nature journal

Boca de Tomatlan II

The next morning I headed down to the riverside just below our house, anxious to sketch the boat life. Bob, our instructor/host had warned us about this. With all the activity on the river in the morning, a peacefully anchored boat will be boarded and motor out to the ocean in moments, aborting your best sketch yet. However, I would be quick with this one, I thought.


A parade of hikers crossed in front of me on the narrow trail which was the only place to roost on my stool. A quick pencil sketch was done, and the boat still lingered. But I discovered I’d forgotten to bring my water brush. I raced upstairs to fetch it and when I returned the boat had disappeared! I borrowed a boatman from another craft and proceeded to paint from memory and the rest of the scene which had luckily not moved.

Then around 11am we piled into a van and were driven along the mountain road above the  river.  We were having lunch and spending the afternoon at the spectacular Vallarta Botanical Garden.

I could happily have spent days in that tropical paradise with my nature journal in hand. I guess it was a good thing that I’d left my iPhone/camera drying out from its quick dunk in the ocean the day before. Because at every turn of the head a new plant or butterfly or bird was screaming Look at me! Take my picture to prove there is really a lily pad that gigantic and a bird with every color of the rainbow! Good thing not to have the camera between me and all that beauty. 

I sat by the fruit feeder and was rewarded after a while by first one, then a flock of Yellow Winged Caciques having a raucus bird party under the cacao tree.  I sat as still as I could as they frolicked mere inches away.

To be continued tomorrow. . . with another trip to the mountains and beach life.


Wintertime birds and trees

fineliner pen and watercolor in w/c journal

Two days before Christmas the ground was frozen solid and icicles cascaded from bird feeders. The suet basket outside my studio window was swarmed by a band of tiny birds unlike the Juncos and Chicadees, Finches and Sparrows I’d been seeing. The winter light was low, and they were so fast and their heads so thoroughly embedded in the suet that I couldn’t see their heads or any species identifying details. They had enough shape though to venture a color sketch!

And God Bless my birding mentors, this group of savvy women I occasionally go birding with. On Monday this week I joined the monthly meet up and sure enough, my simple description was enough for them to venture an ID. Bushtits! These tiny birds crowd-cluster a feeder, just like the one above, with tails helter skelter. As we walked along the trail, sure enough the little guys made a frenetic, tittering appearance in a tree.

As a beginner birder I used to think birding was just about seeing and hearing a bird and knowing its name. But the behavior angle is even more interesting, especially with these Pacific Northwest gray skies, when any but the brightest colors against tree branches is hard to discern. 

And leaves that remain on trees masquerade as bird shapes! Location and type of movement can be the final identifier.

No, this picture was not taken at 5pm. It was 10am. Could you ID these birds? Too big for Bushtits. Robins probably.


We were at Pioneer Park which is 5 minutes from my house. At first the bird activity was minor, so I paid attention to the vegetation, which is so dramatically different from other seasons. And my mind was brought back to the crinkled masa paper painting I’d just finished. When you wet the paper and crinkle it, you get a complex filagree of spidery texture. And that turns into instant vegetation when paint is added.

acrylic paint on crinkled masa paper mounted on w/c paper

It becomes impossible to not see the branches and trunks and brambles and . . .birds! I turned a dark smudge here into the crow I’d imagined and otherwise let the imagination take over.

You can see more examples on my blog here and here I learned the technique from master artist Cheng-Khee Chee a good twenty years ago and have been exploring with it ever since, often in Muse Groups, but also on large abstract canvases. The Masa paper is inexpensive and available online and in large art supply stores if you want to give it a try.

Birds and Mushrooms

The migratory birds on Capitol Lake have been a spectacle lately! The American Wigeon is one of the classiest I’ve seen. A real challenge to sketch. All those flashes of white on the head and the beak and wings make for a very well-clad bird and difficult sketch subject. They’ve been sharing the waters with flocks of coots and buffleheads and ringed necks and shovelers, and in a different pool all their own, the Trumpeter Swans!

I’ll throw in some belated mushrooms here, from over three weeks ago before the frost turned them to gooey mush! Evergreen College has a magical trail to the beach.  I was pleased with myself for finding two of them in my mushroom ID book. But don’t take my word for it. On my own I am no expert.

A Late Mushroom Season

I spent Veteran’s Day on a Mushroom Foray with the South Sound Mushroom Club. It was a good sized group of people of all ages, from babies to toddlers and elementary schoolers to parents and us seniors. I must confess I have forgotten much of what I learned in the workshop I took last fall. And yet it was mostly very familiar, the baskets and knives, the large classifications of gilled mushrooms, polypores, boletes, puffballs, jelly-like and cup fungi.

There weren’t as many as I remembered from last year. The leader said that mushroom season is about six weeks late this year, because the rains were so late. And now with the arrival of frosty temps the season will soon be cut short. Nevertheless there were some wonderful finds on our fungi scavenger hunt! We were given whistles and orange vests and taught the whistle signals: once to alert others of a find, twice to call a leader over for a look and ID, and thrice for an injury that needed help.

South Sound Mushroom Clubbers at Millersylvania State Park

Did I say that there was a bit of rain at first, but you can see here how well dressed-for-the-woods this Pacific Northwest gang was.

Back at the outdoor kitchen shelter everyone laid out their bounty, and those who knew how worked on IDing the different samples: polyspores, chanterelles, jelly fungi, boletes, lobsters, earthstars. There were several school age children whose knowledge was impressive. I picked out the beauties I wanted to sketch and was satisfied with the day!
fine liner pen, watercolor and white gel pen in beige toned Nova Sketchbook

My absolute favorite was an Earthstar, which bears a striking resemblance to a cross between a snicker doodle and Hersey kiss cookie. And the cool thing about it is if you squeeze the top, it comes alive and puffs out spore from its point!

So the Earthstars, seen here in various stages of development became the star of the day! And they also gave me ideas for holiday cookie baking.

Oh, you probably think I mean the psychedelic kind! Naw, just the chocolate buttery kind.


Dazzled by fall colors! And anxious about how quickly the fall rain and wind storms are denuding my favorites! 

I keep thinking I’ll find the colors to mix, the techniques to employ, the tools to utilize. . .to capture. . .a touch of the outrageous autumn foliage displays. I keep working on it, but. . .

You probably think I’m exaggerating. But Nature is the biggest and most outrageous exaggerater, always. It was awful windy at the Capitol building this week, too much to try to put the color on the page on site. A more intrepid urban sketcher surely would have done so. I just wanted to memorize the look of that redderthanredred against that greenerthangreengreen with the gold thrown in . So at home I just kept putting paint on til I gave up. . .yet strangely still felt satisfied from the effort. 

Autumn glory upstaging Washington’s state capitol building!

And meanwhile this artistry was going on in my neighborhood. What would you say. . .New Gamboge with a touch of Quin Gold? Quin Rose? 

And then this morning this 4 inch glowing something in the middle of our lawn. A golf ball? A piece of paper trash (it is trash day) a wrapper? A fried egg for goodness sake? Would it glow in the dark to flavor up the spooky Halloween?

Did you guess? A mushroom of course! Time to get out the mushroom ID books!

Running with the salmon

Sometimes I forget, when encountering a natural attraction here in my new Olympia home, that my reverence for such things has been long running. Like the salmon run. Just now I used the search window in my blog to see what I might have sketched, painted, written about the salmon run. And this post from July 2011 popped up. A mixed media Muse piece with a native woman kissing a fish and my words written in reverence:

The salmon always run, and we must welcome them as the sustenance for more than the body of woman. . .as the running fervor of a life worth living, even through and beyond the destruction of habitat, even through the unconscious living which lacks the vibrancy of a shimmery wet creature wriggling in your hands and burrowing into a space, not only in your stomach, but in the heart, where its beat and yours are joined in celebration. . .

And now that I live on the land where the peoples of the Salish Sea have worshiped the salmon for thousands of years, that feeling has grown. 

On Wednesday this week some of us nature journalers met at Tumwater Falls to watch the salmon swimming and leaping upstream. I’ve been trying to capture the drama with my phone camera, but wanted to tell the story in my sketchbook, on location.

watercolor in 9 X 12″ Canson Mix Media Sketchbook

I started on the opposite side of the viewing bridge from this point, where the fish were lining up on the river, resting up from the already tumultuous trip up the river from the ocean. Ahead were the big leaps that would take them to their spawning waters (or the hatchery tanks). They were barely visible underwater, dark undulating shapes, so I started my story there.

As they crossed under the bridge they largely disappeared in the foaming waters, except an occasional one would attempt the leap up the falls and the onlookers would gasp in delight and amazement. Above the falls it was easy to see the fish up close in the hatchery tanks where some had “bruises” from hurling themselves against rocks on their passionate journey!

In the annotated version here you see the fish ladder to the right of the falls where I presume most of the salmon were able to ascend the river successfully.

the tank above the falls, visible at eye level to the public

Many of the Chinook were already turning this golden color. See the wounds on the mouth of the one on the lower right side. Many of these salmon are quite large, around 50 pounds. If you have a lot of questions about this salmon migration and hatchery, I recommend this article to read.

This sketch was done at home from a picture I took from a different vantage point. It happens quickly, this sudden burst of energetic athleticism. I waited minutes, with breath held and finger on the button to capture this shot.

It never gets old, this adrenal rush and the moment when the fish slaps the water. You can feel it in your belly.

Portland: Swifts at Chapman Elementary

Last weekend I got to go back to elementary school. No, not with a grandchild. I don’t have any of those. I was visiting friends in Portland for a three day weekend. Saturday night Janet and I took a picnic lunch up the hill to Chapman Elementary to sit on the hillside with the crowd and wait for the swifts to arrive, the Vaux’s Swifts to be precise. They’re the ones that arrive in Portland for the month of September each year and perform their jaw dropping show each evening at sunset.

We got there early, having heard that it would get crowded. At our blanketed spot on the hill we ate our dinner and watched the back up show of children “sledding” down the hill on the cardboard left there for that purpose, and the soccer players on the field below, as the hill filled up with all ages of happy spectators, their dinners, their dogs and small children colliding around us.

pen and w/c in Etchr sketchbook

And finally the headliner act arrived in chaotic rushes, flying around the gigantic chimney where they would spend the night. Plunging and soaring, spiraling and dispersing, returning to circle round again. Where were they coming from? Were they aware that the crowd of spectators had grown to over 1000? 2000? 3000? I started sketching the building, looking for flight patterns, gasping with the crowd when the inevitable hawk appeared, afraid to keep my eyes on the sketchbook for fear I’d miss something.

At sunset the patterns changed. The swifts appeared like swarms of bees, became almost a funnel shape. And then someone in the crowd gasped and clapped and all heads turned toward the mouth of the chimney as the birds disappeared one at a time into the chimney. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who imagined what it would be like to spend the night inside a chimney in the feathered company of thousands of your kind. Cosy? Comforting? Smelly? Claustrophobic?

That night their were 4,940 bedfellows, to be (not) exact. Apparently there are bird watchers who get trained to make this count. Could my thumb actually keep up with the clicking of the counter to capture each one in time? I doubt it. Perhaps the final count is an average of many findings.

Finally after many minutes, the final swift disappeared down the chimney. The crowd applauded and worked their way home in the dark.

If you find yourself as curious about this as I was, you can find out more on the Portland Audubon site.

And if you think it exceptional that birds would congregate so extravagently in this way, just ponder the gravitational pattern of our species on that hill at dusk.

Autumnal Equinox

pen and watercolor in Etchr w/c sketchbook

Years ago a garden master taught me to appreciate the spring and autumn equinoxes for their way of marking the changing of seasons by giving us a day of paradoxes. Warm and cool, breezy and calm, blooming flowers and dried up husks. By tuning in and noticing our garden on the equinox we begin to get it that summer is over and feel a sense of nostalgia about it while getting excited about what comes next.

This year I spent a good part of the day in the garden, and especially in the vegetable garden, which is a riot of vegetable and flower plants in all stages of growth and home to an impressive population of bugs and insects. The air was warm/cool enough to sit in the sun/light-clouds for hours and watch all the activity. Coming fresh from the Wild Wonder Conference I was ready and armed with ways to put down as much as possible of the drama, both plant and creature, as well as to watch my most curious human mind!

As I was talking to the kale, imploring it to be less bitter so that I can perhaps like it a bit more this fall, I realized that it might have some thoughts to give back. . . which led to adding the showy zinnia and sunflower that towered over it and getting all the attention. As it told me how it feels I realized that I had been overlooking it and unfairly giving more interest to the flowers.

And then the cabbage whites were flitting everywhere in the garden, and I noticed that they didn’t overlook, but landed on the the kale (though I wonder what they were doing there for that split second when I tried to sketch one). As I finished my nature journal page, I was very pleased with myself for having gotten my own garden story down. Can you think what yours might be?

And I couldn’t wait to come back the next day and find another story!

And so i did. It was not hard to pick the subject. After all I’ve been quite perplexed about the strange shapes of my carrots, which remind me of those weird characters in Harry Potter books. . .which led to a fun few minutes refreshing my Hogwarts studies!

And this morning I decided to try pulling up some more carrots. Along with the forked ones I found some big fat 4-5 inch long fat beauties, along with all the rest shown here. Honestly is there anything more aesthetically and gastronomically and emotionally satisfying than garden successes?! (of course there is! but this was mine today.)

Hawks Prairie Reclaimed Water Ponds

w/c pencils, pen and watercolor in Etchr sketchbook

Monday was the third meeting of our new nature journaling group.  After sharing about our favorite workshops from the Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference which had just ended (at least the live-streaming part), we headed down the path to the ponds. Hawks Prairie reclaimed water ponds are not far down the road from the dump and just off the freeway, a handy location for this few acres of land, where wastewater from homes and businesses in a three city area is cleaned of pollutants and released back to the environment for irrigation and other vital purposes other than drinking. 

For us it quickly became a sensory wonderland as we gobbled up observations and shared them with each other before settling down to our nature journal sketches. We noticed for instance that the temperature on this very warm morning dropped noticeably as we got closer to the ponds, and we drank in the cool damp air hungrily. 

The ponds were covered with pale yellow-green cover of duck weed so dense that it looked like you could walk out on it. Soon the ducks showed up, and after a few quacks, lay down with their heads flat on the water surface, vacuuming up their namesake weed.

The nature seemed to court us and in different ways. Some were drawn in by the foliage patterns of the striking tall trees, others by the variety of reeds around the pond edges and the berries and flowers and flying insects. And the textures of the oak galls so delighted a couple friends that they laid out them out to sketch with intense concentration to detail -which generated pressing questions of what? and how? and associations with a host of other memories and on and on.

And in this way we all woke up a bit. Got away from our screens for a bit (except perhaps for using the Leaf Snap app and that would be me). Woke up from the indoor lives we live, or even the way we go outdoors mostly to exercise, not stopping to notice the spider on the bloom, the dragonflies sewing up the air in sudden dips and swoops, the shiny bright red berries that were not there yesterday.

Just to let you know, the Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference is still available for a while in video recordings at a ridiculously low price here.

Wild Wonder out in my garden

I was sitting in my studio, glued to the screen, watching and sketching along with the many live streamed teachers at the Wild Wonder Nature Journal Conference, and finally broke away to explore the wild right outside my studio door. Usually when I spend time in the garden it is to harvest vegetables or dead head flowers or discover garden chores that are overdue. So, strangely, it took some very clear intention to head out to the garden with my sketchbook!

fineliner pen and watercolor in 9 X 12″ Canson Mixed Media sketchbook

I started with my most recent discovery of wasps swarming Grandma Marie’s paper birch tree in the Ancestor Grove. It was so named because we found two side by side birch trees in our new home garden and planted ashes from our two mothers’ urns under those trees. Grandma Marie’s was chosen by a colorful Yellow Bellied Sapsucker as a place for his preferred meals of sap, opening the way for others to dine as well. At the moment it is hosting swarms of what look like wasps. One could say that the tree does not look happy, being blackened and sticky, but that would surely be from the standpoint of our very own species and not that of a tree, which gives generously to the cycle of living things, throughout its life and decomposition. In any case it was a story to tell in my nature journal, recently fortified by ideas and tools of other nature lovers in the conference. I started drawing while standing and gazing at the swarm on the spot close by, then started feeling uneasiness when I realized I was in the flight path!

Next I was drawn to my favorite small corner garden, no more than a yard long and a foot deep. It is filled with seeds, which I must remember to distribute to other areas of the garden, and blooms steadily from spring through early fall with wildflower tenacity. The Calendula and Love in a Mist are the stars of the show.

And on then to the end, you might say, of the blooming season for the Bee Balm flowers. I am so struck by the beauty of these going-to-seed plants whose seed vehicles are golden chariots in shape and tone and texture, and rival their spring beauty.

The late summer sunset was then upon me, so I brought the Bee Balm inside to have better light to view it. Also at that point I was wondering how all these drawing/paintings would sit in a balanced way on the page. Text, boxes, descriptions and personal feelings were easy ways to fill the empty spaces and put down more of the late summer afternoon experience in a way that I can never forget.

Oh how I love you, Love in a Mist!