Category Archives: Art and Nature

All Around Yolo County, 05-28-21

I got up at 5:30 this morning and met up with my friend/fellow naturalist Roxanne to go see what was out and about in Yolo County. We had planned to go to the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve somewhere along the line, but we got waylaid by other sights and destinations, and then it got too warm for us to be walking around outdoors.

We went along Roads 105 and 30 to look for the hawks and other birds that had been reported in the fields there, then we went to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, then we headed over toward the Putah Creek access, but ended up in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven instead. At every place stopped, we saw something interesting and unexpected, and that’s always fun.

Roads 105 and 30 in Yolo County

On our way to Road 105, we saw a large, flat-faced, light-colored bird fly across the highway in front of us. We assumed by its GISS [general impression, shape and size] that it was an owl, possibly a barn owl, but we didn’t know for sure.

Rox had been in the area the day before, so knew where to look for the birds in the fields along Road 105. We pulled up onto Road 30 (where the traffic was practically nil), and got out of the car to take some photos and video.

We found a sizable collection of birds in one field, and although they were all pretty far away from us (and we didn’t want to trespass into the field itself) we were able to identify the species of the birds. 

Along with lots and lots of Swainson’s Hawks (all of them sitting down, partially hidden by the grass), we could see Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Black-Crowned Night Herons, Cattle Egrets, Great Blue Herons, crows and ravens, Red-Winged Blackbirds and Brewer’s Blackbirds all standing or flying in close proximity to one another.

There had been lots of reports of large gatherings of birds in the ag fields lately because some of the fields were being flooded, and that caused all the ground-dwelling mice, voles, and insects to come up in order to flee the water…then had to run the gauntlet of hungry birds. Swainson’s Hawks take both small rodents and insects, so their sitting on the ground was not uncommon for them. They’ll actually run on the ground after prey if they have to. 

And it was just Swainson’s Hawks out there, no other species. I think that’s because the Swainson’s often gather in large flocks which may be intimidating to other hawks. In one spot alone, I counted 18 Swainy’s.

According to Cornell: “…These elegant gray, white, and brown hawks hunt rodents in flight, wings held in a shallow V, or even run after insects on the ground. In fall, they take off for Argentine wintering grounds—one of the longest migrations of any American raptor—forming flocks of hundreds or thousands as they travel…”

In the field, the various birds on the ground seemed to be fine with their nearby neighbors.  The hawks didn’t bother the herons or egrets and vice versa. There was one young Swainson’s Hawk, however, who had somehow aggravated a group of blackbirds and a tenacious Kestrel, and was being chased back and forth and around the field. The hawk was crying all the while it flew, as though begging for help, but none of the adult hawks came to its rescue. It eventually landed in a tree on the edge of the field and hid itself among the leaves.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

As we were walking along the edges of the field, I found an owl pellet… and also saw one of the female Brewer’s Blackbirds take some grass to her nest in the top of a tree.

To try to see more of the birds in the field from a different angle, Rox drove further down Road 30.There we saw a solitary female Wild Turkey, and some young crows going through/coming out of a major molt.  “…When crows molt, the old feathers can appear brownish or scaly compared to the glossy new feathers…” And some of these looked very brown.

We then turned the car around and drove down the other end of Road 30, almost to where the paved road gave way to dirt and gravel. We were surprised to find that some of the folks who lived nearby did some “native plant planting” along the edges of the ag fields.  There were a couple of very nice stands of Showy and Narrow-Leaf Milkweed plants, most of them just starting to bloom. Along with the honeybees, we saw a Green Lacewing, and lots of Blue Milkweed Beetles.

The beetles are a dark metallic cobalt blue with black legs and antennae. They live on or around milkweed throughout their lifecycle, eating the leaves (and sometimes the roots of the plant), having sex, and laying eggs. The larvae can “skeletonize” the leaves of the plant, but that action doesn’t kill it. It simply goes dormant until the next season. Although these beetles have the ability to launch themselves (like click-beetles), none of that did that while we were looking at them… not even when we brought them close to the eyes of our cellphone cameras.

We found a couple of the honeybees that had been trapped by the milkweed and died. Milkweed plants are interesting in that they have a variety of unusual boobytraps built into them that other plants do not. Besides their sticky latex (the white sap that drips from the plant when it is damaged) which can trap a variety of insects, the milkweed flowers themselves can also be dangerous for pollinators.  

Rather than offering up its pollen on upright visible structures called “stigmas”, the milkweed flower has its pollen hidden inside special little crevices called “stigmatic slits”.  When a pollinator, like a honeybee, lands on the flower and walks over its surface to drink the flower’s nectar, the bee’s feet slip inside theses stigmatic slits.  Pollen inside the slit affixes itself to the bee’s feet, and when the bee moves to another flower, it carries that pollen with it. Transferring the pollen and putting its feet into the stigmatic slits of different milkweed flowers completes the process of pollination.

Occasionally, however, the bee’s foot may get caked in so much pollen that it simply cannot get its foot out of the slit. (Think of putting your hand into a jar with a narrow neck so you can grab a handful of candy at the bottom of the jar. Your candy-filled hand may then be so full and wide, it cannot get through the jar’s neck, and your hand gets stuck inside the jar.)  

A dead honey bee caught in the slits of a milkweed flower. Note the pollen sac attached to the foot it managed to get out.

Some bees actually amputate the trapped foot in order to escape. But if the bee is unable to do that and cannot manage to get its foot out of the stigmatic slit, it will eventually succumb to starvation and dehydration and die.

When we turned the car around again to head back to Road 105 (and onward toward the wildlife area), we found that the hawks had taken to the air in a swirling, dense kettle of over 50 birds. I’d never seen anything like that. It was amazing to witness. Flying in huge kettles is not uncommon for the Swainson’s Hawks.

According to Cornell: “…When it comes to forming kettles, Swainson’s Hawks are overachievers: they form flocks numbering in the tens of thousands, often mixing with Turkey Vultures…[other hawks and kites)…”  These giant kettles, of course, are during their migration to Argentina, but still… Wow!

We then went to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. There is virtually no water on the ground right now, so there was “nothing” to see. There were doves in several locations, but they were really the only birds, besides finches that we saw out there. It would have been a totally boring and disappointing stop had it not been for the dodder. We had never seen dodder in bloom before, so when we realized the stuff at the bypass was dense with flowers, we were super-excited.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Roxanne did a write-upon the stuff for Facebook which was excellent, so I’m quoting her here: “…Ah, Dodder. It’s the golden, orangey or reddish silly string of the plant world. That’s right: a plant. Dodders have roots (temporary), leaves (often reduced to scales), flowers and seeds. Dodder is parasitic. Although it sprouts from seed, it mostly or completely lacks chlorophyll. Consequently, the new sprout must find a host between 5 and 10 days from sprouting or it dies. The sprout swirls around as it grows and once it touches a host plant it buries haustoria (knoblike organs along the shoot) into the host stem, drawing water, carbohydrates and minerals at the expense of the host plant. As well as “starving” the host plant, dodder is also implicated in the transmission of certain bacterial and virus diseases. Thus nourished, the dodder’s roots die and the dodder spreads out in a mat moving from plant to plant, branching as it goes. Broken bits can continue to thrive if haustoria are attached to the host plant. Animals, humans, or equipment moving across a dodder mat can thereby spread dodder to new areas.

            “Flowering dodder can produce thousands of seeds that can live in soil for up to 10 years. In many native habitats dodder is not considered particularly harmful. But in an ag context dodder can cause significant economic harm, especially to alfalfa, asparagus, citrus, clover, beans, melons, peppers, potato, tomato, safflower, sugarbeet, field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), and pigweed (Amaranthus species). It is easy to see why Dodder has enjoyed a variety of common names including love vine, goldthread, devil’s-guts, devil’s-ringlet, devil’s-hair, hellbine, hairweed, beggarweed, scaldweed, strangle tare, strangleweed, and witch’s hair.

            “CalFlora lists 31 species of dodder in CA, and only 5 are non-native (often arriving here in contaminated seed or in horticultural soils). Dodders can be found in California ag fields, forests, canyons, salt marshes, deserts, beaches and mountains up to 8200’. CalFlora lists two species here in the valley, Cuscuta campestris (Field dodder) and Cuscuta pentagona (Western field dodder) but several more species can be found in the Bay Area and into the foothills north and east of Sacramento. My frequent naturalist partner, Mary Hanson, and I first spotted a hillside of dodder two years ago in the lupin and poppy along Wilbur Springs Road about half way between the bridge and the gate to Wilbur Hot Springs. The next year we found less there but a whole hillside along Bear Valley Road not far from the bridge intersection. We ID’d this as Cuscuta californica (California Dodder) but now I’m not so sure. More study for distinguishing species is needed.

            “…Not far along the auto tour near the marsh viewing stand is a largish patch of golden yellow-orange dodder on the right side of the road in the Small Melilot (Melilotus indicus), Prostrate Knotweed (Polygonum aviculare), Bisnaga (Visnaga daucoides), and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). This is the first time we’ve seen the dodder in the bypass and the first time flowering. The shape of the tiny pale flowers grow in clusters and their shape and growth pattern help distinguish species.

            “Look for dodder when you are out and about and see if you can also spot the hautoria and tiny flowers. I’d be interested in hearing where else naturalists are finding it. FYI, dodder seeds are considered an herbal remedy, especially in Chinese and Korean herbal medicine. A quick Google search revealed lots of sources for seeds, extract powders, and tinctures…” Sooooo informative.

Charlie Russell, one of my former Certified California Naturalist program graduates and plant guru noted: “Dodder spreads vegetatively, so when they grade the ponds in the Yolo Bypass it spreads quite readily. Some years there can be multiple acres of solid dodder out there…”   Whoa!

There were Cabbage White butterflies all over the place. They’re “nervous fliers”, which means trying to get a still shot of one of them is tricky. The species was “accidentally introduced” in the late 1800’s. I got several photos of one foraging on mustard (Brassica rapa).

Studies seem to indicate “…some flowers, like Brassica rapa, have a UV guide for aiding nectar search for the butterfly where the petals reflect near UV light, whereas the center of the flower absorbs UV light, creating a visible dark center in the flower when seen in UV condition. This UV guide plays a significant role in foraging…” Cool, huh?

After the bypass drive, we went on to the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, which was right in route to the Putah Creek access area. Because the pollinator garden is only an acre and the paths are well drawn, it’s easy to walk around it. The street on which the garden is situated has a lot of tall olive trees along it, so there are a lot of shady places to park.  The garden is open from dawn to dusk year-round and admission is free. Rox had never been there before, and there were picnic tables in the shade of one of the old olive trees there, so we stopped for lunch and walked the grounds for a bit.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

All through the garden are paintings, sculptures and mosaics (most of them by local artist Donna Billick) that have been donated to the garden from local artists and from the art department at UC Davis.  For art students who need science class credit to graduate, they can take an art-and-science fusion class that lets them do something creative for the garden while they learn about the bees.  So there’s something new in the garden every year. The standout sculpture is of the giant “Miss Bee Haven” bee.

According to author Kathy Keatley Garvey: “…Miss Bee Haven [was built] using rebar, chicken wire, sand, cement, tile, bronze, steel, grout, fiberglass and handmade ceramic pieces. The project took [Billick] four months to complete… Anchored with 200 pounds of cement and with six bronze legs drilled into the pedestal, this worker bee is destined to stay put… Billick used lost wax bronze casting to craft the six legs, which extend from the thorax to rest on a ceramic purple dome aster, fabricated by Davis artist Sarah Rizzo.  The purple dome aster is among the flowers in the garden…”

The garden offers suggestions of what to plant in your own yard, how much water each species of plant needs, when they grow, etc. I was most impressed this time around by the lavish kiwi vines covered in their large leaves. Something of a surprise was seeing a Turkey Tangle Fogfruit plant covering an entire planter and flowing down onto the ground. I’d never seen one that was so prolific. Usually, when we come across the plants, they’re relatively small, maybe less than a hand’s breadth. So, to see one this big was kind of shocking.

Turkey Tangle Fogfruit, Phyla nodiflora

Among the flowering plants, we found several species of bees there including carpenter bees, honey bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees and sweat bees. We also saw a few Flame Skimmer Dragonflies. 

By the time we’d finished walking the acre, we were tired… and it was getting too hot for us to walk anymore, so we headed home. We were out for about 5 hours, and I counted today’s trek as hike #48 in my #52HikeChallenge.

Species List:

  1. Alfalfa Leafcutter Bee, Megachile rotundata
  2. Alfalfa, Medicago sativa
  3. Alkali Mallow, Malvella leprosa
  4. American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
  5. Apple, Malus pumila
  6. Baby Sage, Salvia microphylla [red, or red/white]
  7. Black Mustard, Common Wild Mustard, Brassica nigra
  8. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  9. Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax
  10. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus
  11. Bladderpod, Peritoma arborea [kind of looks like Jerusalem sage but gets bladder-like seed pods]
  12. Blessed Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum
  13. Blue Milkweed Beetle, Cobalt Milkweed Beetle, Chrysochus cobaltinus
  14. Bluebeard, Caryopteris x clandonensis
  15. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  16. Bristly Oxtongue, Helminthotheca echioides
  17. Broadleaved Pepperweed, Lepidium latifolium
  18. Brown-Headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater
  19. Cabbage White butterfly, Pieris rapae
  20. California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum
  21. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
  22. Cat, Felis catus
  23. Catmint, Nepeta x faassenii var. “Walker’s Low”
  24. Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis
  25. Cheeseweed Mallow, Malva parviflora
  26. Chicory, Cichorium intybus
  27. Chinese Wisteria, Wisteria sinensis
  28. Climbing Prairie Rose, Rosa setigera
  29. Common Checkered Skipper, Burnsius communis
  30. Common Spikeweed, Centromadia pungens
  31. Crambid Snout Moth, Family: Crambidae
  32. Crow, American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos
  33. Curly Dock, Rumex crispus
  34. Desert Cottontail Rabbit, Sylvilagus audubonii
  35. Dodder, California Dodder, Cuscuta californica
  36. Eastern Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger
  37. Eucalyptus Trees, Eucalyptus sp.
  38. European Honeybee, Western Honeybee, Apis mellifera
  39. Fennel, Sweet Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare
  40. Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis
  41. Flame Skimmer Dragonfly, Libellula saturata
  42. Foothill Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis orpifex [light eyes]
  43. Goldenrod Crab Spider, Misumena vatia
  44. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
  45. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  46. Green Lacewing, Chrysoperla rufilabris
  47. Gumweed, Grindelia integrifolia
  48. Harding Grass, Phalaris aquatica [a type of canary grass]
  49. Hollyhock, Alcea rosea
  50. House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus
  51. House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
  52. Interior Sandbar Willow, Salix interior
  53. Italian Thistle, Carduus pycnocephalus
  54. Japanese Wisteria, Wisteria floribunda
  55. Khella, Bisnaga Weed, Toothpick Plant, Bishop’s Weed, Ammi visnaga [ a kind of carrot, invasive, “Bazinga”]
  56. Kiwi, Actinidia deliciosa
  57. Lollipop Verbena, Verbena bonariensis var. “Lollipop”
  58. Lupine, Golden Lupine, Lupinus densiflorus
  59. Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris
  60. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  61. Mum, Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum sp.
  62. Narrowleaf Cattail, Typha angustifolia
  63. Narrowleaf Milkweed, Mexican Whorled Milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis
  64. Olive Tree, Olea europaea
  65. Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium
  66. Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum
  67. Prostrate Knotweed, Polygonum aviculare
  68. Raven, Common Raven, Corvus corax
  69. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  70. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  71. Ring-Necked Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus
  72. Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo intermedia
  73. Shasta Daisy, Leucanthemum maximum
  74. Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa
  75. Slender Vervain, Verbena rigida
  76. Sneezeweed, Rosilla, Helenium puberulum
  77. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
  78. Stinking Chamomile, Anthemis cotula
  79. Sunflower, Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus
  80. Swainson’s Hawk, Buteo swainsoni
  81. Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor
  82. Tripartite Sweat Bee, Halictus tripartitus
  83. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus
  84. Turkey Tangle Fogfruit, Phyla nodiflora
  85. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  86. Western Fence Lizard, Blue Belly, Sceloporus occidentalis
  87. Western Kingbird, Tyrant Flycatcher, Tyrannus verticalis
  88. White Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus
  89. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
  90. Yarrow, Golden Yarrow, Eriophyllum confertiflorum
  91. Yellow Starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis
  92. ?? little red-eyed fly

Online Nature Journal Class,Session #3

As I’ve mentioned before, 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.]

Here are my notes from today’s class.

Science is a process of making observations while seeking to understand and attempting to explain what you observe. Just as in science, making observations is at the very core of nature journaling. An observation is any information you gather using your senses. Have fun and get creative exploring all the different types of observations you can make… You can challenge yourself to think like a scientist and explore scientific themes that can help you focus your observations and explanations. These themes include observing scale and quantity, looking for patterns, thinking about how form relates to function, exploring natural systems, and noticing change.

Nature journaling is your own creative form of data gathering. Through focused observation, you open up new ways of learning from your outdoor experiences.

In this lesson you’ll be…

  • Expanding your powers of observation.
  • Discovering the benefits of practicing the sit spot technique.
  • Experimenting with a variety of ingredients for making your journal pages come alive.
  • Designing a comparison study to identify and record patterns, connections, and relationships in the natural world.

Opening Your Senses

Slowing down, sitting quietly and observing nature with all your senses can be an awe-inspiring experience. Find a spot where you can sit comfortably for at least 15 to 20 minutes. Settle in and try not to make a sound. Open your senses and start to take in the world around you.

First, close your eyes and just listen.  Then open your eyes and look around you.  After several minutes you’ll notice that the creatures in the area grow more accustomed to your still presence and will resume their natural everyday habits.  Record what you observe in your journal.

A Sense of Awe

Making observations is at the core of nature journaling. Taking time to carefully observe allows you to notice and appreciate so much more. It’s also a practice that can help you experience a sense of awe more regularly.  Recent research says experiencing awe is good for you—and so much of nature is awesome. Among other benefits, you might feel happier and more connected to others. It can even sharpen your brain and help you think more clearly.

  1. Find a location to try a sit spot. You don’t have to go far. It could be in your yard. Sit quietly for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Do you notice birds or other animals returning after a period of time? Do they return at different intervals? Which comes back first?
  3. Open your journal and set up your page with your name, date, time, place, and weather notations.
  4. Start recording your observations, use as many of your senses as possible and play with including some measurements.

My first focused observation:

I was more focused on observing and taking notes than drawing, so my drawing for today isn’t very detailed.

I had just filled the birdfeeder outside my bedroom window, and watched the birds and squirrels that came to it.  I drew the Chinese Privet tree and the feeder, but also used my cellphone camera to get some images.

I saw White-Crowned Sparrows, Mourning Doves, a California Scrub Jay, House Finches, House Sparrows and an Oak Titmouse. 

I could hear the squirrels running across the roof, to and from the feeders. When the squirrels were around, the birds stayed back from the feeders but didn’t fly away.

I could hear the sparrows “chirp” at each other, and heard the male Mourning Dove cooing to the female as he followed closely after her along the ground. She didn’t seem interested in him and kept avoiding his attentions by scurrying away. I could hear the wind whistling through the doves’ tail feathers when they flew in and flew out.

The White-Crowned Sparrows were more interested in the suet blocks than the seeds in the feeder, and the doves ate the seeds that fell onto the ground. Some of the White-Crowns ate seeds off the ground, too; they kept looking up and around them every few seconds as they fed. Keeping an eye out for other birds and predators?  Some of the White-Crowns also flit up onto the window sill to peck up the seeds there.  They’d look up into the window as they fed.

Didn’t observe long enough to see “intervals” of movement; but I’m looking forward to doing more observations outside at more remote locations.

There was also a young Eastern Fox Squirrel who couldn’t quite figure out how to get the seeds in the feeder, and an adult Western Gray Squirrel who was adept at stealing the seeds.  That squirrel also went over to the hummingbird feeder and tipped it just enough to get the nectar inside to dribble out, and he drank from the feeder!  Ingenious.  [[A “sense of awe” moment, for sure.]]

Western Gray Squirrel drinking from hummingbird feeder

Noticing Themes in Nature

Nature journaling is a thought process—one that builds on itself to generate a deeper understanding of what you’re observing. When you use your observations as a springboard to develop possible explanations, it will inspire more curiosity and more appreciation. As a way to help fuel your own curiosity cycle, start noticing scientific themes and incorporating them in your journal.

  • Scale and Quantity: How big or small? How many are there? What is most common or rare? Noticing the scale or quantity of something can lead to further investigations.
  • Patterns: Patterns are the regular and repeated ways in which something occurs. They may involve appearance, sound, structure, or even behavior. [pattern of a fawn’s spots]
  • Form and Function: This is a “big idea” in biology. Basically, it is that the shape of something is closely related to, and therefore a clue to, its function.
  • Systems and Energy Flow: Systems involve parts working together, and fail when critical components are missing. For example, ecosystems have many different members playing different roles: producers, consumers, and decomposers. Materials and energy flow through this system. Think about where your subject fits into its system.
  • Noticing Change: Living things and ecosystems change constantly. Explore the scope, timespan, and causes of the changes you observe.

My friend Roxanne and I are always trying to learn from what we see and ask ourselves questions about forms and functions.  I’ve been focusing a lot on lichen lately, and have begun to observe the different ways the lichen reproduce.  Some use apothecia through which they produce and release spores, some use soredia (crumbly-looking bundles of algae and fungus cells that they shed – which then go on to form another lichen), some use isidia (structures that look like eyelashes on the edges of the lichen)… and some use a combination of those structures. I used to think of lichen as fairly “commonplace” somewhat “simple” structures, but observation has shown me how complex and varied they are.  I’ve been using a macro attachment for my cellphone to observe some of the deeper details and structures of lichen.  Here’s an example of what Bark Rim Lichen, Lecanora chlarotera looks like to the naked eye and to the macro attachment:

Without close observation, you miss all the details.

The Power of Comparison

Drawing and recording observations about two similar subjects side-by-side on a page provides a simple way to focus your observations and get more from a journaling session. Through focused comparison it’s often easier to discover new patterns, connections, and relationships.

  1. Head outside with your journal and choose two similar subjects—perhaps flowers, tree branches, or rocks—and complete a comparison study.
  2. Try different ways of recording your observations by exploring drawings, words, numbers, and/or diagrams.
  3. Through your study did you notice anything of interest involving patterns, form following function, change, scale or quantity, or systems?
  4. What questions come to mind about your subjects from this study?

I did my comparison study on the feet of American Coots and Mallard ducks.  Coots have lobed toes and very sharp toenails; Mallards have webbed feet and somewhat flat toenails.  Coots legs and feet are a mix of blue gray, green, and yellow; Mallard feet and legs are various shades of orange and umber.  The toe formation, webbing variance and different colors made me wonder why the birds were put together like that.

The Coots are more or less confined to marsh lands.  Their lobed toes give them traction in the water when they’re swimming, but the separation between the toes also allows for more flexibility on land and walking through and over matts of marsh plants.  The Coots also use their feet in dominance battles. I would assume that the light color of their legs and feet make it less likely that predators under the water could see them, and might mistake them for wafting plant fronts.  On land, they WALK rather than WADDLE.

I know that Mallards are the ancestors of all of the domestic duck (except the Muscovy) and they can thrive in a variety of habitats.  Although they nest on ground, they spend a lot of time in the water feeding and displaying to one another. On land, the ducks WADDLE rather than WALK. Obviously, their webbed feet make it easier to maneuver in the water while still allowing them to travel on land.  The orange color, though, is suddenly interesting to me.  Why such a bright and obvious color on their feet? 

I did a little more research on them and discovered that the color of their feet can vary depending on their age and hormone levels. The feet turn bright orange in the breeding season, signaling to others that they’re old enough and healthy enough to breed.

CLICK HERE for the PDF of my notes from today’s session.

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.

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

I Have Started an Eventbrite Account, 12-30-19

I have set up an account with Eventbrite through which I’ll post the upcoming events I’m going to and/or will be hosting. The majority of the events will be for adults only, focused on seniors, and free of charge.

Go to : to start with, and then click the FOLLOW button and sign up to get updates as new outings are planned.

Working on Piñatas: The “Any Bird”

In the summer of 2018 I’ll be teaching several adults-only workshops on making and decorating tabletop piñatas.  The first four classes are called “Monumental Piñatas” events (because they’re based on creatures and plants found in the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument), and the last two classes art called “Art/Nature Fusion” events. All of the classes are two-day workshops (on two consecutive Saturdays) during which I teach participants how to build their own piñatas “from the balloons up”, and then teach them how to decorate them.

I’m volunteering my time for these workshops, and all of the proceeds from the ticket sales will go to support Tuleyome’s Certified California Naturalist program.

Before the classes start, however, I needed to create the sample piñatas to use for advertising purposes. What you see here is the “Any Bird” sample piece.  The “Any Bird” piñata form is a very generic one, and it allows participants in the workshop to decorate it to make it look like any kind of native, nonnative, or imaginary bird they want. I based this sample on the male Western Bluebird.

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Just about everything about the piñata is made of recyclable, biodegradable materials. The form is made of recycled newsprint paper, flour, salt and water and is built up around balloons (which are popped and properly disposed of once the form dries).  The exterior is decorated with tissue paper, light poster board, art paper, construction paper, and water-soluble glue.

The bluebird’s feathers are made of tissue paper and created using two different techniques: flat scale feathers and “fringe edge” feathers. The eyes are surrounded by an eyelid made by twisting two different colors of tissue paper together.  The wings and tail are made of poster board and covered with varying layers of tissue.  Te bird’s bowtie is made of construction paper and turquoise glitter.

Like all of the piñatas I create, the Any Bird doesn’t need to be smashed to get to the goodies inside of it.  Instead, the head of the bird  can be removed in order to fill its body up and empty it out again.

If you would like me to do a workshop for your nonprofit, business or group, please contact me at