't sitting still and posing for me or rooted to the ground. Birds were what drew me to wildlife but sketching the ground squirrels of Howarth Park has given me the best practice so far. Beginning with those that are well accustomed to humans invading their area, I've been able to learn a great deal about sketching small animals that are in nearly constant motion. On days when it was just too hard for me to follow them with my pen or pencil, I could usually find some basking in the sun for long stretches of time, giving me the chance to do some figure drawing the way I learned it long ago, with a stationary model.

In the process of observing, I've found myself fascinated by creatures that I once took very little notice of. They, in turn, seem to be fascinated with the woman and dog who sit quietly and watch them. The first-year squirrels greatly enjoy tormenting Chloe by creeping closer and closer, causing the poor dog to lose control and lunge at the last minute, only to be brought up short by the leash as the devilish squirrel easily escapes. In one spot we like to sit there's a burrow opening about 2 feet in front of my feet where at least one of the young squirrels likes to poke her face out and watch us intently, with her nose going the whole time.

If you're looking for help sketching any kind of creature that moves you might find Drawing Birds by John Busby to be a great place to begin. Although the focus is on birds, the techniques he discusses are as much help with ground squirrels as birds and the artwork by several different wildlife artists is truly inspiring.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fungi have begun fruiting!

I went all summer and rarely thought about fungi. There were birds, ground squirrels, deer and wildflowers to distract me. Oh, and a couple of foxes that crossed my path every now and then, so fast that I had to pinch myself to be sure that I'd seen them. But, as the dry summer rolled along and the red dust of Howarth Park settled more heavily over rocks and shrubs something undefinable changed in the air and I found myself checking trees for signs of Inonotus hispidus, the first fungus that appears in the early fall at Howarth Park.

On September 14 my vigilance was rewarded and I spotted this beautiful hunk of burning fungus love and felt my heart go pitty-pat at the thought of more to come. I've found one other just beginning to fruit on an oak on the far side of the park from where I found this one. I'm so excited!

Inonotus hispidus is a wood rotting fungus and appears on dead or dying branches of trees, or on fallen logs. On one hand, it's  sad to see it in a standing tree as it means that tree probably won't be standing for all that much longer. On the other hand, Inonotus hispidus and other wood rotters keep forests and woodlands clean by composting old, diseased wood. Although this tree will fall, the fungus will help pave the way for a new tree to sprout from this tree's acorns.

For more information visit these sites:

Forest Pests
First Nature
Forest Health Protection
Rogers Mushrooms

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Summer's almost (but not quite) gone

Even though it's begun to feel like fall here in northern California some days still have a bit of summer to them. Last week, the fog that's been keeping it cool was pushed offshore by high pressure from the east and we had sunny, cool mornings that warmed up quickly. At the end of our walk Chloe and I made a stop at the picnic area to watch the resident ground squirrels as they climbed live oak and coyote brush to nibble on leaves and accept handouts from small children and their parents. Looking out over the lake I was amused to see two turtles lollygagging on a couple of rocks in the sun. I drew quickly, thinking they'd be off before I could finish the scene but both were still about in the same positions by the time we wandered off.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Knock, knock

One afternoon, from my living room, I heard a loud pecking noise, louder than the sound of Scrub jays cleaning our gutters or the Oak titmouse beating open a sunflower seed on the platform outside the kitchen window. Curious, I went followed the pounding toward the kitchen. There wasn't anything on the feeding platform. Looking out another window, toward the side of the house I spotted a Nuttall's woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) drilling a hole into the wooden fence attached to our house.Once he saw me, he moved about the fence then a tree above it, and finally left the yard. Although I often see these woodpeckers foraging in the canopy of the valley oak in our backyard, I haven't seen them in our front yard since early spring.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Night-heron is back at Lake Ralphine

Last week I suddenly began to see and hear birds back in the woods and along the water at Howarth Park. I generally don't walk around the lake, mostly because the trail can be crowded and because I find very few fungi along that trail. But there aren't any fungi at this dry time of year and as the summer ended it seemed to be the most exciting part of the park, so I've begun or ended many of my walks with a turn around Lake Ralphine. The other day I was rewarded when I spotted a Black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) hunting at the far end of the lake. There was even a shady spot for me to sit down and draw. The heron tolerated my intrusion for a while then picked his or her way into the overhanging willows and out of my view.

While visiting All About Birds to find out if it's possible to tell male night herons from female, I followed a link to some wonderful bird sketches by Maria Coryell-Martin, the September 2010 artist of the month at All About Birds.

Oh, and although All About Birds makes no mention of difference between male and female, describes the female as slightly smaller, paler and with shorter nape feathers than the male.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Early fall morning at Howarth Park

One of the really great things about field sketching is that you never really know what you will find. Some days, it seems that there's something I want to draw every few steps and there are days when I can't find anything I want to draw.

One morning at the end of August I found a hodgepodge of little wonders going on at Howarth Park. First I spotted a crayfish wandering awkwardly on the trail above the shore of Lake Ralphine. Lately I've seen at least one every time I walk on the lake, if I'm early enough. This one froze into the most threatening position it could muster and stayed that way until I unthinkingly moved my arm outward, which caused him to back up, tip over, right himself and head briskly, if clumsily, to the safety of the water. I was able to get a good look at his remarkable face before that happened. I also discovered that there are two stubby little legs just under his mouth centered between the claws, something I'd never noticed before, since I don't usually get a lot of face time with the crayfish.

Chloe and I wandered away from the lake and up onto the south ridge where the sun was getting very hot. I walked as quietly as possible which allowed me to sneakily get closer to western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis) along the trails before they'd skitter off under rocks. There were several very small ones that weren't quite as quick to disappear as the larger lizards.

Finally, we stopped off to check on the Skilton's skinks (Plestiodon sketonianus) that we'd seen in early August. They weren't there and it looks as though something bigger may have taken over their place. Chloe sniffed around under the rock with great interest which ruled out a snake (she's terrified of them) and suggested rodent, a species of great interest to her. We took refuge in the shade of a blue oak (Quercus douglasii), in the process irritating a western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus) a fair distance away from us. She stopped traveling through treetops to stamp her front paw at me, something I've seen several of these squirrels do when aggravated. When the stamping didn't get the desired result she ran down the tree and off away from us.

I sat a while on the edge of an old quarry, gathering my thoughts and deciding which trail to follow next when a large speckled fly flew up and hovered by my hand. It landed on the rock I was perched on and rested for a bit, giving me the opportunity to quickly sketch it so that I could take it home and try to identify it later. It appears to belong to tribe Anthracini.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Last week, I was hearing the loud calls of a group of about four Belted kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon) as I walked around Lake Ralphine. The other day a male actually sat still for a while on a low hanging branch, long enough for me to sketch him. This group of kingfishers are rowdy birds, yelling loudly and chasing each other around and across the lake.

One day I watched as a young Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) flew in and perched in the same tree as one of the kingfishers. The kingfisher began to screech and dive-bombed the hawk several times. The hawk maintained it's post and it's equilibrium and the kingfisher eventually flew off, screaming her displeasure for all the world to hear. These are not shy and retiring birds!

Because I was drawing at a distance and my eyesight isn't quite what it once was, I thought that the kingfisher had yellow eyes. When I got home and began to research the species, I was surprised to find that their eyes are dark and blend into the dark teal of their head feathers very nicely. What I thought were yellow eyes are two white spots placed just in front of the eyes.  The only reference I found that made any attempt to explain the purpose of the eye spots was in The American Midland Naturalist, University of Notre Dame, 1974:
...kingfishers, when about to dive, appear to be using the two white spots in front of the eyes as sighting devices along the line of the bill to fix their prey and, by doing so, possibly to correct for the refraction of water.
 Well, it's not the most satisfying explanation but will have to do for now.

For more about Belted kingfisher:
The American Midland Naturalist
All About Birds

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wasps and water

After a cool, foggy summer, northern California seems to have decided to make up for all the lost heat in two days. Yesterday it was 106 degrees F (41.1 C) here in Santa Rosa. After lunch I dragged myself outside to water our lettuce and carrot seedlings and noticed a lot of wasp activity in and around the bird bath. After the sun had moved to the other side of our house, I spent some time (in the shade) spying on the wasps in my garden.

Our front yard has plants that attract honey bees (Apis mellifera), California carpenter bees (Xylocopa sp.) and the paper wasps (Polistes dominula). On sunny afternoons they all buzz harmoniously about some sages and oregano, drinking nectar. I've also noticed that the wasps spend a good deal of time visiting our lettuce patch, landing on the leaves and moving about for a minute or less then leaving. During our heat wave the wasps, and only the wasps, have been drinking and lounging in the water in our little bird baths. There seem to be three approaches: 1) fly by, dip toes in water, then land on edge of container and drink, 2) drop onto the water and float for a bit while sipping, 3) hover above the water, dipping frequently to sip. The wasps appeared to be utterly unconcerned by my presence. I sketched some more this afternoon, as the coastal influence began to reestablish itself (the fog's returning!), and was interested to note that the wasps stopped drinking from the bath when the temperature dropped into the mid- or low 90s.

These wasps are recent immigrants to our continent. Natives of Europe, they somehow found their way to Massachusetts in 1981 and then spread across the country with great haste. In some areas of the northeast they appear to be replacing native paper wasps. Their long hind legs and slender bodies make it easy to distinguish them from the similar looking yellow jacket (Vespula sp.).

Oh, and as to why they hang out in our lettuce? We often water it at noon on warm days. I suspect that the wasps find the sheltered, shaded source of water appealing at that time of day.

For more information than you'll ever need about European paper wasps, check out these web sites:
Living with bugs
Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences
Michigan State University
Garden Friends & Foes
Bug of the month: Articles about Pacific Northwest Insects

Monday, August 23, 2010

On Lake Ralphine

Over the years, the people who fish at Lake Ralphine have created several little clearings in the brush and grasses that grow along the edge of the water. I've discovered that many of them, especially at the gunky end of the lake, are great places to sit and wait for...whatever. Some days there's just not a lot happening. Other days, I can't draw all of the action that's going on and have to choose.

This particular day there wasn't a whole lot to see, except for a few turtles poking their heads above the water and drifting, and a black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) perched in small trees or shrubs on the other side of the lake, waiting for insects to fly by. One minute it was there and the next it wasn't.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Waiting for lunch

In northern California it's been gray and cold every morning, which is when I usually like to walk. I much prefer cooler weather to warmer weather, but find that after a summer of chilly mornings, even I yearn for sun and warmth. With that in mind, I delayed my walk on Monday and left at 9:30 a.m. instead of my usual 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. The sun was just coming out as I arrived at the park and I joyfully left my sweatshirt in the car as I began my walk. I was thrilled at the play of light and dark, even in the nearly noon sun, which is usually too glaring and harsh for my taste. The end of my walk was spent at Chloe's favorite spot, the picnic area by the edge of Lake Ralphine, the place where ground squirrels have little fear and a dog can drool and tremble as the youngest squirrels play double-dare with her. At the same time, several of the squirrels watched every human that entered the area, waiting for handouts. I captured a couple of them before their wishes were fulfilled by a young girl with a bag of chips.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Crayfish cove

A couple of weeks ago Chloe and I walked around Lake Ralphine before the sun came out from behind the thick blanket of fog that's been a regular part of our summer this year. We had the place mostly to ourselves and wandered along enjoying the quiet. As we reached the far end of the lake I saw some movement on the ground, out of the corner of my eye, and stopped to see what it might be. I was surprised to find several crayfish roaming about a small beach. I should mention that we've encountered several individuals, over the past couple of weeks, clumsily hoisting themselves over rocks and up small hills near the water and I've wondered what might be bringing them out of the water. This was a
large party which Chloe and I crashed with great enthusiasm. Most of the crayfish backed themselves into the lake, waving their claws menacingly, and disappeared under rocks. I sat down on one of the larger boulders, thinking I'd wait quietly and see if they'd come back out, and was surprised by a large crayfish hiding underneath my boulder and gesturing wildly at me to back off. I moved over to the next rock, out of the trapped crayfish's sight and waited. Those in the water slowly began to mill about and some even headed my way, but as soon as they saw me, did that strange backward crayfish shuffle and hid. In the meantime, the landlocked fellow edged his way back into the water and glared at me from behind a submerged rock.
Hikers and fishermen began to appear and I decided to continue my walk and come back to what I now call Crayfish cove another day.

The next morning I walked along the same trail, excited about what I might find in the cove. Sadly, there weren't any crayfish on land, but looking closely in the water revealed several of them partly hidden under rocks. I began to sketch the underwater scene but the crayfish disapproved and all disappeared as I sketched. I was sorry to see them go but enjoyed sketching the submerged rocks anyway.

A week later, I still hadn't found any crayfish roaming about but noticed that the water level was quite a bit higher, covering much of the beach with water. Perhaps, the crayfish had been disoriented by the lower water level. I still favor the notion that they were just having a really fine party that spilled over from night to day and I got there for the grand finale.

Friday, August 13, 2010

On the rocks

There's a place in Howarth Park that Chloe and I both like to go and hang out. It's rocky and was partially quarried at some point in history and is easily reached from one trail. If you walk out across the rocks you can look far down on another trail. Or you can just sit in the middle and bask in the sun. If you stay a while you might see some deer toward the lower trail. If you stay quiet long enough lizards come out and bask, too, and birds fly about the blue oaks (Quercus douglasii) that grow in between the rocks.

The sun was just beginning to warm things and Chloe and I were bouncing from rock to rock when I saw a flash of blue sticking out from under the rock I was about to leap onto. Chloe leapt onto the rock before I could stop her and the blue disappeared. I called her back and we sat down to wait out what I knew would be a Skilton's skink (Plestiodon skiltonianus). After a while a striped head poked out and then, with movement more like a snake than another lizard, the blue tailed skink traveled around the rock, clearly checking us out, it's shiny scales glistening as the sun finally broke free of the fog.

I wondered, the first time I saw one of these beauties, why it would have a screaming blue tail. Although no one knows for sure, it's believed that the tail attracts a predator who grabs it and loses it's meal as the tail breaks free, letting the skink escape. A new tail will eventually grow back, and be just as detachable as the first one was. A skink with a bright tail is a young skink and, during breeding season in the spring, the head, chin and, sometimes, the sides, turn bright orange.

After a while the skink wandered off to take care of more important things and I noticed a very young looking Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) perched inconspicuously on another rock. At first it seemed to be dashing down the rock to eat grass seeds but that made no sense, since lizards are carnivorous, so I looked more closely and discovered that some ants or termites were flying out of the ground just below the rock. With what looked like very little effort that little lizard caught five insects in about two minutes! Looking around carefully with my binoculars, I spotted another young lizard blending beautifully into the rock it sat upon.

California herps: Skilton's skink
California herps: California skinks
Wild herps
The Source Weekly
Western Connecticut State University

Monday, August 2, 2010

Around Lake Ralphine

Lake Ralphine was created in 1882 when a dam was built on a tributary of Santa Rosa Creek. The end near the dam is shallow and full of garbage, water weeds and logs. I guess it's warm, too, because I often see turtles floating near the surface when it's sunny. Last week I walked around the lake at the end of my morning walk, instead of at the beginning. I was hoping to see dragonflies and damselflies. Instead, I saw turtles on logs, on rocks and, amazingly, one on the shore. Most of the time I can't tell, for sure, what kind of turtle I'm looking at. This one, though, was basking on the shore, just below the trail around the lake and continued to do so, while I sketched her. The red mark on her face easily identified her as a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), not a native of our area. Although this species is native to the Mississippi valley in the United States, it has spread throughout the world as a pet that's often released in nearby ponds and lakes.
I try to cram as many sketches on one page of my sketchbook as I can, which is why I've also included a sketch of a Lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) singing it's heart out on a trail in the park. I wish I could draw it's gorgeous song. It's a complex, variable one that often fools me into thinking I'm hearing some other bird that I've never heard before. The sample at All About Birds gives you an idea, although it seems rather paltry compared to the song this bird was singing while I sketched him.

The little varmints in the right corner are Chloe's favorites, California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi). I'm quite fond of them, too and we watched them for a while at boat dock picnic area before leaving the park for the day.

For more about Red-eared sliders:
San Francisco State Department of Geography

Lesser goldfinch:
All About Birds

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Feathers and spiders

In the past couple of weeks I've been finding bird feathers littering the earth, just about everywhere I walk. Most of the feathers I find are from American crows (), but I've also found others at Howarth, including this 13 cm long owl feather.

Looking in my Sibley Guide to Birds, I found three owls that might dwell in Howarth Park.

I didn't think I'd be able to identify the owl this feather came from but The Feather Atlas has given me a tentative identification of a Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicotti), a small nocturnal owl that's equally at home in open woodland and urban and suburban settings. The reason I know it's an owl feather is that, when I found another one a few weeks ago, my friend, JoAnn identified it immediately by the fine hairs covering the whole feather, which appear to help muffle the sound of the wings moving through the air, allowing the owl to fly silently.
While drawing the owl feather I noticed a lovely spider and web stretched across my outdoor work space (our umbrella-covered patio table). At this time of year, these webs can literally be run into just about anywhere! Even though they're large and usually stretched across an open space, it's easy to miss them when the light is wrong. If that happens to you you'll find yourself snared by the European Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) that built the web.

The female is the web builder and, apparently, she eats the web and all of the caught prey each night before building a brand new web for the next day.

More about owls:

 and about feathers:

and spiders:
Nick's Spiders
Bug Guide

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Grass, insects, birds and rodents

A few days ago I drove south to the outskirts of Rohnert Park to visit Crane Creek Regional Park. It's small but full of treasures. It's in open grassland and home to many wildflowers in the spring, as well as many birds and hawks that I don't usually find in the more heavily wooded Howarth Park.

The grasses were as tall as I am and bleached pale tan, looking quite lovely against a brilliantly blue sky. On one, I found a rather large (2cm long), colorful insect and sketched it. Insects aren't always amenable to being sketched. Imagine a giant insect hovering over you and peering at you through a magnifying glass and you get the idea. Anyway, this one was a very cool customer and more or less ignored me as I drew. Later I was able to identify it as a Bordered plant bug (Largus sp.).

The bird sketch was an attempt to capture the markings of a Lark sparrow (Chondestes grammicus) that I saw feeding it's offspring on a trail. They're lovely little birds but their markings are like a jigsaw puzzle to me and it'll take some more study to capture them.

In summer, I rarely think about ticks at Howarth Park. They seem to disappear when the rain stops. At Crane Creek, I wandered off the trail to try to blend into the scenery and get some birds sketched, without taking my usual precautions against the nasty little bugs. The grass had formed several inches of matted, bouncy padding above the ground and it was odd to sit on,  and I worried about Chloe and the many foxtails surrounding us, so, after only a few minutes, I picked up my pack and my dog and went back to the trail. For the next several hours I kept finding ticks on my body. Ick! Chloe came away unscathed, amazingly. Once I'd gotten them all off, I wondered why there were so many at Crane Creek and so few at Howarth and came to only one conclusion -- rodents! Crane Creek is a haven for the California vole, a rodent that loves open, grassy places. Although I only saw one that day, I surmise that the wet winter and plentiful grass probably caused a population explosion of the little varmints, which in turn caused a population explosion of the ticks. These weren't deer ticks but I didn't save any to sketch and identify. I do keep meaning to do that but when I find them I only want to see them gone. Anyway, I'll stick to the trails for now and make sure to button my sleeves and tuck my socks into my boots the next time I'm there!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The "other" swallow

At just about any location in Howarth Park I can look up and see Violet-green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) circling above me. In the past few months, while sketching ground squirrels at the edge of Lake Ralphine, I almost always see some Violet-green swallows flying low over the water to catch insects along with another swallow that moves so fast that I've never been able to tell much more than that it was brown. I always meant to look it up when I got home and always forgot by the time I got here.

Today it was cold when I set out on my walk so I just kept moving, hoping that the sun would come out from behind the fog and warm things up. A few Violet-green swallows circled overhead but it seemed that most other birds were huddled up somewhere trying to stay warm. The light was rather gray and dingy, not very conducive to sketching, so I found myself walking just for the sake of walking, a pleasant change from my usual industrious search for something to draw. I enjoyed the quiet and the muted colors and, most of all, the opportunity to keep my hands warm in my pockets.

Chloe likes to go the long way around Lake Ralphine and today I indulged her. Toward the end of the trail around the lake, as I reached the dam that marks the beginning of the end of the walk, I heard the unmistakable sound of young birds calling for food. Looking out toward the lake I saw three little puffed out birds sitting on a snag, with their heads popping out of the fluffy down just enough to call out with great frequency. I immediately recognized them as young "other" swallows and began to sketch, thinking they'd be gone in moments. They stayed right where I found them, except once when something big flew nearby but out of my range of vision. That caused them to flutter off of their perch and circle wildly until they settled back down and resumed their positions on the snag. Both parents flew by frequently and dropped food into the open beaks without landing or stopping. The youngsters fluttered their wings and called out loudly each time they saw a swallow fly over, even when it wasn't one of their parents. I sketched for 45 minutes and, at the end, one parent came and perched on the snag for a very brief time, until the other parent came and did some sort of maneuver that caused the first parent to go flying again and then they both landed and stayed on the snag before taking off once again.

Now I know what to call "other" swallow --- Northern rough-winged swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis). The name comes from the series of barbed or hooked primary feathers on the wing, which can be felt, though not seen. No one seems to know why these feathers are barbed.

To learn more about Northern rough-winged swallows visit:
All About Birds
Bird Web

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sunday at the park

Yesterday I was able to get myself going early enough to arrive at Howarth Park before the sun emerged from behind the fog and before the other humans began to arrive en masse. Most days that I walk at the park, I walk a counter-clockwise loop through the trails. Today, I was feeling adventurous so I walked clockwise. I always seem to forget what a difference there is when I do this! It's like taking a whole different walk, even though I cover the same trails. The first part of the walk was in the gray, even light of a foggy morning. As the light grew brighter and we headed to higher ground I began to hear birdsong and see dragonflies. Suddenly, the sky was blue and the sun cast dark shadows against brilliantly lit fields and trees. When the light changes that way, I always feel as if I've suddenly entered an entirely different world. I love the gray foggy world, where every spider web is visible and you can look inside and easily see the spiders in the cool, even light. Then the sun comes out and it's world of nearly black shadows and bright washed out colors. The spiders and their webs disappear, unless you look very closely. Suddenly, the strong shadows draw my eyes farther out to the shapes of rocks in yellow fields of dried grasses and the shapes of the shadows in the trees.

I haven't been seeing much of the wilder California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) since breeding season began, but they've begun to be more visible, looking rather majestic, for rodents, in that bright early morning light. One appeared to be surveying it's kingdom in the open, rocky grassland near the edge of the park. I was drawn to the other one by it's call of alarm as it sat on lookout from it's perch above a large brush pile between Howarth Park and Spring Lake Park. I never discovered the cause for alarm and watched it relax as I sketched from a distance.