Six straight days of rain is finally over. It took its toll on humans and beasts alike. When I went out for a walk late yesterday afternoon, I saw this wet and bedraggled Cooper's Hawk hunched up on top of a power pole. Its tail feathers looked very wet and the puffed up breast feathers told me it was trying to warm up.
An Anna's Hummingbird was outside my workroom window everyday, roosting under the eaves of the apartment next door when it was pouring, then feeding on the succulent blossoms when it stopped. It's quite a fat little hummer, too, so I didn't worry about it too much. It seemed to know what to do pretty well!
I always wonder how birds deal with a lot of rain; the past two days gave me a little glimpse.
While other parts of the country are being slowly buried in the white stuff of winter, we here in Southern California enjoyed a warm and sunny weekend. It topped out around 85-degrees yesterday, so we headed to the beach for a couple hours of shore time.
It was a lovely day at White's Point in Palos Verdes. The ocean was like glass and Catalina Island was so clear you could make out the folds in the hills. A small pod of dolphins swam by, a kayaker pulled into the the cove, and some crabmen pulled up their traps.
"The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of the outer ocean on a beach. I have heard them all, and of the three elemental voices, that of the ocean is the most awesome, beautiful, and varied.
Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears, and you will hear in it a world of sounds: hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of people in the sea.
The seas are the heart's blood of the earth. Plucked up and kneaded by the sun and moon, the tides are systole and diastole of earth's veins. The rhythm of waves beats in the sea like a pulse in living flesh. It is pure force, forever embodying itself in a succession of watery shapes which vanish on its passing.
Consider the marvel of what we see. Somewhere in ocean, perhaps a thousand miles and more from this beach, the pulse beat of earth liberates a vibration, an ocean wave."
--Henry Beston The Outermost House
[Video filmed at Montana De Oro Sate Park, CA October 2008]
I am returning to experiments in value, as well as the effects of light art various times of the day, in order to add more life to my work. The painting above (4.75" x 6.75" on Arches 140# cold pressed paper) was done entirely with Sepia. I worked from a photograph that I had altered in Photoshop from color to black and white in order to reveal the values and tones. It is not always easy or convenient to work directly from nature, so for now I am working from photos for practice.
Additionally, I have ordered a few books on watercolor technique to see if I can teach this old dog some new tricks. I would like to not only do bird portraits, which I enjoy very much, but also pictures that show birds in their natural environments, going about their business, doing what birds do. That will require that I learn to render foliage, trees, and water in a way that suggests realism without actually falling into the trap of extreme detail, which is not really my cup of tea style-wise.
I admire the work of such wildlife artists as Robert Bateman, but I will leave the technique of showing every detail to those like him that are more facile at it--and interested in doing so. I believe that style has merit and value, but I love the idea of suggesting things and still making them seem real.
Today I spent a large chunk of the day reading some books on Winslow Homer I got from the UCLA Arts Library. One in particular is very interesting and instructive: Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light by Martha Tedeschi, et al, published by The Art Institute of Chicago. In it, they describe Homer's working methods, the colors he used, and the various techniques he used to portray his subjects so beautifully. The art experts provide technical commentaries on a range of different aspects, including paper, pigments and lightfastness, and techniques Homer used such as scraping out color, spattering, and resist.
Homer has always been one of my very favorite artists. His rendering of light, and the effects of light, in the natural world is without equal. One writer put it most eloquently:
"The wonder we feel standing in front of one of Homer's watercolors has little to do with painterly pyrotechnics, but instead come from their capacity to conjure the natural with unprecedented truth and vividness."
Homer was a keen observer of nature and an avid student of color theory and optics (the effect of light at various times of the day and different seasons). He had the
"ability to to evoke a sense of truth in watercolors--the true breath of life...the glint of actual sunshine, the smell of mother-earth. It had everything to do with his dedicated examination of the relationship between color, light, and water, the three principal ingredients of watercolor. These elements were both is medium and very often his subject matter." (Tedeschi)
My birding partner, Paula Raissner, and I birded a section of the L.A. River this past Sunday. We only covered about a quarter mile stretch, but it was pretty 'birdy.' The real treat was finding some Nutmeg Mannikins, a species native to Southeast Asia and India. Like often happens, some birds meant for the caged trade got loose years ago and now their are flocks in the wild. They are pretty little birds, around sparrow-sized. Their backs and wings are a rich brown color (like nutmeg) and the chest is white with black scalloped lines (that reminds me of chain mail). The birds are sometimes called Spice Mannikins.
Also seen were abundant numbers of Black-necked Stilt, American Widgeon, and of all things, Yellow-rumped Warblers. A few pairs of Hooded Mergansers were seen, as well as Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, an immature Black-crowned Night Heron; also the ubiquitous Mallard, American Coot, and Brewer's Blackbird.
The Yellow-rumps were flycatching on the swarms of midges that hovered in the air, as were a few Black Phoebe. One Yellow Warbler was spotted foraging in the reeds in the river area. A pair of Common Raven and a Red-tailed Hawk were spied soaring overhead.
In nearby Bette Davis Park, which was our access point, there were 4 Acorn Woodpeckers guarding a large granary in a sycamore tree.
Hooded Merganser (male & female)
Nutmeg Mannikin (juvenile-lacks the chest embellishment)
Nutmeg Mannikin (adult)
Nutmeg Mannikin (adult)
Later in the day we went to Lake Balboa to look for some reported Common Loon, but the only loons were the crowds of people. We did see a Ross's Goose, however, a life bird for both of us.
During an email exchange with a friend of mine and we got into a conversation about a woman who was caught trying to smuggle rare falcons from of Russia. I mentioned to her that I rarely pay attention to the news these days as I find it terribly distressing, not to mention distracting. And those elements are not conducive to being creative. But as a birder I cannot escape the conservation and protections aspects of my chosen pastime. The grim realities, such as the smuggling story that caught my eye, are always there. I think that's one of the reasons I like to paint birds. It makes me feel closer to them and to celebrate more intimately their beauty and specialness.
After the move I finally managed find all my painting materials and to get my work area ready for some more painting. Over the holiday weekend I painted two small works, both of Royal Terns (one of my favorite birds). I am experimenting with different methods: one, a plain and fairly un-detailed approach, and two, a more colorful and expressive approach.
The results turned out pretty well, though I think I need to explore this much, much further. My goal is to paint at least one picture every day, even if it is just a small one. In addition, I will continue to do my sketching in the morning before work. Rising earlier has enabled me to have more quiet creative time at the beginning of the day when I am less tired. Discipline has never been a strong point of mine, but I am determined to improve my painting!
It was 49-degrees this morning, and with a breeze blowing out of the north, it felt even cooler. Now before you folks who live in colder climes start laughing, let me tell you that it felt cold to this native Californian with thin blood! But bundled in my new Carhartt jacket with hood, I was toasty warm. The clouds were magnificent and I went up to the roof of my building on campus to enjoy the show. (photos taken with my Droid phone)
The view to the SE--the sun was glowing there behind the clouds.
View looking West.
View to the SW. There was a flock of Cedar Waxwings circling around, but my camera could not capture them.
When I was walking to my office, I came across this sculpture near one of the buildings. In my four years here, I've never noticed it before! Looks like a bird to me!
Speaking of birds, I didn't find too many this morning. I am sure the weather put them off. Yesterday there was a pre-Thanksgiving cornucopia of birds, the most species I've seen in a single morning in a long while:
Nuttall's Woodpecker Bushtit Ruby-crowned Kinglet Mountain Chickadee Allen's Hummingbird Yellow-rumped Warbler California Towhee Dark-eyed Junco Cedar Waxwing American Crow Bewick's Wren Rock Pigeon
I usually pride myself on being on top of environmental issues, but this one had totally escaped me. It is a truly frightening scenario, one that every person on Earth should be aware of and have some say about what is being done. Our demands on the environment for energy are oout of control.
I attended a workshop this past Sunday: "Describing Bird Sounds" by Sylvia Gallagher and hosted by Pasadena Audubon Society. It was held at the beautiful Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Sierra Madre. The class was well attended (about 30+ showed up) and PAS provided a lovely spread of food both in the morning and at lunch.
Of course I arrived very early, and had brought my binoculars, so I went out on the nature trail to look for birds. I heard two California Thrashers singing back and forth and finally located one of them. It was a treat to watch the bird sitting atop a bush, head back, singing its heart out. And a perfect intro to the day's workshop!
If I had any doubt that the subject would be overly-technical or hard to understand, it was dispelled immediately; Sylvia was both personable and down to earth. She made the subject easy to learn and provided good examples to help get her points across.
Her lecture relied heavily on a software program called Raven Lite, which is available free at the Cornell Ornithology Labs website. With it, one can listen to the songs and calls of birds and see them on a wavegraph and sonogram, which helps to understand how the various notes, trills, and buzzes make up the total sound. The song can be manipulated in a variety of ways, too. It can be slowed down, various sections teased out for study, and sound samples can be archived for later use.
She gave us a very good handout which outlined the course enough that very little note taking was necessary (but of course I did anyway as that's they way I learn best). In the handout was a list of words that are used to describe the various aspects of a birds song or call, which is the standardized method used to describe what one hears in the field, and also enables a betterunderstanding of the various aspects of a particular sound. (It's not just 'loud' or 'soft', 'high-pitched' or 'low-pitched'.)
I have always been fascinated by bird song and how it is that birds create such beautiful melodies and unearthly cries and calls. Their secret lies in the magical and wondrous organ called the syrinx (pronounced "cy-rinks"). This organ, located at the base of the trachea, is where bird sounds are produced. Prior to the workshop I spent some time looking through my Ornithology textbook and researching the topic online. The results of my study yielded some amazing factoids and information, though I still find it hard to read stuff that comes from the results of animal experimentation.
All in all it was a worthwhile way to spend a Sunday. I learned a lot and have already spent some time playing around with Raven Lite. I also ordered one of the recommended books, "The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong" by Donald Kroodsma, who is one of the foremost experts on bird song. The book includes a CD of birds songs, which can also be used in conjunction with Raven Lite.
I already know a lot of birds by hearing their song or call, but I still get fooled once in a while. Studying this aspect of bird observation can be very helpful in the field when ID is difficult in other ways.
Now that the move is done, and even though I haven't quite put everything away yet, I feel an outdoor adventure calling to me. I haven't been to the mountains in so long that I'm starting to feel homesick. I hope to get up to "the high country" before the first snow falls and makes it more difficult for access (I don't own a 4-wheel drive).
One of my special places is Mt. Pinos. It's not too far from home and there are some lovely spots to set up a 'sit spot' to watch and observe birds. Not sure what birds will remain in the higher elevations this time of year, but it would be interesting to find out! I know from last year's trip in September that there are loads of nuthatches, flickers, and woodpeckers; but the nuthatches are already migrating.
It is good to get to know the mountains in its various seasons!
A selection of photos from the old homestead. You don't live in a neighborhood for 20 years and not feel a pull of sadness at leaving! It was a swell place, but we saw it change over the years, growing more congested and noisier. It never stopped the wildlife, however; there was always something wonderful to see.
After living in a small unincorporated city within Los Angeles County for over 20 years, circumstances necessitated a move elsewhere. Our landlords unexpectedly decided to sell the house we were renting, so finding that we were now priced out of the house rental market, we managed to find a lovely large apartment in the Westwood area. Not only do I have a five minute drive to work (which is going to turn into a 10 minute bus ride come January), we have loads of big, mature trees right out front. (As I type this I can hear the wren singing!)
I have already seen a large flock of Cedar Waxwings that are feeding on the fruit of an enormous ficus tree, but I've also seen two species of warbler (Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned), numerous crows, and heard a Bewick's Wren singing from a nearby yard.
One thing I always loved about the old place was that there were always interesting birds to see. We lived near a wetlands area and there were many birds that showed up around our neighborhood by extension (either heard or seen flying overhead): Cooper's Hawk, Crow, warblers, owls, herons, swallows, and various shorebirds.
There was a gigantic sycamore tree in a neighbor's yard in back, and it was a favorite gathering place for crows, and hunting perch for Cooper's Hawks, and a foraging spot for the resident Nuttall's Woodpecker.
There are many things I will miss, but there are new things here that I am already enjoying. I look at it as the start of a new adventure in the urban wild!
Last October my partner and I went to the San Bernardino Mountains to see what was touted as the only aspen grove in Southern California. We never found it, but what we did find was a whole new playground. After living in So. Cal. for 60 years, you'd think I'd seen just about everything. But this area of the SBNF was completely new to me. And it has all the things I love most about forests: loads of trees, a fair amount of water, and that great 'piney' smell.
Since that trip we've been there several times more. We even stayed in a cabin over 4th of July weekend, in a small community that we are thinking of retiring to eventually.
I originally planned this blog to be a way to show people that nature can be close to home, but as I've travelled around more, I find myslef reluctant to share the whereabouts of certain places because they are not very crowded--and I'd like to keep them that way. Selfish? Most definitely!
There was an article in yesterday's L. A. Times (July 5) entitled 'Fire spotter says he was thwarted.' It described in agonizing detail the efforts of Capt. Perri Hall, a 'veteran air attack officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection,' who tried in vain to get air tankers in the air to drop water on the blaze which was at the time of his initial observation on Day 2 of last summer's Station Fire, 'a mere few acres.' Capt. Hall's account then goes on to sharply contradict the assertions by the Forest Service regarding their much-delayed response to the fire. I read this article with great sadness, for this loss of forest could have been prevented. We all knew when we saw that ugly plume of smoke billowing from or beloved forest on Day 3 that something tactically was going horribly, catastrophically wrong. The lack of response by the Forest Service--with all of their foot-dragging and excuses--allowed this blaze, which could have been easily stopped with a minimum of effort, money, and manpower to develop into the biggest and most costly fire in Los Angeles history. The 160,000 acres of National Forest that was burned and blamed on an arsonist should also be blamed on the very department sworn to protect it from harm. I see it as a monumental failure on the part of the Forest Service to serve the public, whose land it was, to allow it to be consumed in that agonizingly long, protracted, and devastating fire. Because of their bureaucratic boondoggle, fully two-thirds of the Angeles National Forest is now lost to us. All because some person or persons in the Forest Service declined to provide the air support that could have knocked this blaze down easily on Day 2. And now I see eerie parallels to this tragedy in the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Again the response to this 'accident' was slow in coming. Hell, it is still slow in coming some 75 days later. And once again failure to own responsibility and the unwillingness to commit when there is a a crisis has caused an environmental disaster. There is seemingly no one in charge and has there has not been since day one. And the oil now oozes inland, without anyone or anything to stop it. Had the response been sooner and effectively coordinated, I doubt very seriously that they would be seeing tar balls in Florida, let alone Texas. I find all of this inability to coordinate effective disaster responses greatly alarming. In my view it is symptomatic of the breakdown in our systems; we have allowed our governments and services to become so large and complex that we cannot do anything in a timely manner. Unfortunately, whether it be a forest fire or oil spill, the first things to come out are the fingers, pointing at the other guy. Or there is a cry of 'lack of funds.' Or most appalling to me, one department refuses to cooperate with another. There is much talk about 'for the common good' in this country, yet sadly this does not apply to the much-needed coordinated response to fires and oil spills. The bureaucratic labyrinth that must be navigated to get anything done anymore is inexcusable. Like Nero, they fiddle while Rome burns--along with our forests.
I had such a pleasant day up here last weekend that I decided to go up again. Went to my same sit spot and set up a little day camp. It wasn't quite as 'birdy' as last weekend, but there was plenty to make it interesting. The above view is looking towards the south--a really stunning view.
Here is a shot looking towards the canopy; there a quite a few dead and dying trees up here, most likely the victims of so many years of drought and the subsequent insect damage. But we've had over a normal year's rainfall this season, so the trees are getting a nice break.
The area in this photo shows where a lot of birds have been foraging on the ground. Not sure what they are finding, as I did not want to go down and disturb the area. But the nuthatches, chickadees, and woodpeckers all go down and pick through the duff.
There were three White-headed Woodpeckers this time--two males and a female. This is one of the males, although you cannot see his red cap in this view.
I finally got a halfway decent shot of one of the Pygmy Nuthatches--those little guys really move fast and are so small it's hard to keep them spotted. When they get up amongst the branches, the camera has a hard time resolving the image from all the foliage around the subject.
And then there were chipmunks! They were everywhere this time. Don't know if most of them were still hibernating last week or what, but there were at least ten of them in my general area. And I think my sit spot, which backs up against a boulder outcrop, is home to at least one; I nearly jumped out of my skin when one squeaked loudly right behind where I was sitting!
This photos is titled 'spot the chipmunk.'
Yes--I wasn't kidding. They were EVERYWHERE!
There is still quite a bit of snow up there. We are supposed to have more rain and snow this week, so not sure how much that will add to the remaining accumulation, but the snow levels are supposed to drop to 3500' by this Wednesday. That should translate to plenty at the higher elevations (at least .33 to .75 inches).
On the way down the hill I stopped by McGill Campground, which is still closed. I was aghast at the amount of trash people have left after using some of the sites for the day. Granted there are no trashbins yet, but jeez--can't they haul out their crap? The laziness of people and their lack of respect for the environment never ceases to amaze (and anger) me.
Down near the freeway onramp I decided to stop for a quick lunch, so went to a Jack in the Box. I was delighted to be joined by about a half dozen Common Ravens, who apparently have found out that the parking lot is a good place to look for scraps. I got good close looks at them--wow--they are HUGE birds!
Oh--and I forgot to mention the wildflowers! The rolling hills all along the Grapevine are covered with wildflowers: lupine, Califorina Poppy, and some sort of small yellow daisy. From a distance it looks like Nature has smudged colored chalk on the hills! Quite a lovely sight.
So here it was, the 10th of April, and there was still snow in the high country! This time last year it was already warm everywhere, so this was a real treat. I went up to Mt. Pinos to look for nuthatches and woodpeckers--and I was not disappointed. This is one of the best areas ever to see large numbers of these species.
As is evident from this photo, snow is indeed still abundant from around 3,000' up to the summit. (We had some more rain and snow the day after these photos were taken, so it is likely there is even deeper snow now!) The air was clean and fresh, and it was quite warm in the sun. This in turn warmed the wet needles on the forest floor and sent a delicious pine perfume wafting in the air. The breeze was strong at times, makeing music in the pines.
The sun also make lacey carpets of shadows on the snow.
I found a little pullout off the road at about 7,000' and hiked into the forest. I found a 'sit-spot' and set up an observation post for my target birds. And it didn't take long to spot them! This photo shows a White-breasted Nuthatch. Nuthatches are among my favorite species of bird. I have numerous photos and have done several watercolor paintings of them.
A different one, playing peek-a-boo with me around a tree trunk...
The little bird kept going behind the tree, then coming back out as if trying to see if I was still there.
Look closely among the branches near the trunk of the tree and you will see a White-headed Woodpecker. This one is a male, marked by a red cap at the rear of his head. They are busy birds, flying back and forth from one tree to the next, gleaning insects from between the crevices of the bark.
There were also numerous Western Bluebirds, that, like this little fellow, flew down to the snow to pick through the debris for fallen insects and small seeds.
I spent about three hours observing birds. Here is a complete list from the immediate area of my observation spot:
Western Bluebird (6)
White-breasted Nuthatch (4)
Pygmy Nuthatch (6)
White-headed Woodpecker (4)
Hairy Woodpecker (1)
Brown Creeper (1)
Dark-eyed Junco (1)
Mountain Chickadee (6)
Evening Grosbeak (1)
Stellar's Jay (1)
Common Raven (1)
I also saw a Merriam's Chipmunk--they are soo cute! Poor little think was being chased by the Pygmy Nuthatches, who were claiming a certain area on the ground for foraging. In fact, the White-headed Woodpecker, all three species of nuthatch, bluebirds, and the chickadees were foraging a lot on the ground quite a bit.
It was a wonderully relaxing and enjoyable way to spend part of the day. I plan go up there more often now, as my 'home forest' was almost completely destroyed last year by fire (Angeles National Forest). The abundant woodpeckers and nuthatches are a real draw as well!