Sketching in the Rain

I love rain! The pattering sound works solace for my soul. For an introvert it’s also often more peaceful walking in the rain, because so many people stay inside, leaving the road or trails to me and the few other people who don’t worry about melting. When I was running track or cross country in high school, I usually finished third or fourth in races– unless it was a rainy day. Then I often won, because I found the rain invigorating, while most of the other runners were psyched out by it.

I also love sketching, but it’s not always easy to blend the two. A couple of weeks ago I was sketching wolves at the Wolf Center when it started to rain, and suddenly my pencil ground to a halt on my paper. The paper in my sketchbook was heavy enough to stand up to getting rained on, but it turns out that graphite pencils don’t work on ordinary wet paper. No problem; I switched to a watercolor pencil and continued to sketch the wolves. That worked okay, but I really prefer the finer lines and detail I can get with my trusty mechanical pencil with .7mm or .9mm lead or with my favorite– a Ticonderoga No. 1 (extra-soft) pencil sharpened to a good point.

When I came home from that sketching session, I did a bit of research and found the “All Weather Sketchbook” by Rite in the Rain. My order arrived last week, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting a rainy day, so I could test it out. Today fit the bill, with heavy rain off and on all afternoon. I hurried out with watercolor pencils to draw the remaining colorful trees in our yard– I really love the soft look of fall colors on a rainy day. At first that worked beautifully, but as it rained harder, my drawing liquified and ran off the paper (onto me). At that point I pulled out my Ticonderoga pencil to sketch a tree that has already lost all its leaves. It worked wonderfully! This paper is really cool and stood up to getting heavily soaked. And now I don’t need to take weather into account when I schedule sketching trips to the wolf center or zoo!

Sketching in the rain
Sketch on Rite-in-the-Rain paper


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

Berkshire Mountain Visit

This week I visited a good friend at her wonderfully quiet country home in the Berkshire Mountains. Her home overlooks a heavily wooded valley surrounded by mountains, with almost no noise other than the music of birds and the rustling of wind through pines. Spring hasn’t made much of an appearance there yet, and the ground was covered with snow (they got 8″ on Monday!). Cheryl, like me, loves the outdoors and also loves quiet time hanging out with tea and dogs, either talking about life or just quietly enjoying the beauty of the mountain scenery outside her windows.

We hiked through the snowy woods with Cheryl’s three dogs, watching birds and looking at tracks in the snow (we saw some that we think are fisher tracks) and counting melted spots in the snow where deer had slept the night before. I kept walking with my neck craned to see if I could spot an owl in the pine trees, but alas, they stayed well-hidden. Afterwards I sat at her dining room table to sketch and paint the rainy view and draw some of the many birch trees. Although warm temperatures are ideal for being outside, and sunshine makes for brilliant colors and striking shadows, I also love the muted colors of misty days.

Berkshire Mountain View
New Lebanon View
Birch Trees


Cheryl and I both love food, so we cooked and ate a delicious dinner together (and I got some great  new recipes to cook for Stephen). Being relaxed and full of good food after a busy few weeks, I was ready to go to bed early, and I slept to the music of the most beautiful-sounding wind chimes I’ve ever heard. The wind rose and fell during the night, with the lullaby of the chimes as a soothing background to my dreams.

In the morning we relaxed, read, and played with the dogs. Between rain showers, I stood on the deck to paint quickly in brief sessions, before the wind blew my palette away and froze my fingers. We’re just on the cusp of plein air painting season, and the weather seemed to vacillate between winter and spring every few minutes all morning.

Berkshire Mountains
New Lebanon

When it was too windy, wet, and chilly to stand outside painting, I curled up on the couch wrapped in a soft blanket with a mug of tea in the cozy den overlooking the valley. One of the dogs, Tessa, a German Shepherd Dog, is getting a bit old and the stairs are a challenge, so she stayed downstairs with me when Cheryl went up to do some morning chores. Tessa watched and waited for Cheryl, her ears constantly tuned to every movement and sound from upstairs, a perfect example of the devotion of a good German Shepherd, and a perfect subject for sketching.

German Shepherd Dog sketches
Tessa watching and waiting

I’m home now, rested and refreshed by the enveloping peace of the mountains, by relaxing time with a good friend, and by the opportunity to sketch in a leisurely manner.

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?

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


Squirrel Sketches

Winter is finally here, with its crisp, clear sunshine; blustery wind; and twittering birds flocking to the feeders to fill their bellies and keep warm. And with the always entertaining squirrels chasing one another in trees and scouring the deck for seeds the birds drop. I’ve had a fairly full schedule recently, so when I’m home, I savor the quiet minutes I carve out to sit, usually with either Petra or Acadia warming my lap, watching the lively world of our deck, and sipping hot green tea (I have a new favorite– Dragon’s Well green tea– yumm! It has a mild chestnut-like flavor, and I love chestnuts.)
As always, I sit with sketchbook in hand (actually balanced on Petra or Acadia, who are remarkably obliging), doing many partial sketches, as my subjects are rarely still for more than a moment. I sometimes spend a few seconds here and there over a couple of days on each sketch, coming back to them as the bird or squirrel is again briefly in that same pose. 
I’m getting to know the three squirrels who regularly visit our deck- a large male, a large female, and a smaller female, who I’m guessing is a late summer baby from last year. The male is here the most, and when the female isn’t here, he spends all his time eating. When the female is here, he spends almost all his time following her around. The youngster is a bit more reddish than her elders, and I’m wondering if that is a factor of her age or if she’s just more reddish by nature. She isn’t here as often as the adults, and she moves away if they approach here. I’ll be watching her over the coming months to see whether she becomes more gray. 

Here I am at about 15 or 16 with Roy, a squirrel with a broken leg that my veterinarian asked me to care for

Quiet Day Musings

Today I am enjoying my weekly Quiet Day, a day when I savor the gifts of silence and solitude, with unhurried time to read, reflect, pray, ponder, walk, and write.

This morning I took a leisurely walk with Petra.

I relaxed in my rocking chair with hot green tea in a pretty mug (I always choose a pretty mug on my Quiet Day) and Acadia purring on my lap.

I sat on the floor beside Rowan, running my fingers through his soft, luxurious coat, feeling his warmth and the gentle tickle of his whiskers as he sniffed my face, thankful for all the time I have with my aging boy.

I laughed as Milo played gleefully, his tail and ears going in all directions with his irrepressible joy.

I watched and sketched squirrels and birds, always lively on our deck, not trying to do great sketches, but just capturing the moment.

Often, when I am feeling wound up with too long a to-do list or with concerns that weigh on my mind or with the busyness of this time of year, my animals help me slow down and return to the present, where I regain perspective and where worries take their place behind gratitude. I am thankful for a full life, for quiet moments that help me appreciate that fullness, and for the peace God gives as he reminds me of his presence through his creation.

Overload of Wonder

I am on overload of wonder. Whenever I open the windows or walk outside I hear the constant roar of surf and the frequent crash of waves against granite shore. Everywhere I look there is splendor and beauty and awesome power, from numerous songbirds and brilliant lichens to Cadillac Mountain in autumn glory gilded with evening light. The stars at night are overwhelming in their number and clarity. Venus and Jupiter have shown themselves each morning, joined today by Mars and Mercury in the cloudless predawn sky. Sunrises and sunsets are brilliant and always different.

Rather than write out all that I am seeing in detail, I am going to simply post some of my sketches and photos for now. I will say, though, that this morning I was especially wonder struck, as I had the opportunity to observe, photograph, and sketch a porcupine at close range for over half an hour. I had startled him a bit earlier while he was eating rose hips when I was walking along the road, and he had gone into the woods. I had a feeling he might come back, so I found a comfortable rock to sit on and I waited. Sure enough, he returned and resumed his feasting, quite near to where I was sitting!

The words of this hymn by Isaac Watts keep coming to mind:

I Sing the Mighty Power of God

I sing the
mighty pow’r of God, that made the mountains rise,
That spread
the flowing seas abroad, and built the lofty skies.
I sing the
wisdom that ordained the sun to rule the day;
The moon
shines full at His command, and all the stars obey.
I sing the
goodness of the Lord, who filled the earth with food,
Who formed
the creatures through the Word, and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how
Thy wonders are displayed, where’er I turn my eye,
If I survey
the ground I tread, or gaze upon the sky.
There’s not
a plant or flow’r below, but makes Thy glories known,
And clouds
arise, and tempests blow, by order from Thy throne;
While all
that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care;
everywhere that we can be, Thou, God, art present there.

(If you click on the sketches, you’ll see a large enough image to read my notes.)

Sunrise October 16
Porcupine sketches Acadia National Park
Porcupine sketches Schoodic Peninsula
lichen on Schoodic Point granite
Schoodic Point surf
Schoodic Point sunset
Porcupine on Schoodic Loop Road

Red-headed Woodpecker

A couple of weeks ago Stephen and I had the tremendous privilege of a brief morning visit by a Red-headed Woodpecker! I was looking out the kitchen window and I saw a woodpecker on the far side of one of our hanging feeders. All I could see was the lower part of the bird’s belly, a bit of tail where it was pressed against the bottom of the feeder, and a very faint glimpse of red, before he (or she) moved his head behind the feeder. But something about the amount of white I saw and something about the shade of red, even in the very dim morning light, caught my attention. I grabbed my binoculars and hoped the bird would show more of himself before flying away… And he did… A Red-headed Woodpecker! A first for both Stephen’s and my life lists and a first for our yard.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker


Van Gogh and Nature

On Tuesday I went to The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to see the “Van Gogh and Nature” exhibition. It was wonderfully inspiring, as I expected it to be, with many drawings and paintings I hadn’t seen before. I particularly enjoyed seeing and studying Van Gogh’s trees and his studies of moths and one of a bird. 
After going slowly through the Van Gogh exhibit, I walked up the hill (a beautiful, quiet, woodland walk) to the Lunder Center, where there is an exhibit of James McNeil Whistler’s paintings and etching’s, “Whistler’s Mother: Grey, Black, and White”.
After going through the Whistler exhibit,  I went back down the hill and went slowly through the Van Gogh exhibit again, focusing on my favorite pieces. Then, feeling inspired by all that I had seen, I braved the heat outside and sat in the shade under a tree to sketch the beautiful hill rising up behind the museum. Altogether a delightful, educational, and inspiring day.
My sketch from behind The Clark

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

In Tampa, Florida last week, I saw three Yellow-crowned Night Herons (one at a time) beside the channel behind my son and daughter-in-law’s house. Most of the times I saw them the lighting was very dim (early morning), so I never got a good look at their red eyes, hence the uniform black with no markings for eyes on my sketch. Neither could I see the yellow on their crowns, so I didn’t paint it, even though I knew it must be there. I was just sketching what I saw.

The first day I saw a juvenile, with brownish coloring and streaky breast, but didn’t have my sketchbook handy, so no sketch of it. Over the next few days I saw two different adults, one with typical markings and one which had less black– no or almost no black beneath the white cheek. I don’t know if that is also typical, but I haven’t seen any photos of birds like this.

One morning I was watching the bird with less black while he (she?) was feeding. It stalked slowly on the grass beside the mangroves that border the channel, occasionally jabbing into the grass to grab and eat something. When it got to a puddle, the bird danced in place, repeatedly jabbing into the puddle and grabbing its breakfast.

I loved having several days to observe these birds’ behavior as well as to note differences between the two adults. If I were there for longer, I’m sure I would become familiar with the behavior of each bird, each an individual with its own characteristics. It would have been fascinating to watch the young bird grow up, too, and try to determine what behaviors are innate and what are learned.

Click on the image to see it larger