Birding with a two-year-old in San Francisco

I scan the ochre-colored sandy path closely as Paul and I walk beside the canal, he sometimes riding, sometimes pushing his tricycle. I’m intrigued by the houseboats lining the canal. Who lives in them? What are their lives like? I’ve been fascinated with houseboats ever since having a childhood friend who had lived for a time on a houseboat. The path is lined with pines and other trees I can’t identify– the flora here in California is so different from that of the Northeast. There are birds, many species new to me, in these trees, and I have binoculars in my pocket.

The binoculars remain in my pocket, though, and I barely glance at the birds, much as I am drawn to them. I continue to closely watch the path ahead, making sure my active grandson doesn’t step in the wrong place anywhere along the path. There’s actually surprisingly little dog waste given the tremendous number and fascinating variety of dogs to be seen anywhere one goes around here– from tiny Chihuahuas to towering Great Danes, from a diminutive nine-week-old Shiba Inu that looks like a bright-eyed teddy bear to two lumbering Newfoundlands who look like real bears. The vast majority of dogs here are social and well-behaved, and I’m guessing that the vast majority of dog owners are considerate and responsible about cleaning up.

Apparently not everyone takes advantage of the conveniently placed poop clean-up bag dispensers and attached garbage cans, though. What I’m most concerned about Paul stepping in is human waste. I know from an earlier walk with Paul that there is some along this path, thankfully covered with a little paper, but obviously something to keep my quicksilver grandson from inadvertently running in. I also want to be sure Paul doesn’t jump on the navy blue sleeping bag, unzipped and spread out right beside the path, that I’m pretty sure is sheltering a sleeping person. That would be an unwelcome surprise and rude awakening for the sleeper.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I see a movement above me and I look up and see a very small, fairly nondescript, drab-colored bird fly from the pine branches above me as another alights in the same low branches, then immediately disappears! I glance ahead along the path, then tell Paul there’s a bird in the tree even though I can’t see it. I’ve been teaching him some basic bird species and he’s been quite interested, though he’s generally ready to move on pretty quickly. The branches are low and not particularly dense. Where could the bird have gone?

The binoculars still heavy in my pocket, I glance back and forth from Paul to the branches overhead. And then I see it: a beautifully fashioned, perfectly camouflaged, narrow tube-shaped nest with a small opening near the top, hanging from one of the branches, partially obscured by the needles of another branch. It appears to be made of moss, the same color as the surrounding pine needles. I never would have noticed it if I hadn’t been alerted by the quick movement of the parent birds.

At that moment Paul spots a rock on the path a little way ahead– round and white with small black speckles, about the size of his fist. Running to it in delight, he picks up the rock, looks at it closely, then adds it to the treasures he’s already collected in the compartment on the back of his tricycle, and we continue on our way.

The next day, my last before returning home, I once again take Paul out on his tricycle for a walk along the canal, hoping to look more closely at the hanging moss nest and the birds whose home it is. We don’t get any farther than the sleeping bag that’s still beside the path, however, because just at that spot, without any warning, Paul’s tricycle suddenly collapses and falls apart into three separate pieces! Thankfully he’s been walking, not riding the tricycle, so though startled, he’s not hurt.

As quickly as I can, which isn’t very quick due to my lack of tricycle assembly experience, I reassemble the tricycle, only to have it immediately collapse once more in a heap in the sandy path. All the while Paul is providing shrill two-year-old commentary, and soon the sleeping bag stirs, revealing a sleepy older woman’s face. I apologize for disturbing her rest and tell her we’ll be on our way as soon as possible. After a short time that seems long, probably to all three of us, I finally get the tricycle precariously assembled and we head home where Nathaniel will do what dads do– repair broken toys.

I never do get back to see the hanging moss nest, but I have a clear enough memory of it and the birds to look them up and identify them as Bushtits– a new species to add to my life list of birds I’ve identified! I also have memories of a delighted boy holding a round white rock with small black speckles, a tricycle collapsing into pieces on a sandy path beside house boats, and a sleepy older woman patiently watching a baffled young boy trying loudly to grasp what had just happened to his hitherto unquestionably reliable tricycle.

Birding in a city neighborhood with a curious two-year old is nothing like strolling quietly, binoculars in hand, through the dense woods and open fields I’m accustomed to, but it, too, is rich with moments of delight and wonder.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Paul delighting in life and the outdoors
Collapsed tricycle!

Crows and Peregrine Falcon!

Yesterday evening Stephen and I joined some other birders to watch Crows coming in to their Poughkeepsie roost. What an awesome sight, to see thousands upon thousands of Crows converging from all points of the compass! I had often seen the Crows roosting in immense numbers in the trees as I drove down route 9 through Poughkeepsie, but I’d never seen them gathering and staging in the evening. It was an amazing sight, and someone there said her grandmother had watched them coming in fifty years ago, so this area has been an established roost for decades, at least. 
 
At one point I looked north across the Mid-Hudson Bridge and saw what looked like a river of Crows flowing from farther up and across the river, bending and flowing, I’m assuming with air currents. In the distance it just looked like a narrow strip of pepper, with the specks gradually becoming larger and clearer as they drew closer, until they were right over us. They congregated in several areas, cawing and flying about and landing on the ground and in trees, staging in small or large groups that would move from time to time, before they finally headed to their night roost. There were an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Crows altogether!
 
Then we heard a sudden, loud cawing and saw a peregrine Falcon flying over the trees where many Crows were roosting. The Crows rose with a tremendous fluttering and cawing, the Falcon fluttered his pointed wings very fast overhead, then suddenly stooped (dove) fast, knocking a Crow out of the air! He didn’t end up with that Crow, but I suspect he caught one soon after, when we again saw him stoop into the Crows and disappear behind some buildings. We didn’t see him again, so I’m guessing he was happily eating Crow.
Crows converging to Poughkeepsie roost

Red Wolf

The red wolf (Canis rufus) is one of the most endangered canid species in the world, with only 45 red wolves remaining in the wild. Native to southeastern United States, their population was decimated by habitat loss and intensive predator control in the 1960’s, and in 1980 the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild. Since then, through captive breeding programs directed by the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP), red wolves have been reintroduced into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, including one red wolf male from the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY. (For more information see the Wolf Conservation Center’s page on red wolves)

Red Wolf

Red Wolf
10″ x 9″ watercolor
$300
I will donate 30% of the proceeds from the sale of this painting to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY to support their work of research, education, and breeding of red wolves and other endangered wolves.

(Thank you very much to the Wolf Conservation Center for the use of their photo and for the opportunity to sketch wolves there.)

Red Wolf Field Sketches

Sketching Wolves!

I spent a couple of blissful afternoons this week sketching wolves up close at the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in South Salem, NY. The center is home to four ambassador wolves who educate the public about wolves, and to red wolves and Mexican gray wolves– both critically endangered species. The WCC participates in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) and is involved in the captive breeding and release programs for these endangered wolf species. Because some of the red wolves and Mexican gray wolves may potentially be released into the wild someday, they have a minimum of exposure to people, and I haven’t seen or sketched them.

The ambassador wolves are gray wolves.  Atka, the oldest at 14 years old, is an Arctic gray wolf. The other three are Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray wolves. Alawa and Zephyr are five and a half year old littermates. Nikai, their younger brother, is two and a half. Atka lives by himself in his own very large enclosure, and the other three live together next door to him. Today I especially enjoyed observing some of the dynamics between Alawa, Zephyr, and Nikai, and I took notes and did some sketches showing just tail carriage. One of my longer term goals is to learn more about wolf dynamics and body language by watching these three younger wolves.

One thing I’m interested in seeing is how my sketches change and (hopefully) improve as I keep going back and sketching. I haven’t been very experienced with wolf sketching, and their proportions are a bit different than dogs, so I have some learning to do (which is always a good thing!).

Here is a sampling of my sketches from yesterday, some fairly quick, some a bit more detailed when the wolves were still for longer:

Zephyr
Nikai
Alawa
napping wolf sketch
Nikai
Alawa on the rock
Wolf naptime

Below are some of my sketches from today. I started out with graphite pencil (usually my medium of choice), but after a while it started to rain, and graphite doesn’t work on wet paper, so I switched to an indigo watercolor pencil, which was very happy with the large raindrops on my paper. I also tried capturing some wolves running– a challenge, but fun to work at.

Wolf body language and tail carriage
Running wolf sketches
Howling wolf sketches
Atka the Arctic gray wolf and Nikai Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray wolf
Napping wolf

American Robin Fall Flocks

This morning I looked out the window and saw a multitude of mature male and juvenile Robins scattered over the yard and in the shrubs. There may have been some females mixed in, but they were all moving and flying from one low shrub to another, and I only got good looks at the dark-headed mature males and the spotty-breasted juveniles that stood out. Flocking provides some level of safety, since there are more eyes and ears alert for potential danger, as I witnessed this morning. One bird saw me while I was in the kitchen, and he took off, immediately causing all the others to move across the yard. The females may still be raising their last brood of the summer, and when those young fledge, they and the females will be joining these flocks, too.

American Robin sketches

These birds are most likely ones that nested in our yard or neighboring yards and woods this year and last year or were just hatched this summer, as Robins typically return to the same nesting area year after year. They’re preparing for winter and for their fall migration now, eating worms as they can find them (somewhat scarce due to the dry conditions right now), insects, and berries. We have some magnificent pokeweed plants that are the size of shrubs, and the berries are just now ripening– a bountiful feast for birds.

When food supplies diminish in the fall, most of these birds will be flying to points south, not necessarily the same places as they’ve gone before. Some stay in the north, so though we often look upon our first Robin sighting as a harbinger of spring, we may just be seeing an overwintering bird. Birds that stay north will mostly eat fruit (berries and other fruits they can find), but there isn’t enough for the whole population, so many fly south where food will be more readily available.

Sketching Wolves!

Gray wolf sketches- Zephyr and Alawa

Turkeys gobbling in the distance, wolves howling right next to me– I had a fabulous morning today! A few days ago I registered for “Coffee with Wolves” at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, and I’ve been impatiently waiting for Saturday morning to come, so that I could go see the wolves. I usually sleep like a log, but last night I kept waking up to see if it was morning yet. Finally it was 5:30, so I leaped up and bundled up, since it was supposed to be a chilly morning. It turned out to be warmer than predicted and sunny, but still cool enough that the wolves were quite active (active enough to make a good sketching challenge).

Arctic wolf sketches- Atka
Arctic wolf sketches – Atka

There are four “ambassador wolves,” who are there to educate and interact with the public, and then quite a few endangered red wolves and Mexican gray wolves. The red wolves and Mexican gray wolves are not on exhibit, so that they will not become habituated to people, in case they can someday be released into the wild. They are also used for breeding to build up their populations, and this wolf center is in a network of about fifty such centers that cooperate and exchange wolves to maintain genetic diversity.

I sketched the four ambassador gray wolves (canis lupus); three of them Zephyr, Alawa, and Nikai, in one enclosure; and Atka in a separate enclosure. Atka is an arctic gray wolf (canis lupus arctos), almost 14 years old and looking great. Zephyr and Alawa are Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray wolf five-year-old littermates, and two-year-old Nikai is their brother from a subsequent litter.

My sketches are simple and mostly unfinished, since the wolves were active, requiring me to move from sketch to sketch and then back to a previous sketch when a wolf would momentarily return to a previous position. Atka was lying down most of the time, so was easier to sketch than the others, but even so he was alert and shifting position almost constantly.

(Click on an image to view it larger.)

Gray wolf sketches – Zephyr and Alawa
Gray wolf sketches- Zephyr and Nikai

Here’s a watercolor and ink painting I did of Alawa from a photo I took when I was last at the wolf center.

Canadian/Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf- Alawa

Beaver!

Castor canadensis
Beaver Field Sketches

On Saturday Stephen and I went for our usual evening birding walk down the rail trail. We usually walk in along the north side of the lake, where we can get a good look at Double-crested Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, and sometimes a variety of duck species, as well as warblers in the shrubs and woods. This time, though, we walked down the rail trail and cut in beside the south side of the lake and then around behind it, where I hadn’t been before.

We heard a call that was familiar but couldn’t place it at first, then saw our first Osprey of the season flying over the lake- such a beautiful bird. Then we saw a ripple in the water moving in our direction. A beaver! We do occasionally see beavers swimming across the lake, but usually from a greater distance, and not swimming in our general direction. We stopped and stood still, Stephen with camera in hand, me with pencil poised over the sketchbook in which I had just been sketching the view and jotting down bird species as we saw or heard them.

The beaver swam along the shore, pausing several times to look in our direction. I don’t know if he saw us, since their eyesight isn’t great, but perhaps he smelled us. To our astonishment, he swam to a muddy spot on the shore about six yards from where we were standing and climbed out onto land. He came a few feet closer, till he was about 10-12 feet from us, then stopped and looked at us briefly, before turning and going back into the water to resume his swim along the shore.

I’ve always loved rodents and have been fascinated with beavers, since they are the second largest rodents in the world (after the capybara of South America). North American beavers are typically 40-60 pounds but can occasionally reach 100 pounds. The beaver we saw seemed on the large size to me. I am not experienced with estimating beaver weight, having never before seen one up close on land, but I am pretty good at estimating dog weight, and I’d estimate this fellow’s weight at over 50 pounds, possibly even over 60.

We left the beaver swimming in peace and, as it was rapidly getting darker, we headed back. Once on the rail trail, I looked back and saw our beaver friend silhouetted in the dim light as he crouched on a fallen tree in the lake, eating his dinner. A wonder-filled walk by Lake Walton.

A few facts about beavers:

  • mate for life and give birth to 1-6 kits in May or June
  • young stay with their parents until they are 1.5 or 2 years old
  • one of the few species (including humans) that modifies their environment
  • eat leaves, bark, twigs, and aquatic plants
  • can remain underwater for 15 minutes
  • have special transparent eyelids to cover their eyes underwater
  • can close flaps behind their long incisors to keep water out when carrying sticks or gnawing wood underwater
  • can live 20-30 years
Beaver swimming
Beaver on land

Courting Cardinals

Courting Cardinals Sketches

Nearly every day recently I’ve watched Cardinal pairs engaging in courtship behavior that always makes me smile, because of how it seems so similar to human displays of affection. Of course I don’t know what is happening in Cardinal minds, but it is charming to see the male Cardinal repeatedly select a small seed, fly to his mate and, reaching out, gently present it to her. She carefully takes it from him and eats it. Sometimes they then sit together for a moment before he flies off to find another seed.

Cardinal Courtship
“With This Seed…”

(This painting, “With This Seed…” is currently featured in my Etsy Shop.)

River Otter

River Otter—Lontra canadensis

River Otter Family at Schoodic Peninsula

When I was at the Schoodic Peninsula at Acadia National Park last fall, I especially enjoyed watching for otters. Here is what I wrote in my journal the first morning I saw them, after several days of looking for them each morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of them:

As we passed the pond where I’ve seen otter tracks crossing the road every morning, we heard some quiet splashing and spotted four little heads, each with its own wake, coming diagonally across the pond toward us. Otters! As they arrived at the edge of the pond, they saw us and submerged briefly. Then a head popped up, clearly looking at us and looking as though the otter was treading water to stay upright. Up and under a few times, whiskers dripping as the otter checked us out, clearly wary.

Otters in meander book
Otter field sketches

We backed out of sight and waited. And waited some more (and got colder and colder). After what seemed like a long time, but was probably no more than five minutes, an otter appeared on the roadside. She (or he) looked around, then ducked back out of sight, just as a second otter appeared. That one looked around a bit less warily, then loped across the road. As he reached the far side of the road he lay down briefly—which explains the larger wet marks I had been wondering about at one end of the tracks crossing the road each morning. The other three otters now appeared and loped across the road with their inimitable, curvy movement. Was the lead otter’s lying down a signal that all was safe?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Me sketching otter tracks

Another morning I was looking out at the cove at some ducks and grebes, when something else caught my eye, something that looked a bit different than anything I had seen out in the water. I lifted my binoculars for a closer look—an otter swimming through the cove! Soon it was joined by three more, and I watched as they undulated up and down, sometimes diving, sometimes seeming to just enjoy up and down motion, as they curved in and out of the surface of the water without going deeper.

Otter Field Sketches- scent marking
Otter Field Sketches

I watched as they climbed out on a rock and one leaned back, as though in a seaweed-covered recliner. At one point they all swam to a different rock and I watched as first one, then a second did what appeared to be scent-marking (sketch and description in my field sketches). Soon after, they all swam off, and I didn’t see them again until the next day, when they were out at Schoodic Point, swimming and then climbing on the rocks to eat, with one otter, who was separated from the other, whistling with what sounded like a distress call.

Otter Field Sketches– crossing the road, swimming

 

Predawn Planets

This week the sky has been magnificent every morning before dawn! I’ve been walking on my deck and watching the sky from early enough for a deep, dark star-besprent sky until the sun is well up and the day is bright. The planets Venus, Mars, and Jupiter have been putting on a brilliant show, and I’ve been watching to see the exact time they each fade from view as the bright light of the sun spreads across the sky. I’ve written about those times in the notes that follow, but today I did not note the time that Venus faded from view as the sun rose. That’s because Venus was so bright today that she was even visible at 10:00 this morning, with the sun high and bright! I had not realized before that Venus is bright enough to be seen even in strong daylight under the right conditions.

(If you click on the images, you’ll be able to see them large enough to read my notes.)

Moon, Venus, Jupiter sketch

 

Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter sketch

 

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
                                            Psalm 19:1-2