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.
People here in Sacramento, California, learned a new word last week: “pyrocumulus.” It’s a type of cumulus cloud that can form over a wildland fire when conditions are right. Well, conditions were right on September 17 when the King Fire more than doubled in size in one day. (It’s called the King Fire because it started near King of the Mountain Road in Pollock Pines, about 60 miles east of Sacramento.)
produced by the intense heating of the air from the surface. The intense heat induces convection, which causes the air mass to rise to a point of stability, usually in the presence of moisture…
Pyrocumuli contain severe turbulence, manifesting as strong gusts at the surface, which can exacerbate a large conflagration. A large pyrocumulus…may also produce lightning. A pyrocumulus which produces lightning is actually a type of cumulonimbus, a thundercloud, and is called pyrocumulonimbus.
One person from Calfire said in a news report that the clouds can collapse quickly, too, sending embers out in several directions.
Conditions in the Sierra Nevada foothills are so dry, after three years of drought and almost no snow last winter, that the fire just took off, increasing from about 28,000 acres to over 70,000 acres in one day. The winds shifted in the days after the pyrocumulus, slowing the fire’s expansion and sending smoke out over the Sacramento Valley and the foothills. Still, in less than a week the fire burned more than 80,000 acres (or 120 square miles) of forest, as well as a number of homes.
After decades of fire suppression in California, the forests are thick with brush (where they haven’t been clear cut). It will take crews from Calfire and the US Forest Service weeks to put this fire out. The worst part? The fire was apparently deliberately set. A man has been arrested for arson.
Fire is part of the natural cycle in California. People who live in the foothills know it could happen in any year, dry or no. And we could manage the forests better, leave the oldest trees, which are most fire-resistant, and either burn or cull the understory more. The forests used to burn every decade or so. But we can’t really let these fires burn now—there’s too much fuel. Just like the King Fire.
Do we also have climate change? I think so, though no one can say for sure yet. National Geographic speculated on this recently.
Have you been affected by fire in the West? Have you seen a pyrocumulus cloud?
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.
Here’s something I’ve been doing just for the fun of it.
These are my interpretations of the lessons in Andrew Loomis’ wonderful book, Fun with a Pencil.
I’ve never thought of myself as a cartoonist before, but these guys have been a ton of fun to do. Loomis was an illustrator who wrote several books on drawing. I’ve learned more from them than I ever did in art class! Well, maybe not more, exactly—but a lot.
What do you like to sketch? Have you ever tried sketching cartoon heads?
I recently discovered some nice little sketchbooks by Global Art Materials, Inc., called “Hand Book Journals.” They come in sizes ranging from 3.5” x 5” to about 8” x 10”, and have paper that will take washes with wet media.
Now, there are hundreds of kinds of sketchbooks out there, with a variety of papers. Most are more expensive than I want to pay, and many have paper I don’t care for. They’re either perfect-bound (pages glued in) so they don’t lie flat, or spiral bound, so the pages can rub against one another, smearing your graphite drawing.
The Hand Book Journals are different. The Hand Books are sewn bound and they lay flat when you open them. (Note: so do Moleskine sketchbooks [and it’s pronounced mol-a-skee-na].)
But what I really like about these Hand Books is the paper. They say you can use pen & ink, pencil, marker, and light watercolor washes. The paper is lighter than watercolor paper (they don’t give a weight), but it does take light washes very well, and doesn’t buckle.
The reason I like paper that will take water is that I like to sketch either with water-soluble pencils (I like General’s*) or pens (black Tombo pens are great, but I use watercolor paper for them). Now, most teachers will tell you that line is the basis for all painting. OK, fine. But I see masses, so I want to draw (or paint) masses—and pencil points just won’t do. (Yes, I know the arguments against what I’m saying.)
These little sketchbooks are easy to carry, and make it easy to do small, quick studies of whatever is nearby.
And really, isn’t the point to actually do the work? I’ve found that if I don’t like the materials, I’m not going to use them. Perhaps because I came to painting late, I’ve never developed the habit I see in some others of always sketching. I’m trying to become that single-minded, but it’s slow work! I really like these little sketchbooks, and if they get me to sketch more—that’s what’s important.
It turns out several of the on-line retailers carry them, but only in the smaller sizes. I’ve only seen the 8 x 10 at Johnson’s Paint in Boston.
What do you use to sketch with? How often do you sketch?