Online Nature Journal Class, Session #2

In February of 2020, I started an online nature journaling class through Cornell. [There will also be a separate page showing all of the classes in case you’d like to take the course yourself or maybe want to start nature journaling on your own.]

This is an image from the lesson itself.

This session focused on different marking techniques, and how to depict light and shadow.

  • Keeping your lines short and sketchy for more accurate drawings.
  • Varying your strokes to capture shapes, textures, and dimension.
  • Understanding light to capture three dimensions on a two dimensional page.

“Every artist was first an amateur.”

Creating Texture:  You can creature texture on an object using a variety of techniques:

  • Hatching: all the shading lines go in the same direction
  • Contour Hatching: all the shading lines go in the same direction but also follow the contour of the object.
  • Cross Hatching: shading line cross one another (like “###”)
  • Stippling: shading with tiny dots
  • Scribbling: literally scribble in the shaded area
  • Blending: can use any of the above and then blend/smudge the lines with your finger tip or a “blending stump” [available from] The softer the lead in your pencil (B or 2B),the more easily you can blend it

Here are my drawings from this lesson.

Practicing drawing in a single line versus short sketchy lines, and trying different shading/texture techniques.
Here I tried different techniques just drawing the apothecia of a species of lichen.

I used to do all kinds of “pointillism” (stippling) drawings, so I’m familiar with that one, but that takes a LOT of time and concentration, so I can’t see doing that in the field.  And for blending, I need a much softer lead in my pencil. So, I ordered some 2B lead and some blending stumps from

I tried different techniques with simple shapes, like the apothecia on lichen.  I liked using the pencil more than the pen for most of the techniques.

The class suggested creating a “value scale” (light to dark) to use as a guide before you start drawing, but I didn’t think that was helpful at all.  I didn’t know what technique(s) I was going to use until I started drawing, and I tended to mix several of them, so a single value scale in a single style was pretty much worthless (for me anyway).

With any three dimensional object you see, be it a plant or animal, light and shadow fall across that object, and that’s how you see that it’s three dimensional. This brings me to our topic for this lesson, Chiaroscuro. [KEE-ar-oh-SKOOR-oh] The word Chiaroscuro comes from the Italian words for light and dark. It’s a term to describe the way light and shadow fall across an object.

Q. After trying some of your new drawing skills, was it easy to see where and how each could be applied? Are you starting to feel more comfortable putting marks on the page? Which do you still want to work on?

I am feeling a bit more confident about laying down shapes and doing shading, but I know I’ll need more work to get comfortable with it in the field.  I need more work with fur and feather’s too as they seem daunting.  Drawing things likes eggs and lichen seem easy in comparison.

It’s easier seeing the differentiation of shadows when looking at black-and-white images (rather than color images), and when outdoors the light will change a lot from one moment to the next, so catching the shadows may prove even more difficult in the field.

CLICK HERE for my class notes on Making Your Mark.

A Raptor Morning, 02-26-20

I got up around 6:00 this morning, so I could get the dog fed and get myself dressed to go to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve for my weekly volunteer trail walking gig there.

My friend Roxanne joined me at the preserve. We saw and heard quite a few raptors throughout our walk, especially at the beginning of it.  A pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks were calling to one another across the treetops along the trail, and we were able to get photos of the female sitting in the top of a tree. 

A pair of mating Red-Shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

A little while later, the male, who had been calling to the female, flew up and we got to see them mating.  The female was on a kind of precarious perch, so the male had to struggle to stay on top of her.  Eventually, he moved off to the side of her and then flew off.  Later, as we were leaving the preserve, we saw the female up near the rim of a nest that she and the male had built earlier in the year.  She didn’t linger near it though, so I don’t know if she’s going to choose that nest to lay her eggs and raise her brood. [[Hawks may build several different nests in a breeding season, and then the female chooses which one she likes.]]

After seeing the Red-Shouldered Hawks mating, we caught sight of another hawk in the top of a tree further along the trail. When we got abut closer we could see it was what I thought was a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk and it was eating its breakfast. We were able to get quite a few photos of it from slightly different angles as it ate.  At first, we couldn’t tell what it was eating; and I had to wait until I got home and blew up the photos to see that the breakfast was some kind of bird. The hawk had yanked out the majority of the feathers, so, on the trail all we could see was pink skin and flesh. 

A Merlin, Falco columbarius,eating its breakfast

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Later, Ken Ealy, one of my naturalist class graduates and a birding expert, took a look at my photos and corrected the ID.  It was actually a Tiaga morph a Merlin, Falco columbarius!  My first close-up of a Merlin; so exciting!  The Merlins in the US have three color morphs: Tiaga, Black and Prarie.

As we were walking away from the Merlin, I saw a bird fly into a tree back down the trail and by its shape and size I thought it might be a Kestrel.  I used my camera’s telephoto lens like a monocular and could see that it was indeed a Kestrel – a male, and there was a female on the branch below it. I alerted Roxanne to the birds, and we back-tracked down the trail to see them. [[I wonder if this was the same pair I’d seen last week.]]

A pair of American Kestrels, Falco sparverius. The male is on top and the female is below him.

So, that was three different species of raptors on just one part of one trail, one after the other. An auspicious start to our walk… we thought.  For most of the rest of the walk, however, we were able to HEAR a lot of birds, but couldn’t see them, or could see them but couldn’t get decent photos of them.

We did see quite a few deer, small groups of bucks and small groups of does with their fawns and yearlings.  We saw a big 4-pointer buck who was still sporting his antlers.

Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus

The wildflowers are just starting to appear – well, their leaves are anyway; no flowers just yet. And we looked over some lichen on both the trees and the rocks. 

We walked for about 3 hours before heading out.

Species List:

  1. Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus
  2. Alder Tongue Gall Fungus, Taphrina alni
  3. Almond Tree, Prunus dulcis
  4. American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
  5. Bark Rim Lichen, Lecanora chlarotera [looks like Whitewash Lichen but has apothecia]
  6. Bedstraw, Velcro Grass, Cleavers, Galium aparine
  7. Bewick’s Wren, Thryomanes bewickii [not sure; saw some kind of wren]
  8. Black Grain-Spored Lichen, Sarcogyne hypophaea [black, grainy, on rocks]
  9. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus [scat]
  10. Blue Elderberry, Sambucus nigra cerulea
  11. Blue Oak, Quercus douglasii
  12. Bushtit, American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus
  13. California Buckeye Chestnut Tree, Aesculus californica
  14. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
  15. California Manroot, Bigroot, Marah fabaceus
  16. California Mugwort, Artemisia douglasiana
  17. California Pipevine, Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia californica
  18. California Quail, Callipepla californica [heard]
  19. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  20. California Towhee, Melozone crissalis
  21. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  22. Cinder Lichen, Aspicilia cinerea [gray to light gray/white on rocks with or without small black dots]
  23. Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
  24. Common Merganser, Mergus merganser
  25. Common Stork’s-Bill, Red Stemmed Filaree, Erodium cicutarium
  26. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
  27. Crater Lichen, Diploschistes scruposus [gray/dark grey on rocks with dark apothecia]
  28. Cumberland Rock-Shield Lichen, Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia
  29. Eastern Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger
  30. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris
  31. Farinose Cartilage Lichen,  Ramalina farinacea [like Oakmoss but very thin branches]
  32. Giraffe’s Spots Fungus, Peniophora albobadia
  33. Gold Dust Lichen, Chrysothrix candelaris
  34. Golden Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia atricapilla
  35. Green Shield Lichen, Flavoparmelia caperata
  36. Green Trichoderma Mold, Trichoderma viride 
  37. Himalayan Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus
  38. Hoary Lichen, Hoary Rosette, Physcia aipolia
  39. Interior Live Oak, Quercus wislizeni
  40. Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria [fly by]
  41. Lords and Ladies, Wild Arum, Arum maculatum
  42. Mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  43. Merlin, Falco columbarius
  44. Miniature Lupine, Lupinus bicolor
  45. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura [heard]
  46. Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus [heard; caught a glimpse of]
  47. Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Picoides nuttallii [heard]
  48. Oak Titmouse, Baeolophus inornatus [heard]
  49. Oakmoss Lichen, Evernia prunastri
  50. Olive Tree, Olea europaea
  51. Poison Oak, Pacific Poison Oak, Western Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum
  52. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  53. Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo intermedia
  54. Scattered Button Lichen, Buellia dispersa [gray/off white on rocks with black spots]
  55. Shrubby Sunburst Lichen Polycauliona candelaria
  56. Sierra Plum, Prunus subcordata
  57. Soap Plant, Wavy Leafed Soaproot, Chlorogalum pomeridianum
  58. Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus
  59. Strap Lichen, Western Strap Lichen, Ramalina leptocarpha
  60. Streambank Springbeauty, Miner’s Lettuce, Claytonia parviflora
  61. Sunburst Lichen, Xanthoria elegans
  62. Tile Lichen, Lecidea sp.
  63. Turkey Tail Fungus, Trametes versicolor
  64. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  65. Western Fence Lizard, Blue Belly, Sceloporus occidentalis
  66. Western Gray Squirrel, Sciurus griseus
  67. White Horehound, Marrubium vulgare
  68. White-Breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis
  69. Witches Butter, Tremella mesenterica
  70. Yellow Starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis

Online Nature Journal Class, Session #1

In February of 2020, I started an online nature journaling class through Cornell. [There will also be a separate page showing all of the classes in case you’d like to take the course yourself or maybe want to start nature journaling on your own.]

A sample of someone else’s nature journal as shown in the class.

Here are some of the notes I took from the first class:

  • Whether you’ve set out to document your travels or to celebrate your back woods, you’re carrying forward a centuries-old tradition of combining science and art to learn about the world.
  • You can submit your photos on iNaturalist!!
  • Research shows that it takes 66 days (10 weeks) to build a habit. So, stick with it! The more frequently, and longer you nature journal, the more natural it will feel.
  • Carrying your nature journal is like carrying your field journal – and carrying your memories of your outdoor explorations.
  • As distinctive as each page is— incorporating a basic structure for your entries that includes the date, time, place, and weather conditions is highly recommended.Start with a drawing, then add your notations.  Later look up the scientific name and whatever other information intrigues you.
  • Your style can and probably will change over time.  If the blank page is daunting to start with, make boxes on it that you can fill in. If color is daunting, start in black and white with pencil and waterproof pens.Break things down into geometric shapes first to help you draw and capture an impression of your subject.
  • Rather than doing a daily journal, or a trip journal, select one image for every day of the month and do a month of observations on one or two pages.
  • Sit for at least one hour focused on one thing…  Use several pages if you want to. 
My finalized drawing of the Warbler with notes

For the drawing of the Yellow Warbler I started my drawing in pencil, then added splashes of color then outlines things in black.  I noticed as I was doing this that I was “distracted” by nagging thoughts about shape and proportion, and I had to dismiss those in order to proceed with the image. As I was working, I was also distracted from the bird by the realization that there were LICHEN on the branch the bird was sitting on.  I’m really into lichen right now, so that detail pulled my focus for a while. I think the biggest thing I noticed as I was working was how the bird’s feet were wrapped around the branch.  I focused on its toes for a bit, and how the toenails were sooooo long.  When I’d finished with the drawing, I added a date and a few notes.

Q: What advantages do drawings have over photos?

Drawing forced me to break the image down into components.  I used the technique of creating the bird out of geometric shapes, and that really helped. I don’t think I got the proportions right, but I won’t beat myself up over that. 

The “advantage” to drawing is that it made me STOP and really LOOK at the bird: how its body was put together; what its eye color was; what the beak color and shape were; how its feet were holding the branch.  I also noticed more about the branch itself; the lichen on in; the gnarly wood; the leaf with the circle cut out of it (probably by a leaf-cutter bee)… I was more “present” with the bird and its surroundings.

If the nature journal is supposed to act, in part, as an assist to scientific understanding and knowledge of wildlife and their habitat, then noticing and capturing the “small stuff” (like the lichen) would be important.

It makes me wonder what sort of habitat the Yellow Warblers prefer to live in.  Will Climate Change affect them?  Do they interact at all with the lichen (for nesting, etc.)?  It makes me want to learn a lot more.

Q: What advantages do photos have over drawings?

The most obvious advantage to me is that a photo freeze-frames a particular moment in time, and you can take that image home with you and draw from it (rather than sitting out in the field)

Photos also have the advantage of keeping your subject absolutely still. Birds flit all over the place; trying to do a drawing of a moving subject would make me, as a beginner at nature journaling, absolutely crazy.

Another advantage: The light stays the same.  When you’re in the field, even a few minutes can completely change the way the light on your subject looks and acts.Thank you, Karlyn, for paying the tuition for this class for me so I could take it. I’m hoping that I’ll get comfortable enough with the process to help teach other naturalists, and maybe even host some nature journaling outings!

  • CLICK HERE for a PDF of my class notes on getting started
  • CLICK HERE for a PDF of my class notes on jumping right in

First Time at Deer Creek Hills, 02-22-20

I got up around 5:30 this morning, and got the dog potties and fed before I got dressed and then headed out with my friend Roxanne for breakfast.  We left the house around 6:30 and went over to Brookfields Restaurant in Rancho Cordova.

Our final destination today was Deer Creek Hills Preserve, a working cattle ranch in Sloughouse off of Highway 16, which boasts several trails, large rock outcroppings and a Blue Oak woodland on its 4,060 acres.  It’s overseen by the Sacramento Regional Parks system,which co-owns the property,  The County works with the Sacramento Valley Conservancy to manage the ranch and public access to it. 

We thought it would take us and hour to get to the place, but our calculations were off a little bit, so we had LOTS of time for breakfast and a short jaunt out to the Mather Fields Vernal Pools before the gates at Deer Creek opened at 9:00 am.

Breakfast was yummy, and we took our time enjoying it.  The visit to the Mather Fields Vernal Pools area was short – and somewhat disappointing and sad. We’ve had no rain this February; the only time on record this has happened.  So, the areas where the pools would normally sit are bone dry. That means no specialty flowers are blooming; no vernal pool critters have a place to live – and those eggs that were laid in the pools when they had water in them in January are now dead because the water is gone.

The vernal pools were dried and nonexistent today. It’s so sad to see them this way in February.

We could hear Western Meadowlarks, but couldn’t get a bead on them because they were in the grass. We also heard some Ring-Necked Pheasants croaking at each other, but couldn’t see them either.  On our way OUT of the area, though, we were treated to the sight of a White-Tailed Kite on the telephone lines with his breakfast in his talons – a dark mouse, by the look of it.  We were able to get a few photos of it before it got disgusted with us and flew off.

White Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus, with its breakfast

We then went on to Deer Creek Hills and got there just as the gates opened around 9:00 am.  One problem with visiting this location is that they open the gates at 9 o’clock and close them at 1:00 pm… so if you can’t walk fast, you can see what there is to see on the trails.  Opening the gates at 9:00 am also means you don’t get to see any crepuscular animals that might be on the property. (We thought we saw elk tracks in the dirt.)  And you have to start your walk when it’s already almost too warm to hike outside. 

It was in the 70’s when we were there – which in itself is weird for February – and got warmer as we went along.  My heat tolerance threshold is pretty low (anything over 72° is “too hot” for me to walk in), so I was burned out before we even got halfway through the trail.  Our pace is very slow, of course, but I don’t think there was any way I could ever complete the 3-mile trail we were on before 1:00 pm. 

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Anyway, the drive in was interesting because there were a lot of Blue Oak trees along the road, and a small creek (Crevice Creek) along the driver’s side of the car which still had some water in it.  And there were some really beautiful outcroppings of boulders on both sides of the car. On one of the outcroppings a Turkey Vulture was sitting on the very top; and in one of the trees there was a flock of about 7 or 8 of the vultures. 

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura,on a rock outcropping

We had to cross a shallow section on Crevice Creek, and then continue on to the corral and cattle-chute area before parking and signing in at the check-in table.  Roxanne signed up is while I took advantage of the porta potty nearby.  Had to get rid of my breakfast coffee and orange juice. 

Around that same time, a yoga class was starting and all of the participants mounted one of the hills to do yoga to the sun.  What a neat idea!

Yoga class saluting the sun

We decided to take the shorter of the two trails that were open.  One was four miles long and the other was three.  We chose the shorter one in part because of its length, but mostly because it was supposed to go around the Blue Oak woodland there. None of those oaks had leaves on them yet, so no chances for shade (or to spot galls).  There were a few live oaks on the property, but they were few and far between.

We didn’t get very far before we were sidetracked by a tree covered in lichen and then found some rock outcroppings with even more lichen on them including some very impressive bright red-orange stuff and rock tripe. 

In some areas on the rocks the lichen were butted up against one another or overlapping… so many different kinds!  We also found some large pink quartz rocks on the ground, and the green lichen against the subtle pink of the quartz was so lovely…

Ear-leaf Lichen, Normandina pulchella, on pink quartz

There were also cattle all over everywhere.  We saw small herds of them dotting the landscape, including some moms with their calves.  And at one point we could hear what we thought was probably a bull bellowing loudly – and saw a small herd of cows and calves running away from the sound. Never saw the bull.  We did find a few old cattle bones, though; huge sun-bleached specimens broken into pieces.

In a different shaded area, we were greeted by the loud songs of Re-Winged Blackbirds and Western Meadowlarks, but again had trouble actually seeing the birds.  In that same area, we found Blessed Milk Thistle plants just starting to sprout out, along with some Stinging Nettle plants.  The nettles are interesting in that they have “trichomes” on the leaves and stems which can inject histamine and other chemicals into the skin causing a burning sensation. 

This is also a host plant for Red Admiral Butterflies, Vanessa atalanta.  The butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch, they fold the stinging leaves around them to ward off predators. This is a butterfly with two brood per year: March and October.  Female Red Admirals will only mate with male that hold territory and have strong flight patterns. 

Most of the trail was without cover and open to sun, and after a couple of hours, I just couldn’t go any farther, so we turned around and headed back to the coral.  Partway there, I needed to sit down somewhere.  There were no obliging rocks or tree stumps in that particular area, but luckily there was a porta-potty on the side of the trail, so I sat in there for a few minutes until I could go on.

A little further back down the trail, we sat on an obliging tree stump to take another look at the lichen there and to see if there was anything interesting on the underside of fallen branches.  On one of them we found some worms and a Harvestman.  It’s hard to narrow down the species on these guys because there are 6,650 known species worldwide. They look like spiders but they’re not. They’re ancient arachnids with fused body parts. They only have two eyes (spiders can have 6 to 8 eyes), they don’t have silk glands so they can’t spin webs, and they have no fangs (so no venom). To protect themselves, then, Harvestmen use camouflage and chemical defenses. 

The one we found was so well camouflaged, it was difficult to see him even in close-up photos. Based on the wicked-looking pedipalps on the Harvestman we found, I think it’s the species, Phalangium opilio.

Harvestman, Phalangium opilio. The inset shows the Harvestman’s shiny black eyes and gnarly-looking claw-like pedipalps.

When we got back to the coral, we walked slowly up to the car and found some Johnnytuck just starting to show up.  We couldn’t remember it’s other common name (Butter-and-Eggs) so we started making up names for it like Cheese-and-Crackers and Bananas-and-Cheese…and now Bananas-and-Cheese is stuck in my head. Every time I see this plant, now, that’s what I think of. Hah!

Johnnytuck, Butter and Eggs, “Bananas and Cheese”, Triphysaria eriantha

Species List:

  1. Blessed Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum
  2. Blue Oak, Quercus douglasii
  3. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  4. Canyon Live Oak, Quercus chrysolepis
  5. Cattle, mixed herd, Bos Taurus
  6. Cloudy Cobblestone Lichen, Acarospora obnubila [dull brown on rocks, lumpy]
  7. Common Gold Cobblestone Lichen, Pleopsidium flavum [bright yellow]
  8. Common Goldspeck Lichen, Candelariella vitellina [bright yellow with rimmed apothecia on rocks]
  9. Copper Patch Lichen, Sporastatia testuinea [light brown thallus rimmed in black on rock, black apothecia]
  10. Cowpie Lichen, Diploschistes muscorum [light gray on rocks, similar to Crater Lichen but more pruinose]
  11. Crater Lichen, Diploschistes scruposus [gray/dark grey on rocks with dark apothecia]
  12. Cumberland Rock-Shield Lichen, Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia
  13. Ear-leaf Lichen, Normandina pulchella [green leaf-like on rocks]
  14. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris
  15. Flame Firedot Lichen, Caloplaca ignea [orange on rock, elongated lobes and orange apothecia]
  16. Golden Shield Lichen, Xanthoria parietina
  17. Gray Ghost, Northern Harrier, Marsh Hawk, Circus hudsonius
  18. Green Shield Lichen, Flavoparmelia caperata
  19. Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta
  20. Harvestman, Phalangium opilio
  21. Hidden Goldspeck Lichen, Candelariella aurella [small, scattered, yellow, on rocks]
  22. Hoary Lichen, Hoary Rosette, Physcia aipolia
  23. Hooded Rosette Lichen, Physcia adscendens [hairs/eyelashes on the tips of the lobes]
  24. Ink Lichen, Placynthium nigrum [pitch black, fine grained]
  25. Interior Live Oak, Quercus wislizeni
  26. Johnnytuck, Butter and Eggs, “Bananas and Cheese”, Triphysaria eriantha
  27. Medusa Head Rye, Taeniatherum caput-medusae
  28. Oregon Sunburst Lichen, Xanthomendoza oregana [yellow/orange thallus bearing granular soredia on the tips and/or underside; looks like leaves with grainy edges]
  29. Powdered Ruffle Lichen, Parmotrema arnoldi [gray, has soredia or eyelashes/hairs on the thallus, on trees]
  30. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  31. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
  32. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  33. Rock Tripe, Emery Rock Tripe, Umbilicaria phaea
  34. Sagebrush Goldspeck Lichen, Candelariella rosulans [yellow, on rocks]
  35. Scattered Button Lichen, Buellia dispersa [gray/off white on rocks with black spots]
  36. Shrubby Sunburst Lichen Polycauliona candelaria
  37. Sidewalk Firedot Lichen, Xanthocarpia feracissima  [bright orange, on rocks]
  38. Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia
  39. Stinging Nettle, California Nettle, Urtica dioica gracilis
  40. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  41. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  42. White Rock Posey, Rhizoplaca marginalis [light grey on rocks, some ruffle, with dark gray apothecia]
  43. White Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus