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