Last October, I traveled to a different world. I went whale watching in Monterey Bay with John Muir Laws and the Nature Journal Club. It was an amazing day. Sanctuary Cruises, with their small, bio-diesel powered boat, took us out into the middle of the Bay, to what felt like a completely different planet. Humpback whales had been feeding there on anchovies all summer. The sea lions would attach schools of anchovy in a frenzy, then the whales would join in around the edges. It was a bad day to be an anchovy.
At times, we could see three groups of whales spouting or breaching at the same time: one group close to us, another a little ways away, and a third near the horizon. Along with the humpbacks, we saw Risso’s dolphins, sea lions by the hundreds, common murres, and even a shearwater or two.
Because this was the Nature Journal Club, and the intent was to sketch nature, I didn’t even bring my camera. Instead, we sketched, sometimes furiously. My sketches turned out to be more like gesture drawings. What I couldn’t capture on paper were the smells—sometimes we smelled fish, sometimes whale breath (a bit like stale beer, mixed with fish).
From what I’m hearing, the humpbacks continue in Monterey Bay again this year. Is it the recovery of the population since we stopped hunting them? Or is it climate change that has brought them closer to the shore? Bay Nature had an article about the humpback populations in the Bay again this year—it might be ocean currents or the periodic peak in anchovy populations. Whatever the cause, I’m grateful I had the chance to see the gathering last year.
Have you been whale-watching lately? What did you see? Leave a comment, below, and let us know.
Update. Well, at least now we know why all the dead birds at Radio Road that day: an outbreak of avian cholera. Apparently the pond is going to be drained for a few months, to kill the bacteria.
Updated. What a way to start the year! My apologies if the version you saw included unfinished links.
It was a great way to finish the year: A field trip with the Nature Journal Club to Radio Road in Redwood City to watch and sketch shorebirds. About 20 birders and sketchers joined John Muir Laws on this unseasonably warm day near the sewage treatment ponds.
The (Bay Area) Nature Journal Club is a group of sketchers who take monthly trips to, well, sketch nature. But there’s a twist: they’re out to learn, too. I had only been to one other NJC event, a whale watching trip in Monterey Bay last October, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Laws gave an introduction and a primer to sketching ducks, and he asked the “bird nerds” (which included me) to introduce people to the kinds of birds on the pond.
Sewage treatment ponds are havens for waterfowl. There were both kinds of teal, pintail, widgeon, ruddy ducks, canvasback—even a few Eurasian widgeon, rarities for the Bay Area. And that doesn’t include the flocks of avocet, dowitchers (probably short-billed), snowy egrets, cormorants; and the gulls and passerines and raptors who flew by. I also spotted some birders with very large camera lenses lurking about.
After our introduction, we sketched and shared a potluck lunch, showed one another our journals—with Laws encouraging us to sketch beyond the birding-book profile view—then sketched and shared some more. Seeing other’s work is always helpful. Some had focused on drawing heads very well; others had worked on an individual bird. I worked on sketching the birds I don’t normally see when I go out in the Central Valley, where I live.
We ended the day with an examination of the feather structure on a cooperative dead pintail that Laws found, and a comment that the individuals who do the most to protect waterfowl habitat are actually hunters, through both their duck stamp purchases and organizations like Ducks Unlimited. He’s right: too often birders don’t provide the monetary support needed to protect habitat. “[Leaving] only footprints” doesn’t help protect habitat from development.
The bright sunny day did have its shadows. The surrounding neighbors threatened to have our cars towed when we went to their (public) park for lunch. And the pintail was not the only carcass we saw; there were a number of dead birds in the pond. One birder said there were an unusual number of carcasses that day. No one could say why. They had not been shot by hunters; predators would have eaten them. Disease? Toxins? Last summer I saw an account of many birds in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge being killed by some disease, and I wondered if something similar was at work here. The drought we’re having is likely to exacerbate any contagious or vector-borne illness, so that’s even more reason to hope for rain in the new year.
Still, I’m glad I went. Jack Laws and the Nature Journal Club are onto something, getting people out observing nature and turning their observations into art.