Category Archives: Conservation

The Killdeer and the Painters

The killdeer pair figured they’d found the perfect nesting site. It was in the middle of a wide open gravel patch at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, with lots of gray and white rocks to hide their speckled eggs in. They could see for some distance in every direction, so they could spot any raccoons or snakes coming, and could trick the predators away from the nest. They laid four eggs, and were carefully tending them to keep them warm at night and not too hot during the day.

What they hadn’t counted on was a bunch of humans and their vehicles taking over their nest area.

That Gravel Patch is a Parking Lot

The humans were a group of about a half dozen painters, myself included, who had come to paint spring wildflowers. This was the second of two paint-outs the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service had hosted at their refuges in the Sacramento valley.

Painters at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, April 2013. Painters scout out paintings.

Amy, a volunteer for the refuge, escorted us to go to one of the areas normally closed to the public. The refuge staff had generously set up awnings for shade, for the area was wide open. Behind us was a ditch and some willows, but the wildflowers were in a huge open area to our west. We parked in a gravel lot normally used by hunters in the fall—otherwise, few people ever came out here.

Most of us just parked our cars and started scouting around for something to paint. One woman moved her SUV to a better location. Later, someone from the refuge came in a pickup, parked where the SUV had originally stopped, then backed out and drove off. What we didn’t know was that both of those vehicles literally drove right over an active killdeer nest.

Luckily, neither of the trucks hit the eggs.

Why Is She Acting So Strangely?

We humans didn’t even cotton on to the fact there was a nest there until later, when Amy realized that this killdeer would start acting upset and go into her broken wing routine every time we walked near our vehicles.

Killdeer feigning injury.
Killdeer distract predators from their nests by pretending to be injured, like this one is doing.

So I watched her for a few minutes, when she circled back to a spot behind where those two trucks had briefly parked. There, she halted, and sat down. That must be her nest.

When she ran off again, we inched closer to find the eggs. I eventually spotted them, four specked round “rocks” among the rest of the gravel. We then marked the spot with a flag and some sticks, to prevent any other vehicles from threatening the nest. (I later found two more killdeer nests in other parts of the refuge.)

Four killdeer eggs in gravel
Four killdeer eggs are in the lower left of the photo.

And my painting? Well, it’s a good start. There’s information there I can use to make another one, with a different composition. Mostly, I’m very glad that our visit didn’t end in tragedy for that killdeer pair. It’s bad enough when insects get into the paint. Have you seen a killdeer nest?

Killdeer on her nest
Mama killdeer safely back on her nest. The flags and sticks are there to warn other humans away.

Painting the Mission

A couple of weekends ago I got to be a 4th grader again. It was wonderful.

Fourth graders in California are required to learn about California history. And while what I learned was decidedly a history of Europeans in California, it is true that you cannot separate the state’s history from the 21 missions built by the Spanish in the 18th Century.

Mission San Antonio de Padua
Mission San Antonio de Padua sits in the Valley of the Oaks in southern Monterey County.

The California Art Club is painting the missions this year, the 300th anniversary of the birth of mission founder Father Junipero Serra. So I made the five-hour drive to Mission San Antonio de Padua, in southern Monterey County, for a weekend of painting with the Club. And I got to learn once again about the missions and California history. (Again from a more-or-less European perspective.)

California Art Club painters at Mission San Antonio
Rosario the Cat sits in the shade of a 180 year old olive tree and watches painters from the California Art Club.

Mission San Antonio is the third mission to be established, originally in 1771 and moved to its present location in 1773. At its peak, the mission housed about 1,300 Salinan Indians. They grew grapes and made wine for church ceremonies, grew olives and made olive oil, had a tannery to tan hides for export back to the East Coast (readers of Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, will recognize that part). The mission was abandoned late in the 19th Century, until the Franciscans returned in the 20th.

Today’s structures are only partly original. The church’s roof collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, and other earthquakes and termites took their toll—so, while some original structures remain (such as the walls of the church), much has been rebuilt and fitted with things like electricity and indoor plumbing.

What’s most amazing is that the land around Mission San Antonio has never been developed. Archaeologists have been working since the 1970s to locate and catalog the artifacts, so visitors today (many of them 4th graders) can see the foundations of the Salinan housing, the original wheat threshing floor, the grist mill and wine press (at least partially rebuilt) and tannery foundations. The remains of a millrace, built from Roman instructions in Latin, are still there.

This preservation happened because the mission now sits in the middle of an active Army base, Fort Hunter-Liggett. The weekend we were there, some 4,000 soldiers were on base for training. The irony is that, when the mission was founded, the friars did not want a military presence there.

And the painting? Well, it was definitely challenging. Many artists found painting the building’s archways in perspective during the short window of time one can work on a plein-air painting to be hard. And the adobe changed color every time I looked at it, from yellowish to orange-y to pink-y to dull reddish. (Not to say that all of these things can’t be fixed back in the studio!) So I can’t say I got any finished paintings—but I did learn a lot.

Mission San Antonio de Padua painting in progress, by Stephanie Benedict
A work in progress. This image shows how deceptive photos can be. I have another one that shows that wall in shadow much closer to the reddish color on the canvas.

One final note. Mission San Antonio is in need of a seismic retrofit, which entails drilling through the adobe and installing steel supports. The cost will be about $12 million to $15 million. This tiny, but still active, parish has to raise the money itself. Here’s a link where you can donate money to preserve this important piece of California history. I hope you will consider donating to preserve this piece of California’s heritage.

And if you ever visit Mission San Antonio—watch out for the rattlesnakes.

Painting at Colusa NWR

I recently had the chance to paint with friends at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, thanks to a Plein Air Painting day sponsored by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Linda Merchant en plein air at Colusa NWR
Wildlife artist Linda Merchant painting at Colusa NWR.
Stephanie Benedict painting at Colusa NWR
Here’s me painting at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge. I’d left my hat in the car–silly me. Photo by Linda Merchant.

The refuge, located about an hour north of Sacramento, is one of a complex of refuges in the north valley that are the winter home of thousands of migrating waterfowl. In my humble opinion, these refuges are the jewels of the Valley—and, therefore, one of the best places to spend a sunny February Saturday.

The group was limited to about 12 painters, most of who stayed close to the parking lot and the viewing platform. My friends Linda Merchant, Rhonda Egan, and I ventured a bit farther afield: perhaps a quarter-mile down a hiking path near a second viewing platform, where we could stand out of the wind and see the marshes and the Coast Range to the west.

Here’s the deal with plein air painting that many non-painters don’t realize: just like photographers, painters like early morning and late afternoon light. Mid-day light, with the sun high overhead, is the harshest and, for painters, the flattest, because the shadows offer their least contrast at that time. It’s not impossible to paint mid-day: it’s just better earlier or later.

So the three of us painted both morning and afternoon pieces: the first, done late morning; and a second later in the afternoon, after the official ending time of the event—but with light that just got better and better. The two photos above show two paintings done from almost the exact same spot, looking in different directions, at different times of day. The first shows the snow on Snow Mountain, almost directly west, in late morning. The second is late-ish afternoon, looking southwest. This one is a kind of contra jour (“against the day”) because I was looking almost directly into the sun.

Thank you to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for having this plein air painting event!

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!

 

 

Turning Green Again

Here in the Central Valley of California, we kind of have two seasons, rather than four. Wet and dry, summer and winter. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but our autumn only lasts about a month (if we’re lucky), and spring lasts about two weeks. In between are a short, mild winter, in good years full of gentle rain and fog; and the long, hot (but dry) summer. Where I live, outside of Sacramento, the nights are cool, and that’s what makes our summers tolerable.

First Green of Fall ©2012 Stephanie Benedict.
The grasses beneath the oak trees are greening up after recent rains. In the distance: the fiery red of the alders across the street. The native oaks are less showy.

In summer, all the plants dry out and hunker down. That’s because we only get about 18 inches of rain each year here in the Valley, most of it between November and March. “California’s Gold,” the color of the dried grasses in non-irrigated areas, is the result of annual grasses brought by European settles in the 1700s and 1800s, which out-competed the native perennials that stayed greener longer.

But then each fall*, we get this phenomenon of the hillsides and dales—all the non-irrigated areas—turning green again with the first rains. Acid green, brilliant green, green that hurts your eyes. Green you want to soak up and keep all year.

I went walking to my favorite local park/nature preserve the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and found the grasses are coming up green again. We’ve had two to three inches of rain so far this season, and all those annual grasses are coming to life again. They start under the oak trees and in the swales, then spread across the fields. The photo above shows what it looked like. In the middle of the picture, you can see in the background the brilliant red of alder trees in the landscaped development across the street.

I did a little painting of the same effect last year, called “Fall’s First Green.” Sometimes I feel like a documentary painter! But this is why I paint: to reveal the land around us, specific times and places, to help us remember there’s more to life than the latest tablet computer or Black Friday sale. Today’s walk made me want to do another one. But I’d better hurry: the effect won’t last.

Fall's First Green, by Stephanie Benedict
Fall’s First Green ©2011 Stephanie Benedict. Oil on panel. 4 inches by 6 inches

Is it fall where you are—or is it spring? What’s your favorite season?

*Assuming it rains. Last year we got very little rain or snow in the mountains. Keep your fingers crossed.