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, oiseaux-birds.com 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