Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A flicker of red

Red-shafted northern flickers (Colaptens auratus) are one of the first birds I learned to recognize. Their distinctive call heralds the coming winter here in northern California and the bright red under their wings as they fly is like a neon sign on a gray autumn day. Unlike other woodpeckers, this species often forages on the ground, turning up leaves and earth with a slightly curved beak, to find insects, flying up in a frenzy if you disturb one as you're walking. In the eastern United States flickers are yellow-shafted and in between the east and west the two color forms hybridize to make various shades of orange.

I never really thought about the name of this bird until the other day when I found this colorful cluster of feathers in the woods of Howarth Park. After a moment thinking the color was artificial and had been left by careless humans, I recognized the color and pattern as I really grasped what was red-shafted about the northern flickers in these woods.

Birds: ballpoint, colored pencil, on 8.5 x 11" Hahnemuhle Ingres paper
Feathers: graphite, watercolor on Fabriano Artistico HP

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lunar eclipse

6:10 a.m.
Our local paper reported that there would be a lunar eclipse on Saturday, December 11, 2011. The total eclipse was to occur between 6 and 7 a.m. The report said that the event would only be visible if you were at a relatively high elevation or at the coast because the moon would be so close to the horizon at the time of the eclipse. Over coffee on Friday my friend, JoAnn, and I decided to meet at the top of a hill (Fountaingrove) that's 800' according to Google and is near both of our houses. I got up at 4 and looked out the window to see if the sky was clear. I could easily see the beginning of the eclipse just below the canopy of the Valley oak in our backyard. It was hard to imagine that the moon would be very close to the horizon in only two hours. JoAnn, thinking similar thoughts, called me at 5:45 to say that she could see it from her yard, too. We considered meeting at her house to watch but decided it would be more fun to go up the hill as planned.
6:35 a.m.
It was 35º F (2º C) so I dressed warmly, packed my binoculars and sketch gear and scraped the ice off of my car windows before heading out. JoAnn and her family were already parked when I arrived. We were near an area designated as an open space with some homes on the other side of the street. A young German shepherd was roaming about and seemed very excited to have company. The eclipse was well under way and I got out some paper and a pen to begin sketching, using a nifty head lamp I'd bought for just such an occasion. I seemed to be having a hard time seeing the moon and commented to JoAnn about it. We both tried looking through binoculars but that made it worse. It was past 6 and it was our understanding that the moon was supposed to get bigger as it neared the horizon and turn a strong red color. Oh, and be fully eclipsed. My first sketch showed the moon way too big. The actual size appears above the sky. As we watched the moon sank lower in the sky and grew harder and harder to see. As the sun rose and the sky grew lighter we were able to see that a thin haze of clouds hovered low in the sky, causing the eclipsing moon to look hazy and blurred. The moon did get a bit bigger as it went lower but it never seemed to be totally eclipsed. At about 6:45 we decided that a nice warm breakfast sounded a bit more interesting than the fuzzy, eclipsed moon. I took one last look, cranked up the heater in my car and went home to eat breakfast then  had some fun coloring my sketches from memory.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Oh, rats!

The neighborhood I live in has seen a slow but steady increase in rats, mostly Roof rats (Rattus rattus). Roof rats are also called Fruit rats, Black rats and Ship rats and have been traveling alongside humans for so long that no one is exactly sure where they first lived, though it's believed they started out somewhere in southeast Asia.

Most everyone in my neighborhood can tell a horror story involving a rat so I wasn't too surprised to find one dead in someone's lawn early one Sunday morning in August. I bagged it and took it home to make some sketches and find out more about the neighbor no one wants.

Roof rat

Our family has had intermittent interraction with Roof rats for several years. We kept what we thought was a compost bin for a while, until we realized that we'd actually opened up a McDonald's for rats. They came to eat and party then moved into the attic above our garage. When I worked in my studio, at the back of the garage, at night or early in the morning, my soundtrack was the scritching of little feet overhead. In desperation we dismantled the compost bin and evicted the troublesome tenants. They seem to have taken up residence nearby, though. When our lemon tree has ripe fruit we can sit in the living room and watch as the occasional rat climbs the tree, neatly eats all of the rind from a fruit, leaving a perfectly peeled lemon behind. Apparently, if our tree bore oranges the rats would carefully suck the flesh out and leave a perfectly emptied peel still hanging on it's branch. They approach our apples as though they were wine connoisseur and take a bite of one fruit, then another before moving on.

With several cats in the vicinity, the population seems to stay fairly manageable and, for the most part, invisible. However, the other night I heard some familiar scritching sounds above my head as I worked in my studio so another eviction may be in order soon.

Roof rat

Recently, as I was wandered about one of the old rock quarries in Howarth Park I found a dead rat. I immediately assumed it was a Roof rat or maybe a Norway or brown rat, another immigrant rat from across the ocean. Looking closer, though, I saw that it didn't look much like our neighborhood rats, and decided to make some sketches to take home and help me identify it.

Dusky-footed woodrat

The large ears, long tail, ochre colored fur and the "dusky" patches on his hind feet (dark hairs) suggest that he's probably a Dusky-footed wood rat (Neotoma fuscipes), also known as a packrat. This mostly nocturnal native rodent favors brushy oak woodland and builds a large nest out of twigs, called a midden.

In a woodland area such as Howarth Park the nest might be on the ground, in a tree or in a rock crevice. I searched the area, looking for an above-ground midden, with no luck. However, there's a large opening into a rock crevice near where I found this little fellow and Chloe has always been extraordinarily interested in it, leading me to believe that might be where the packrats live.

For more about Roof rats :
Sacramento Press
Davis Wiki
Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management

To learn more about packrats visit these sites:
Wikipedia: Pack Rat
Wikipedia: Dusky-footed Pack Rat
California State University Stanislaus
Animal Diversity Web
Jane Goodall: Hope for Animals and Their World; Key Largo Woodrat
Camera Trap Codger: A ratty flashback
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: Neotoma fuscipes

Monday, November 14, 2011


In northern California, where I live, the sky is clear all summer long, giving us the the warm, sunny summers that California is famous for (unless you're on the coast, but that's another story). It also means that sunrise and sunset are pretty darned boring for most of the year, too. The sky's blue all day, then a few different shades of blue then black and vice versa in the morning. When I first moved here in the mid-1980s summer mornings were often foggy but the fog has been absent, for the most part, for many years. It's always thrilling when autumn arrives and we begin to have some weather. Where there's weather there are clouds. In the early fall, the sky itself is still often visible, punctuated by billowing, blowsy cream-colored clouds with deep blue shadows. Sometimes, there are waves of wispy puffs of white drifting across the blue. As autumn turns to winter the clouds turn dirty gray and often cover the sky entirely, hanging close to the ground. By winter's end, I find myself ready for some boring old blue again. But autumn has just begun here and I'm still enjoying the novelty of a changeable sky.
I like to wake up very early. Even in summer it's still mostly dark outside when I wake, but now, as the days have grown shorter the sun doesn't rise until I've stretched, dressed, watched the news, eaten breakfast and, often, washed the dishes. The other morning, when the dishes were only halfway done, a startling pink glow leaked through the blinds covering the window. Dishes forgotten, I hurried to open them and was smacked in the face by an astonishing sunrise lighting up seemingly endless rows of weiner-shaped clouds. It was over in moments and the clouds rapidly lost their rosy tint and became a ceiling of dull, puffy gray. It rained later that day and into the next. The following morning I opened those blinds to see the same view veiled in a fog that Sherlock Holmes would have felt right at home in.

Both sketches were done with #2 pencil on Strathmore 400 sketch paper. Watercolor and colored pencil were added to the first sketch later in the day.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A visit with a snake

One morning at the beginning of September Chloe and I were near the end of an entertaining early walk at Howarth Park. As we wound our way along the last trail before reaching pavement and the parking lot I saw something long and black stretched across the path. I stopped and bent closer to look and was delightfully surprised when the snake, for that's what it was, coiled it's tail and waved it about, revealing a brilliant orange red underside. Amazingly, the snake stayed right where it was and I sat down to spend some time in it's company. If I moved too close (and it had to be really close!) the tail would come up in a tight coil and wave about a few times then remain poised in the air until I retreated. There was a tannish band around the snake's neck, and the jet black upper part of it's body was shiny, as if wet, not what I would have expected from a snake. Chloe and I stayed about a half hour.

Ring-necked snakes (Diadophis punctatus) are found throughout the United States and in parts of Mexico and Canada. Nocturnal and secretive, they're seldom seen during the day. They're mildly venomous but, as I found, not aggressive. The venom may help incapacitate the salamanders, worms, slugs and insects that they like to eat.

Most of the resources I found call this snake  Pacific ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus amabilis). However, there seems to be some disagreement as to whether the different subspecies of D. punctatus are really different from one another.

Find out more about these shy snakes:

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A fine day

Every morning, I begin my walk with a sense of adventure, wondering what I'll see as I wander about. Although there are days when not much seems to be happening, most of the time there's a least one thing that inspires me to draw or to ask questions or both. Some days there's so much going on that it's hard to contain myself! That's how it was one day in September, when there seemed to be excited activity wherever I walked. Joining in the spirit of things, I had a blast sketching birds as they moved about the edge of the woods gathering food. First year birds chased each other wildly through the trees. A pair of young juncos flew so close that I could hear their wings beat as the sped past me. A Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) spent a good ten minutes demolishing an oak apple gall (Andricus californicus) to eat the larvae inside. Chickadees (Poecile rufescens) traveled through the treetops in search of insects to eat and a lovely but unfamiliar song led me to my first female Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), a shy dingy yellow bird who I never would've found without hearing her first.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Jackrabbits in the cemetery

I almost never go sketching without Chloe. Even though she sometimes gets bored while I'm working, she always wants to go if I'm going. She seems to enjoy hanging out, at least for a while, and especially enjoys it if there's sun to bask in. One of the best things about walking with her is that she often leads me to the most interesting things to draw! With her fabulous ability to scent, she's led me to some subjects that I never would have found just by looking.

For a time this summer, large groups of songbirds gathered to forage and socialize in some trees in a cemetery near my house. I got up early each morning and walked over, sitting somewhere fairly inconspicuous to wait for them to arrive. They'd come in waves - first the juncos, then house finches, goldfinches, robins and, finally, crows.

One morning, as I waited, sketching Chloe, who is an excellent model when there's nothing else to draw, she grew increasingly excited, inching farther and farther away from where we sat. I was engrossed in my work and didn't really pay as much attention as I should have. Once I'd expanded my focus to the world and looked beyond the now trembling dog to see what had caught her attention so thoroughly, I was delighted to see two Black-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) resting on a hillside just below the mausoleum, blending amazingly well into the surrounding nearly dry grasses and weeds. They rested quietly for a while then one bounced off over the hill while the other hare did a few leisurely calisthenics, took a dust bath and loped off in the same direction as her companion had traveled.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Birds of a different color

While watching a flock of birds feeding in a cemetery here in Santa Rosa, I caught a brief glimpse of one with the dark cap and wings of an American goldfinch, but with white feathers over the rest of his body instead of yellow. Of course, when I tried to get closer for a better look he flew off. The next day I went back, and the day after that, to see if he would return, and was pleasantly surprised to see him both days along with another similarly colored bird in a small flock of normally colored goldfinches.

Since both birds had dark eyes and all the black pigmentation was normal, I was pretty sure they weren't albino. Having no idea what else to search for I began there anyway. I found many sites discussing and showing pictures of an astonishing variety of species of birds with color aberrations. On some sites the birds I saw were described as "partial albino". An equal number of sites scoffed at that and insisted that the birds were leucistic (loo-KISS-tick).

If I understand what I've learned about how birds get their colors, yellow and red coloration are produced by carotenoids while melanin produces the "earth" colors, i.e. browns and black. Leucism is caused by a lack of  melanin. The goldfinches I saw seemed to be doing just fine in the melanin department so is it really leucism? Most of the articles I read state that it's impossible to be partially albino as albinism is, by definition, a complete lack of melanin.  So, not partially albino, either. Which leaves me wondering...well, a lot of things. And still not really able to give a name to the altered color of these not-so-gold finches.

For some general information about how birds get their colors:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Links to information and pictures about albinism, leucism, and other variations in bird color:
Birding Frontiers, Albinism, Leucism and Vitiligo
Twin Cities Naturalist, Leucistic American robin (check out the link to Hein van Grouw's article)
All About Birds: Color
Project FeederWatch, Plumage Variations: Albinism or Leucism?
Project FeederWatch, Unusual Birds, Bird Leucism
Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Northern Cardinal-Leucistic
Picus Blog, Leucistic Red-tailed hawk
A set of pictures at flickr by gregpage1465
David Sibley's blog, Abnormal coloration in birds: Melanin reduction

Friday, August 19, 2011

Life bird at the feeder. Whooee!

This morning I sat in our kitchen to try and decide where I was going to walk when the the fog lifted. It was 8:30 and there was no sign of sun so I had plenty of time to decide. I looked up at the bird feeder and noticed what I thought was a very large pigeon on it. When I looked closer I saw that it wasn't a rock pigeon (Columba livia). It was bigger, had yellow feet and a yellow and black beak. There was a very faint white bar on the back of her neck with a few iridescent green feathers underneath, which I would have missed if I didn't know to look for them (after consulting David Sibley's Guide to Birds) I got out some paper and began sketching, thinking she would be leaving sooner than later. As I sketched, I noticed how unhealthy she looked and the way she moved her beak as she ate, as though something was caught in her throat. Not to mention the fact that she stayed at the feeder even though I was only 2 feet (61 cm) away from her. An hour later I stopped to walk to the bank with my dog. Still no sun. When I returned at 11 am the sun was finally beginning to show and several birds were lined up on the phone wire above the bird feeder looking down at the mystery bird, who had fallen asleep, preventing them from getting to their morning meal. I went inside and was pleased to see that she had perked up a bit and ate some more seed before flying off at 11:30. I'd already discovered that she was a Band-tailed Pigeon (Columba fasciata), a native to the western United States. Having never seen one before I wasn't surprised to find that these birds are normally found in coastal woodlands here in northern
California. I'll bet that there's a good story about how she ended up at a feeder in Santa Rosa, a good 35 miles from the coast and I hope that whatever ails her is temporary and that she'll be winging her way south for the winter.

As I wrote this post in the late afternoon my husband came to my studio to tell me that she's back at the feeder so maybe she'll stick around for a while.

More information about Band-tailed pigeons:

All About Birds

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Young hawks in the cemetery

The other day I walked to Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery very early in the morning, around 6:30 a.m. The air was deliciously thick with fog and it was cold, something I appreciated in light of the heat wave plaguing most of the country at the time. As I wandered I heard a distant but loud chorus of songbirds and followed the sound to see if I could identify the birds singing. I thought they were probably goldfinches but wanted to confirm my guess. As I drew nearer I began to scan the live oak (Quercus agrifolia) canopy. I could see small shapes flitting among the leaves and branches but the light made it difficult to see anything other than shape. I began backing up a hill to make it easier to look into the trees when I suddenly saw an interesting lump on a branch. At first I thought it might be a fungus, then an owl and finally I realized that it was a young Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) hunched low. I was fascinated and got out my paper and pen, hoping the hawk would stay a while so I could draw him.

As I sketched the fog began to break up and I saw that the songbirds were, indeed, goldfinches, Lesser Goldfinches (Spinus psaltria), to be exact, many of whom were flittering about the hawk with no apparent concern. I was certain that the hawk was waiting to catch one for it's breakfast. He stayed on the branch for a long time, then was gone, with a few harsh cries, while my head was bent to my sketch paper. It didn't seem as though he had caught a bird on his way out, though the finches were silent and still for several minutes after he was gone. Then they went back to singing and flittering and I packed up and went home.

Since that day I've seen two young hawks soaring through the canopy on several occasions. They call to one another as they fly, making it easy for me to follow them around the cemetery. Like may young birds and mammals I've encountered, they're not as wary as adults and often land on branches or gravestones very near where I stand or sit. A couple of times I've seen them with a third bird, who may be an adult but never gets close, or stays long enough for me to identify. I suspect that the parents are still feeding them, at least some of the time. One morning I found one of the fledges near a large nest and could hear the other but was unable to find her until she climbed out of the nest and perched nearby, crying out rather pitifully. Afterwards, I found several more similar nests that I suspect are from previous years. By 8:30 a.m. it becomes difficult to find the birds as they settle down in the tree tops. Without the aid of sound, I've found it nearly impossible to find either bird. The patterns and colors of their plumage allow them to blend right into their environment.

Although Cooper's Hawks hunt by day and eat birds, their preference is for bigger birds than goldfinches. They like Rock Pigeons, Northern Flickers, Mourning Doves and Jays, as well as some small mammals and will generally leave the small birds alone. As breathtaking as it is to watch these hawks fly through the canopy it apparently takes it's toll. A study of more than 300 Cooper's Hawk skeletons found that 23 percent had old, healed fractures of the chest. Cooper's Hawks were once only found in the country but are now more prevalent in urban and suburban settings, probably because of the abundance of Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves.

Learn more:
All About Birds
United States Geological Service (USGS)
Three Rivers Avian Center

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Little pig in from the cold

In November I wrote about a guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) that had been abandoned at Howarth Park. I continued to feed the pig each morning after I'd walked, learning what she liked (jicama, carrots, kale, apple) and didn't like (celery, peppers). As I continued my research about the little pigs, I added commercial pellets and hay. As each day went by, I began to feel less comfortable about leaving the pig in the wild. Her feet and fur were always wet. She began to depend on my visits and was very vocal when I arrived late or missed a day (which I only did once). Worst of all, on one sunny morning, she complained when I left and tried to follow me out of the park. I returned twice to spend more time with her before finally leaving that day. I realized that the guinea pig was putting up a brave front but was lonely and probably not enjoying her outdoor adventure as much as I'd wanted to believe.

Although I'd grown attached to her, I was fairly certain that adopting a guinea pig wasn't an option in our tiny house with a dog that saw the pig as a much more interesting toy than those in her toy box. I discovered that our local Humane Society would accept her and carefully screen any would-be adopters, so I began to devise a strategy to bring the pig in from the cold. We still have a cat carrier though the cat passed on long ago. I built a little cardboard pig house and put it inside the carrier, along with some of the pig's favorite foods and set it in her grotto, placing her usual meal just outside the door. I thought it might take a few days before she'd walk in and was pleasantly surprised when she sauntered into the carrier with very little outward trepidation, picked up a piece of apple, carried it into the pig house and started noshing.

At the shelter, I was told that, because she was officially a stray, they'd have to post notices about her for a week before she could be adopted. I'm happy to report that she found a home one day after her week was up.

I sure do miss seeing her every day but am hopeful that she's living in nice warm place, eating well, and getting lots of pig love in the New Year.

Best wishes to you for this new year!