Category Archives: Central Valley wildlife

Making a Splash!

Buzz! Fun cookies at the Splash LOL event.
BUZZ cookies made by volunteers at the Splash dinner. Taken with my iPhone.

What a treat! Last week I got to attend an event at Sacramento Splash, called Love of Learning, or LOL.  These LOL events are held for Splash’s donors and, boy, have they found the right means to connect!

Sacramento Splash helps children understand and value their natural world through science education and outdoor exploration. That means they take fourth graders on week-long adventures in the vernal pools behind the Splash building, at the former Mather AFB, to learn about the flowers and critters that live there.  For some of these children, this is their first experience of nature and of doing real science.

And the LOL events show that people who support Sacramento Splash also want to continue to learn as adults. About 50 people attended last week, to listen to Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus at UC Davis, talk about several kinds of native solitary bees that live in the uplands surrounding the vernal pools.

(A vernal pool is an ephemeral pool that, because of the underlying hardpan, does not drain, but only dries by evaporation. The pools support a complex of plants and animals found only in California. Readers of this blog will have seen my photos of some vernal pools near where I live.)

Vernal Pool in Spring
This photo was taken during the wet year of 2011. According to Prof. Thorp, different bees collect pollen from the two flowers in bloom in the photo.

Here are a few tidbits I learned:

  • The solitary bees live most of their lives underground, in chambers built by their mothers. As larva, they feed on pollen from specific vernal pool flowers, such as goldfields or meadowfoam.  They pupate into adults underground in the fall, then wait until spring to emerge as the flowers they depend on bloom.
  • When they emerge from underground, the adult females mate, dig new underground brood chambers, gather pollen to feed their young, and lay one egg in each chamber.
  • All bees and wasps are haplodiploid.  The females can determine the gender of their eggs by selecting whether to fertilize the egg or not.  Males are born from unfertilized eggs, and so contain only one set of chromosomes (the “haplo” part).  Females are born from fertilized eggs, and so have two sets of chromosomes (the “diploid” part).
  • The bees do not venture far from their local vernal pools, so the flowers are pollinated mostly from nearby flowers.  This means that efforts to mitigate the loss of vernal pools by “building” them in new locations is very unlikely to succeed, in part because the bees that pollinate the flowers will not travel far enough to find them.

I discovered Sacramento Splash two years ago when they had an art show as a fundraiser. I am thrilled to be part of a community of people who care about the natural world we depend upon, and who want to pass along that world, and the love of that world, to the next generation of humans.

I donate a portion of the sale price of all of my artwork to conservation and nature education organizations. I am proud to support Sacramento Splash.

How do you give back?

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Birds in Paintings, part 2

In a recent post, I posed the questions of why I don’t put birds into my paintings. Today, I answer that question.

I was a bird watcher long before I took up painting. I take my binoculars and camera with me when I paint outdoors, though birds can be a big distraction. So why not include them in the paintings?

In a word: verisimilitude. I’m not a wildlife painter. If I’m going to put birds into my landscape paintings, I want them to look like they belong there. I don’t mean the perspective of getting the foreshortening of the wings correct, though that’s important too. No, I mean getting the bird the right size in the scene. A friend suggested just putting in a dash for a flying bird. Well, ok, but I want the dash to be correct. Too big and the bird is too close. Too small and it’s just a dot. I want you, the viewer, to be able to tell turkey vulture from red-tailed hawk from great blue heron.

Here’s what I mean. These three birds are not the same:

Three raptors, a sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Three raptors. From top to bottom: turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk (more or less), golden eagle

Birds can tell a person a lot about the landscape, the ecosystem, the season. Birds move all the time. The presence if an osprey says something different about the territory than does the presence of a golden eagle. I want to be able to be accurate in my representations.

But all of that is just an excuse. So I guess my answer is: I’m workin’ in it.

Paintings from Colusa NWR

Now that they’re dry and photographed (and signed), here are the two paintings I did at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge two weeks ago. The first one, Snow on Snow Mountain, was done in late morning, with the sun over my left shoulder.

Stephanie Benedict, Snow on Snow Mountain
The marsh in the morning was clear and cold, with a north wind blowing. To the west, in the Coast Range, Snow Mountain had a fresh dusting of snow. Snow on Snow Mountain ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. 8″ x 6″ oil on board.

The second, Light on the Water, was done mid- to late-afternoon. The light that day just kept getting better and better—except that, as the sun moved west, it reflected more and more off the water. Eventually, I couldn’t look at the scene without getting blinded by the glare. Surely a small price to pay for getting to spend the afternoon listening to ross’ geese, greater white-fronted geese, several kinds of ducks.

Light on the Water, ©2013 Stephanie Benedict
The afternoon sun reflected gold on the marsh waters. Light on the Water, ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. OIl on board, 8″ x 6″.

I even got a new bird for my life list: white-faced ibis. How cool is that?

White-faced Ibis ©2013 Stephanie Benedict.
These guys are fairly common in the Central Valley in the winter–I’d just never seen one before.

Winter in the Sacramento Valley

Winter is a great time in California’s Sacramento Valley. Lots of birds, especially waterfowl, come to the Valley to over-winter. I always try to get out to some of the nature preserves this time of year to see who’s there. This week, I got to go with a group of plein air painters to a tour put on by the California Department of Fish and Game to look for tundra swans. This is apparently the southernmost part of their range. We drove north of Marysville near some flooded rice fields* and got our cameras out. A couple of our group actually either sketched or painted, but most of us took photos. I find that birding and painting don’t really mix all that well. If I’m trying to watch birds, I want to be mobile and unencumbered with painting gear. And if I’m painting or drawing, birds are mostly a distraction, however fun, and that light just keeps on changing. At least, that’s my excuse.

But I got some good photos, and some great inspiration. AND I got some ideas of where to go back in the future.

Swans in the sky by Stephanie Benedict
The skies over the rural Sacramento Valley are filled with waterfowl each winter. Though they’re hard to see in this image, the white birds are tundra swans and the dark specks upper right are greater white-fronted geese.
Snow Geese and Swans by Stephanie Benedict
This flooded rice field was filled with birds. Here you can see tundra swans, snow geese, greater white-fronted geese, northern pintail, and a shoveler or two. The softness in this photo is operator error.
Tundra Swans and  Sutter Buttes ©2012 Stephanie Benedict
A closer view of tundra swans taking wing. Those are the Sutter Buttes in the background, and, in the distance, you can see snow on the Coast Range about 75 miles away.

What outdoor excursions do you take in winter?

*Our tour guide, Bruce, told us that, since the burning of rice stubble was stopped a decade or so ago, more farmers are now flooding their fields in winter. It helps the stubble to break down, I guess. If the water is deep enough (about six inches), dabbling birds will hang out. Some farmers host gun clubs—we heard plenty of rifle fire while we were out. Weird to think it’s OK to hear gunfire nowadays. I don’t actually know what the farmers think of birders—or painters!