Thursday, April 29, 2010

Near the water

A few days ago it was a cold and stormy day, normally an odd thing this time of year in Santa Rosa CA. I love stormy days and trotted off to Howarth Park where Chloe and I had a lovely walk. I'm very happy when the sun shines, but I love dark gray days, especially in the spring, when the brilliant greens just glow against the gray skies. We had the park largely to ourselves and after a walk in the woods we headed to the lake so we could both watch for ground squirrels, which were scrambling about everywhere we looked, enjoying free run of the park with so few humans about. The lake was very dramatic looking with sun then clouds and the water moving with the wind.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mighty tiny bird

Lately, as I've walked around Howarth Park, I've noticed that where there are dead branches high up in a tree there's a good chance of finding a male hummingbird perched there. If I sit down and just hang out the bird will usually keep an eye on me but continue about his business. There's one place that has an excellent flat rock nearby where I can sit quietly and sketch. I was able to spend more than an hour there, the other day, and draw the hummingbird as he came and went.

The hummingbird's look changes dramatically in different light and not just on his throat, where the right light reveals a brilliant, sparkly crimson patch. It seems that much of this Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) has shimmery iridescence that can look dull as dirt in one light and sparkle with color when the light hits differently. It makes him a very exciting bird to observe! He turns his dark brown head and suddenly it sparkles with the most brilliant crimson. He moves slightly on his perch and I can see waves of green on his flank.

In the past month I've seen many birds pairing off to mate and have wondered why the hummingbirds I see always seem to be alone. Why aren't they pairing up like other passerines I see? Apparently, once the birds have mated, they maintain separate residences, presumably to keep the flashy male from alerting predators to the presence of the nest. The female takes on all of the nesting and parenting duties herself while the male spends his days keeping other hummingbirds out of their territory. Hummingbirds are rather fierce and will take on large predators such as hawks and crows. They also engage in harsh brawls with one another, often locking beaks and tumbling to the ground where they continue to fight, although with little physical injury.

I was surprised to see the hummingbird eat several insects and found that although hummingbirds drink a great deal of nectar (carbohydrate), they also need protein, thus the insects.

The small feet of this small bird aren't good for much except perching and I noticed that whenever he wanted to change position, even slightly, he flew rather than "walked" as I've seen other birds do.

I look forward to spending more time sitting in meadows observing and sketching these tiny but fascinating birds.

All About Birds
Hummingbird World
World of Hummingbirds

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wild weather and tragedy

Yesterday was a wild and unsettled day. We have so few of those here in northern California that I'm always excited to see one, even if it really should be spring already! First it rained. Then there was sun. Then it hailed while I was doing some dishes. I just had to go outside and be pummeled a bit. When I'd had enough I went back to finish up those dishes. As I looked out the window at our neighbor's wall about three feet away, I saw that one of the house finches had taken shelter under the eaves. Fortunately the dishes were done so I grabbed my sketchbook for what I thought would be a quick sketch, but the finch stayed and when I looked up a bit I saw that his mate was there too, singing loudly and constantly, as she's been doing quite a bit for the past few days.

Earlier in the day I'd seen them displaying courtship behavior several times. She sang while he gathered what I guess were especially tasty seeds which he then brought to her. She fluttered her wings and opened her beak wide at which point he fed her a rather amazing amount of food. Then they both went about their usual business.

My husband, Greg, has  been adding compost to our vegetable beds and turning it to prepare for planting. Evidently this is like putting pies on the porch to cool ---the finches and sparrows have been spending more time in the new dirt gathering food than at the feeders. This morning, as we have every year, we put wire covers over the beds to keep neighborhood cats from using our dirt as a rest stop and to protect seedlings from the birds until they're sturdier and less interesting to those birds.

Shortly after the covers went up we noticed the male finch roaming about under one of them collecting food while his intended perched on the cover above him and sang. Each planting season a few birds have gotten inside the covers but always managed to get themselves out so we weren't too concerned. We watched to make sure he'd figure out how to get out and he did in short order so we went about our business as he went about his.

A little while later, I heard a series of bird sounds I'd never heard before and I went outside to see what it was and was horrified to find a scrub jay standing on top of the cover attacking the finch who was underneath and flying around the inside edge, trying to escape, absolutely the worst place he could be because the jay had easy reach there. I shooed the jay away and collected the finch who didn't seem able to fly, while Greg removed the covers from the garden beds. We took the bird off to our wonderful local  Bird Rescue Center. They'll be able to tell me in 48 hours if he's going to be all right.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hunting among the dead

A pair of Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) appear to be nesting somewhere at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. In the morning one or both can usually be found perched high up in some mostly leafless trees surrounding a meadow. Unlike the turkey vultures, these birds appear to have a high tolerance for being examined by puny humans far below them. I've been able to do several sketches in the past few weeks. The female is the one I see the most. She's much bigger than her mate and apparently is more of a hunter. I have yet to see either bird catch something but last week I saw the male carrying nest material. Strangely, today I read about another nesting Cooper's hawk in San Jose, California.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Down to earth...for a few moments

I see turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) all the time. It's nearly impossible to look up and not see one or two circling lazily, sometimes so far up in the sky that it seems almost impossible. I've taken them for granted for years and only once or twice have I seen them at rest. Well, yesterday as I walked along the edge of Howarth Park I was surprised to see three of them perched at the top of a phone pole very near the trail I was on. I stopped and got out my sketchbook and binoculars and began working. I discovered that vultures are very shy, more so than many of the songbirds I try to sketch. Within five minutes the last of the three spread her wings and was gone.

Oddly, the next day I was sketching some wildflowers when two turkey vultures came to roost in some nearby oaks. They seemed unconcerned while I drew the flowers but as soon as I moved around to sketch THEM, both took off even faster than the original three. They were closer so I was able to clearly see their astonishingly strange red heads that seem to emerge from their large bodies like something out of Men In Black. I hope I get the chance to draw more. They're really quite fascinating up close.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fallen crow

 Last Sunday I walked early in the morning, hoping to beat some rain that was headed into town. As I wandered through my neighborhood I found a newly killed crow in the road, still warm, but definitely dead. I've found smaller birds before and have been able to stow them in one of the plastic bags I carry to pick up after my dog but this crow was a BIG bird and wouldn't come close to fitting in the bag so I headed back home for a bigger bag and the car thinking I might have some time for sketching before the rain. By the time I returned home it was raining so I stowed the crow in my refrigerator for the next three days, waiting for the weather to clear so I could draw outside.

I was interested to see that crows have a "mustache" of feathers that turn down over the beak. I also welcomed another chance to examine a bird's foot up close since they're the hardest thing to see through binoculars in the field. Bird's feet are truly amazing! Scaled on top and heavily padded below with small traction "buttons" kind of like those bumps on Dr. Scholl's sandals, these feet are perfectly made for comfortably gripping a branch.

Oddly, I found that drawing a dead bird wasn't as engrossing now that I've spent several weeks drawing live birds in the field. Live birds are much more interesting and exciting to draw.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Unsettled weather and cunning rodents

Just like everyone else, our weather is rather topsy-turvy these days. Even though it doesn't usually rain around here in April it rained today. Then it was sunny. Then it poured.

I spent some time at the kitchen table watching birds (and a squirrel) at the feeder. A female Nuttall's woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) appeared but was inclined to grab a seed off the platform and fly off to the neighbor's magnolia tree to eat it. I wasn't quick enough to sketch her at the feeder but, since she spent plenty of time eating in the tree, was able to get a sketch of her back. And the tree. Still working on that quick sketching skill.

And that darned squirrel. We hung a platform feeder a few months ago to attract some of the ground feeding birds, who prefer a feeder that's flat and open rather than the tube feeders. It's brought us mourning doves, oak titmice, California towhees and chestnut-backed chickadees. We also now get visits from a pair of rock pigeons who like to clean up the ground under the platform feeder. When the squirrels found it we found ourselves duking it out with them on an ongoing basis. We moved the feeder down. Then up. Then over. The cunning male squirrel figured out to leap off the roof, leap off the front porch, climb the window screen and leap gracefully onto the platform. At one point, before he'd figured out how to land on it, he'd swing on it and tip all the seed off the platform and onto the ground where he'd have a nice midday meal.

Today we implemented our latest strategy and moved the feeder to a pole away from the house, rather than hanging from the eaves. It took the squirrel exactly 45 minutes to figure out how to climb the pole and swing on up to the platform. We've now covered the pole with vaseline (internet advice chosen over that which recommends buying a 12-gauge shotgun) and are going to buy some bulk peanuts, which are allegedly the food most favored by squirrels, to put in a dish at the base of the feeder. I figure we're already messing with nature by feeding the birds and there always seem to be consequences when you mess with nature. I'm thinking the squirrels are one of our consequences. I don't mind feeding them but not at the expense of the birds. I relish the opportunity to sketch squirrels as well as birds. Of course, now we'll have to watch Chloe in the garden because she likes peanuts, too! That probably means we'll have to find a way to elevate the peanut bowl. Consequences.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

At the lake

It was a lazy day today. Okay, the day wasn't lazy, I was. Chloe and I took a leisurely stroll through the park and then spent an hour or so at the lake. I discovered, a few days ago, that the cormorants didn't all leave. There are about twenty, mostly youths, still living on the lake and acting up, just like teenagers will do. I'd planned to sketch them but that lazy thing was going on and it seemed like way too much work, so I drew what was close by and easy, which happened to be a couple of ground squirrels. The first one watched me draw him. We took turns staring at one another until ... poof ... he was gone. The other was heard before she was seen. She was screeching loudly and I looked around until I saw her standing near the edge of the water. Whatever had her in such a huff wasn't apparent to me. She hollered for a bit and then turned around and disappeared.

These ground squirrels are much different than those I see in the less populated (by humans) parts of the park. Those squirrels run and hide when they see me, or they freeze up and then run and hide when I turn away for a moment. Near the lake, the ground squirrels are very tame and tolerant of people sitting on a bench and sketching them. Good subjects for a lazy sketching session!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Crayons and a hummingbird

I've been trying... and trying... and trying to get the hang of sketching with watercolor but it's caused nothing but heartache so far. I'm taking a break right now and playing with other media in the field. Today, with time to play at Howarth Park, I took along a set of Lyra aquacolor crayons I bought a few years ago. After a pleasant walk on a beautiful spring day, I stopped in a meadow that many different birds frequent and sat as inconspicuously as I could under a manzanita, waiting to see who or what would come by. I'd forgotten that the tree I was near was a favorite perch for this male Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) and was pleasantly reminded when he arrived and stuck around for the next hour or so. The crayons were great! I was able to get strong color (sometimes a bit too strong!) quickly and with very little effort. I used a fairly dry brush to wet the colors and blend them and had a blast! I'm looking forward to more! I'll get out the watercolor set again in a while. Right now I'm going to keep having some fun with crayons.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Chloe and I ended our morning at the little point of land near the parking lot at Howarth Park where families go to feed the ducks. Plump geese, busy blackbirds and cheeky ground squirrels can all be found here most of the day. This seems to be Chloe's favorite part of our walks so I try to spend a little time here after each one. I admit that it's a good place for me, too. Big birds that can be seen easily without binoculars and good light make it a fun place to sketch if the human crowd isn't too big or boisterous. Oh, and on cold days it's sunny and warm.

A week ago we watched a woman feed peanuts to a ground squirrel that begged under her bench on it's hind legs. When the woman became engrossed in the conversation she was having with her companion, the squirrel leaped up on the bench to remind her to keep her priorities straight!

Today it was near lunch time and had gotten crowded by the time we arrived. Several people brought their dogs through to lunge at birds, which, of course, made the birds scatter. The ground squirrels were nowhere to be found, so I was packing up my sketchbook when I happened to notice a turtle basking on a rock beside the little island where the birds can get away from it all. I got the sketchbook back out of my pack and made a quick study of the turtle.

This turtle had no markings on it's face or shell and was probably a northern Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata), one of the three native turtles living in California. There's a different pond turtle south of San Francisco and a desert turtle, too. While trying to identify the turtle I found that tortoises and turtles are disappearing rapidly. For more information visit California Department of Fish and Game and California Herps.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Another mystery solved

For years I've been hearing a haunting bird call on Lake Ralphine but have never been able to see what bird made the call. A couple of weeks ago I was sketching some geese when two small birds popped out of the water and began to make the call, right before my very eyes and ears, solving one of my most difficult, long-standing cold cases! That day, they were actively feeding which meant they spent most of the time underwater. I did some rapid sketches each time they surfaced, enough to identify them as Pied-billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps), but not enough to really get a good look.

Today, as I walked around Lake Ralphine, I was lucky enough to see one floating aimlessly in a shallow area giving me the opportunity to make a few sketches. Pied-billed grebes, besides having a mouthful of a name, are common birds throughout North America and much of South America. They prefer diving to flying and rarely take to the air. I was lucky to work on identifying the grebe during breeding, as the mark on the beak and black throat are part of breeding plumage.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I walked at Howarth Park after an absence of five days. The first thing I noticed was that the Double-crested cormorants are all gone. There were fewer present five days ago but now there are none. I missed hearing and seeing them as I made my way into the park today but they'll be back in a few months and there were other sights to amaze and delight. Oh, and to draw! I've been meaning to sketch some larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule) and wandered along to where they're blooming, got my drawing gear set up and was just about to start sketching when I heard the loud, raucous call of a Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), make that two Pileated woodpeckers... very near by. I gathered everything back into the pack and trudged off to see if I could find them. I found a female busily scavenging insects (probably carpenter ants) from a dead branch on an oak. The other woodpecker periodically called as he flitted about the area, but I was able to draw for a good long time as the female climbed under, over, sideways, down on the branch in her quest for food. Big birds are still so much easier for me to sketch and these birds are really big, almost as big as crows.

Next: I'm able to solve a long-standing mystery.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Squirrel strategy

My last post about my sick day at the feeder isn't about birds at all. For several days two squirrels have been lurking about and clearly trying to figure out a way to get at the two bird feeders hanging in front of our house. We thought we'd placed them well out of the reach of these clever rodents until, one day, I heard a loud crash and looked out to see the platform feeder swinging wildly on it's hook and a squirrel hanging precariously from the edge before jumping off. Every day around noon she returned and kept refining her technique until she was able to jump from roof to feeder, landing on the edge so that the whole platform tipped all of the seed onto the ground. She would then feed contentedly, along with the opportunistic rock pigeons (Columba livia) on the ground. Meanwhile the poor birds the seed was intended for had to all squish onto the tube feeder to eat because there was nothing left on the platform. I entreated my husband to move the platform feeder farther away from the launch site and today the squirrel stared in what I supposed must have been frustration at the tray full of food so close yet so far. Satisfied, I went about my business until I heard some scrabbling and looked to see that she had climbed up a screen cover for one of  our garden beds, leaning against the house wall, and was vacuuming seed off of the window sill. I've removed the cover and can only hope that this will be the last of the squirrel raids. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Woodpeckers at the seed feeder?!

While sniffling my way through a cold I spent a marvelous afternoon sketching the birds (and other creatures) visiting the feeder in our front yard. I've seen a Nuttall's woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) pecking around the fence at the edge of our yard a few times in the past week or so. He would travel along the top of the fence and stop to peck at the wood, then fly up into the magnolia tree next door and peck around some more then fly off. Today he flew in after lunch and treated me to a punkish display of bright red mohawk. I felt like it was the 1980's all over again! This astonishing display occurred while he was on the tube feeder eating sunflower seeds and a house finch had the temerity to join him. He flew back and forth between the feeder and the magnolia, carrying seeds with him each time. Then he was gone. A few minutes later a female Nuttall's appeared at the feeder and repeated the male's behavior. Each appeared a few more times during the afternoon, but never at the same time. This led me to believe that they must be taking turns incubating eggs, perhaps somewhere nearby.

According to Audubon Nuttall's woodpeckers occur only on the West coast of the United States, mostly in California. They prefer oak woodland and excavate holes in dead limbs or trunks of several different trees to build their nest. Insects make up the majority of their diet but they also eat fruit and nuts and, apparently, seeds.

Next: Squirrel strategy