2018 Yuletide Cards are On the Way

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

As of today, all our Yuletide cards are on the way to their recipients (or at least they will be when the USPS picks them up tomorrow!). My artwork for the card design is shown above. Naturally, the copyright notice does not appear on the card itself; it is included here only so that my artwork does not mysteriously become someone else’s design without my permission!

Mary and I discussed whether a Woodpecker was a “seasonal” bird, then we discovered that the USPS had already issued a set of stamps called “Winter Birds”, which included a woodpecker (albeit not a Downy Woodpecker)!


Yuletide Label Artwork for 2018

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

The image above is artwork that I just completed for the return labels on our 2018 Yuletide cards. As you can see, this year we’re going to have a “Downy Woodpecker” theme!

As with last year’s artwork (seen here), I used Corel Draw to create it. I should perhaps explain that, when it appears on the actual labels, the drawing is much reduced in size (less than one inch wide), so there’s no point in adding too much detail to it.

I had already created the main card artwork before I started working on this label graphic, to ensure that the card design would be sent to the printer as early as possible! I’ll post that artwork on my blog as soon as we send out the cards, which hopefully will be during this week.

I must admit that my own photographs of Downy Woodpeckers are not very good at all, because the birds have a frustrating habit of hiding around the back of the tree just when I’m ready to take the picture, as shown below.

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

Fortunately, I have several books describing California birds, and the internet is a rich source of reference photos, so it wasn’t too difficult to find images that are more helpful than mine!

[Update 12/9/18: After reducing the size of the artwork to fit the return labels, I noticed that the stylized tree in the center was unrecognizable. Therefore, I adapted the design to show a stylized cracker. I realize that many outside the UK may not be familiar with crackers, but it is more seasonal! Naturally, the artwork on the labels does not include the copyright notices.]

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Independence Day for Kites

Juvenile White-Tailed Kite

Juvenile White-Tailed Kite

I took the photo above, showing a juvenile White-Tailed Kite, yesterday evening. I’d gone out for a short walk to take some test shots with a new Nikon superzoom camera. The results were better than I’d anticipated! Unfortunately, the only angle from which I could take the photos was against the sun, but nonetheless the results show good detail.

The White-Tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus, aka Black-Shouldered Kite) has apparently come back from the verge of extinction in California. It certainly seems to be an increasingly common bird here. When I first saw one, hovering over the old Naval airfield near our house a few years ago, I thought that it must be some kind of albino Kestrel, because that hovering behavior is very similar to that of the Eurasian and American Kestrels.

Until now, I’d only ever seen one kite at a time, but, yesterday evening, I eventually spotted no less than four kites flying around and screeching. They seemed to be fighting with each other, and sometimes with other birds of prey.

Eventually, and thanks to the detail revealed in the zoomed photographs, I realized that this must be a family of young kites, who were in the process of establishing their own territories. In the photo above, you can see brown plumage on the bird’s breast, which marks it as a juvenile.

The second photo below shows the plumage on the young kite’s back to better effect.

The same Juvenile White-Tailed Kite, showing its Black Shoulders

The same Juvenile White-Tailed Kite, showing its Black Shoulders

The birds were apparently disputing the prime rodent-hunting territory of the old airfield.

While all this was happening, nearby, perched on a power wire, was the Mourning Dove shown below. I’ve mentioned these birds, and their similarities to some species of Old World doves, in a previous article.

Mourning Dove, observing the Action

Mourning Dove, observing the Action

Normally I would expect such timid birds to go under cover when there are hawks around, but it seems that the dove had concluded that the kites were so preoccupied with each other that everyone else was safe!

I was considering what to write about for this year’s Fourth of July holiday, and it struck me that the independence battles of these young hawks made for an appropriate theme, despite being quite different from the Moggies cartoon that I posted for this holiday last year.

If you’ll be celebrating the Fourth of July, enjoy your holiday! Otherwise, have a good week anyway!

The Egrets of Ninth Street

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

I just completed the drawing above, as an impressionistic depiction of Egrets in flight.

In the thirty-plus years that I’ve lived in California, I’ve become accustomed to seeing brilliant white egrets flying gracefully overhead, or else wading in pools and on moist ground. Before emigrating from England, I’d never seen any species of egret in the wild. Now, egrets are increasingly common in Britain, but when I was young, they were such unusual visitors as to be included only in the “Rarest on Record” appendix of the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds (which was our family’s major reference on the topic).

Shortly after my wife and I moved to Santa Rosa in 2005, we discovered a remarkable natural event that occurs annually in a built-up part of the city. Every year at around this time, significant numbers of wading birds start building nests in a few pine and eucalyptus trees in the center median of West Ninth Street, Santa Rosa. There are several species nesting in close proximity in this heronry: Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, plus Black-crowned Night Herons. Although they don’t nest there, Green Herons and Great Blue Herons can also be seen in the vicinity. None of these species are rare in California, but it’s their proximity to human habitation in such large numbers that is unusual in this case.

My short video below shows both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets in the treetops at West Ninth Street, then gives a brief general impression of the scene. The trees are surrounded by houses and apartments, and cars cruise by on either side of the street.

Volunteers from the Madrone Audubon Society have assumed responsibility for looking after the heronry. Every year they fence off a portion of the road and put down straw beneath the trees, to protect any baby birds that may fall from the nests.

As you can hear in the video, the birds are quite noisy, and can also create quite a smell on hot days, so I imagine that the local residents are less than enthusiastic about their presence!

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive and fascinating sight for visitors. The photo below is a closeup of a nesting Great Egret, which I took during our visit in 2007.

Great Egret in the Treetops

Great Egret in the Treetops

Egrets in the Park

As I mentioned above, I often see flocks of egrets flying in formation over our house, but they usually don’t land anywhere that’s visible to us. However, on one occasion, a flock decided to feed in the park in front of our house, as shown below in a through-the-window photo, taken one foggy morning in 2016.

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Herons At Large

In a previous blog post, I featured a photo of a Black-crowned Night Heron that appeared unexpectedly by the swimming pool of the Z Hotel in Oakland while we were staying there.

My photo below shows a Great Blue Heron wading in the Napa River a few years ago, alongside a gull.

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Technical Note

Incidentally, I’m already aware that the egrets in my drawing display features from several different species. I chose features for their artistic impact, rather than for technical accuracy.

A Visit to the Bird Rescue Center


Peregrine Falcon Kiri, at the Bird Rescue Center

This Peregrine Falcon, called Kiri, is a resident of the Santa Rosa Bird Rescue Center. I visited the Center yesterday, during their once-a-month open house. I’m already a supporter of this local charity, via eScrip donations that are made by local merchants when I shop there.

Fortunately, the Rescue Center escaped damage from last October’s wildfires, although I believe that it had to be evacuated for a while. As I described in a previous post, the nearby Fountaingrove and Hidden Valley Estates were almost completely destroyed.

The Center’s role is to accept injured wild birds and rehabilitate them for release back into the wild. However, the Peregrine Kiri cannot be released back into the wild, because her right wing is damaged so she cannot fly well. Nonetheless, she’s still doing better than the resident Osprey shown below, which cannot fly at all, and so has to have perches and feeding stations at ground level.

A Flightless Osprey at the Bird Rescue Center

A Flightless Osprey at the Bird Rescue Center

The view below shows the entrance to the Rescue Center. Needless to say, Woodstock is not one of their rescues, but is another of about 70 Peanuts statues that can be found all over Santa Rosa! (My previous post showed another of those, in front of the former REA building in Railroad Square.)

Woodstock at the Entrance to the Bird Rescue Center

Woodstock at the Entrance to the Bird Rescue Center

I had visited the Rescue Center on a previous occasion, with an actual “bird emergency”, when Mary and I found a baby House Finch that seemed to be sick. We were going to take it to the Humane Society, but they advised us instead to take it to the Bird Rescue Center.

Another current permanent resident of the Center is the Red-Tailed Hawk shown below, whose disability is a missing right eye.

Red-Tailed Hawk at the Bird Rescue Center

Red-Tailed Hawk at the Bird Rescue Center

Just to prove that he really is “red tailed”, here’s a close-up:

The Red Tail

The Red Tail

After being on public display for a few minutes, courtesy of one of the Center’s volunteers, the hawk was returned to his cage for lunch (a frozen mouse), as shown below, where you can just about see the missing right eye.


Red-Tailed Hawk going indoors for Lunch

In its reception area, the Center has some educational displays relating to local bird life. Those include the display of eggs shown below, which features the eggs of the two species that I painted for our greeting cards last Christmas (Cedar Waxwing and American Robin).

The Eggs of some Local Wild Birds

The Eggs of some Local Wild Birds

The Bird Rescue Center’s premises stand in the county-owned Chanate Complex, which also housed the former Sutter Hospital. The hospital was built during the 1930s, and closed in 2014, having been deemed seismically unsafe. The former hospital buildings will soon be demolished, and the entire site is due for redevelopment. For this reason, the Center may be forced to move to alternative premises in future, although, as one of the volunteers told me today, they hope that it will be possible to retain their current location in the park-like surroundings of the Chanate Complex.

Perhaps its buildings (as below) could benefit from some renovation, but I do hope that the Bird Rescue Center can continue its good work in its current location!


Bird Rescue Center: General View

New Year’s Eve: Then & Now

New Year's Eve, 1977

New Year’s Eve, 1977

The photo above was taken exactly 40 years ago, on New Year’s Eve, 1977. The location was the War Memorial near the summit of Oliver’s Mount, in Scarborough, which as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, was a prime spot for sky and cloud photography.

According to my records, this particular photo was taken at 3.05 that afternoon, indicative of the shortness of days at that time of year. The sky that afternoon seemed to me to be heavy with a sense of foreboding, which turned out to be appropriate, because many tumultuous events were about to occur in my life during the ensuing few years. In retrospect it seems like an incredible and very scary roller-coaster ride, ending only ten years later, in 1987, when I found myself spending my first New Year on a different continent, here in California.

The Birds Just Won’t Pose

Yesterday, a flock of Robins and Waxwings appeared in the ornamental pear trees in front of our house. This is a fairly common event here during Winter, but it was the first time this year that I’d noticed the two species together in the trees.


Robin & Waxwing in a Pear Tree

I mentioned in an earlier post that these scenes formed the inspiration for the design of our 2017 Yuletide Card, titled Sonoma Winter Birds.

One advantage of being able to draw, and so create my own artwork, is that I can pose my subjects in whatever way results in the best composition. For the card design, I was able to position the two birds close to each other, striking exactly the poses that I wanted. For the robin, I knew the pose that I wanted, but was unable to find any reference material showing one in that position. Nonetheless, understanding something of the anatomy of birds meant that I could create a convincing pose from my imagination, aided by images of similar species, as below.


Sonoma Winter Birds

Back when I was learning to draw, the usefulness of that skill in this age of photography was sometimes questioned. Why spend hours creating a realistic image, when the camera can achieve equivalent or better results in a fraction of a second? It has since become clear to me that natural history subjects are one area where drawing skill continues to offer an advantage over photography.

No matter how good their equipment, photographers do not have the luxury of being able to conjure up a scene from their imaginations. When shooting natural history subjects, they must be content with whatever poses their actors choose to adopt. My own photo above shows that, even though the birds were together in the same tree, they were never close enough to each other so that I could capture them in the same frame. Instead, I simply created a composite bitmap of 2 photos.

Even so, there’s no doubt that the abundance of photographs of any desired subject provides a treasury of reference material that was simply unavailable to earlier generations of illustrators. I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.

Happy New Year 2018!

My best wishes to all of you for a joyous and prosperous 2018!

Yuletide “Backup” Artwork for 2017


Waxwings & Berries

Waxwings & Berries

The picture above is not the artwork for our 2017 Yuletide card, although our cards just arrived back from the printer yesterday, and I’ll be sharing the actual artwork for that as soon as we send out the cards (which I hope will be during this week).

When I began working on a painting for this year’s card, I was painfully aware that the possibilities for messing it up were rife. (In fact, that’s one major advantage of creating artwork digitally instead of via conventional methods; with digital artwork you can always hit Undo!) When working on a conventional painting, it only takes one slip of the brush, or perhaps one drop of spilled coffee, and the whole project is ruined.

Therefore, I decided to create a simpler piece of “backup artwork”, which I could use for the card if some disaster befell the main painting. Thus I created the vaguely “Charley Harper” style design shown above, using Corel Draw.

Fortunately, I didn’t mess up the main watercolor artwork, so I didn’t need to substitute this design. Nonetheless, I realized that I could easily adapt it for use as a decoration for our return address labels, so that’s what I did.

I mentioned on another page that I had decided to stop producing “Asian New Year” designs for the return address labels of our cards, because the time taken to do that detracted from the creation of the card itself. Thus, things worked out well for me this year!

Autumn Leaves & Woodpeckers

Autumn Leaves, Arnold Drive, Eldridge, CA

Autumn Leaves, Arnold Drive, Eldridge, CA

I took the photo above yesterday afternoon, showing a spectacular display of autumnal leaves by the side of Arnold Drive, in Eldridge, CA, in the Sonoma Valley.

I mentioned in a previous post that the “Turning of the Leaves” tends to occur later in California than in Britain, because of the warmer climate. In fact, many native California trees (such as Live Oaks) are not deciduous at all, and do not shed their leaves. Thus most of our seasonal displays are due to imported species, including, of course, grapevines.

Yesterday, I visited Sonoma for the reopening of the Depot Park Museum, which had been delayed for a few weeks due to the recent wildfires. On the way home, due to heavy traffic on Highway 12, I took Arnold Drive instead, and spotted autumn leaves at many points along the route. Here’s another view of the leaves in Eldridge:

More Autumn Leaves in Eldridge, CA

More Autumn Leaves in Eldridge, CA

Incidentally, just in case anyone is wondering, Arnold Drive is not named after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but after General “Hap” Arnold, who lived in a ranch near Sonoma for many years.

I also stopped briefly at General Vallejo’s Home in Sonoma, which is now a California State Park. The idyllic location is surrounded by trees that are populated by noisy Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus). It seems that some of these woodpeckers have taken to using the wooden eaves of the Swiss Chalet barn at the site to store their nuts, as shown in the closeup below.

Acorn Woodpecker at the Vallejo Home, Sonoma

Acorn Woodpecker at the Vallejo Home, Sonoma

I was even able to get some video of the woodpecker in action, although the deficiencies of the camera video system are painfully obvious at maximum zoom!


Naturally, the wildfires had a serious negative impact on the tourism industry in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. However, as these photos show, most of the region is undamaged, and local businesses are eager to encourage visitors to return.

New World Birds & Old World Birds

Old World Dove Meets New World Dove

Old World Dove Meets New World Dove

The image above is actually a combination of two separate photographs taken within a few seconds, because the birds involved wouldn’t oblige by moving closer to each other! What’s remarkable about the image is that it shows, in the same location, an Old World dove alongside its nearest New World equivalent. It’s an extremely unusual example of two such species being in the same place at the same time.

One of the inconveniencies of emigrating to a new continent, as I did about 30 years ago, was that I discovered that my knowledge of natural history had suddenly become inadequate, and at least partially irrelevant.

Start Learning All Over Again!

Growing up, I’d learned to recognize and name most British bird species, but now I found myself faced with an complete new set of bird species, almost none of which were the same as those that had become familiar to me in the “old country”.

I noticed quite quickly that there were many cases where a particular ecological niche that was occupied by one species in Britain was occupied by a different species in California (a type of Convergent Evolution). Sometimes, the two species are closely related and even look very similar, but there are other cases where the relationship is more distant and the species obviously differ in appearance.

In the photo above, on the left is an Old World Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), while on the right is an American Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). Although they are different species, their behavior and lifestyle are highly reminiscent of each other. Their calls even sound very similar.

In many cases, the reason for the presence of the Old World species in the New World is because of deliberate or accidental introduction of the Old World species by humans. This explains the presence of Eurasian Collared Doves in North America; about 50 of them escaped from captivity in the Bahamas in 1974, then jumped to Florida, and from there across the rest of the continent.

There are many other examples of species that are either closely related or which occupy the same ecological niche. For example, in California the Brewers Blackbird occupies the same niche as the Eurasian Starling (although, since I moved to California 30 years ago, Starlings have invaded and partially displaced the Brewers Blackbird–but I didn’t bring them with me, honestly!), the American Coot is very similar to the Eurasian Coot, and the American Great Blue Heron is similar to the Eurasian/African Grey Heron.


Great Blue Heron in the Napa River

Early Confusion

In fact, I should already have been warned of this problem before I was five years old! My grandparents bought me an American picture book called Bunny Hopwell’s First Spring (which is not only still available, but also now in a Kindle version!). It was quite common for them to buy me American books because those were often on sale at “remaindered” prices at our local supermarket.

At one point in the Bunny Hopwell book, there was a picture that claimed to depict a conversation between a rabbit and a “robin”. Now, Robins were a common sight in our large back garden, so I immediately objected that the image “looked nothing like a robin”. My grandfather had to explain to me that this was a picture of an American Robin, which indeed did not look like our local robins. Apart from the fact that they’re both birds, the only other common feature of the two species is that they have red breasts (which is why the American species was so called).

American Robin

American Robin

I was most disgusted by the book’s apparent inaccuracy, and wondered why Americans couldn’t figure out what a robin looked like. (My pedantry does seem a little misplaced, though, since I was willing to accept the idea of animals and birds talking to each other without complaint!)

While visiting England in 2012, I was able to photograph a robin in a field near Brockley Hill, London. The photograph, shown below, eventually formed the basis for our Christmas card design that year.


Eurasian Robin at Brockley Hill, London

Even more potentially confusing is that, while the American Robin is not closely related to the Eurasian Robin, it is very closely related to the Eurasian Blackbird. Growing up in England, the constant song of Blackbirds, interspersed with their chink-chink-chink alarm calls, was a familiar sound. The calls of American Robins are almost indistinguishably similar.

Sometimes They Are The Same

Having said all that, there are some cases where the same species does occur naturally in the Old World and the New World, or at least where any human introduction of the species into an environment is lost in the mists of prehistory.

A good example of this is the Barn Owl (Tyto alba). The same species occurs all over the world, although there are differing subspecies on different continents.

When I came to design the logo for my professional web site and my fledgling publishing business (“if you’ll pardon the pun”), I decided to include owls as part of the design, and not just any owls, but specifically barn owls. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but the choice of a species with worldwide presence now seems appropriate!


Teklibri Owl Logo

A Voyage Round My Father’s Artwork

Barn Owl and chicks. Pencil sketch by my father

Barn Owl and chicks. Pencil sketch by my father

A Voyage Round My Father’s Artwork (with apologies to John Mortimer).

Recently, while scanning some items of my own childhood artwork, I realized that one of the books of drawings included a few sketches drawn by my father. The book was produced when I was about 8 years old.

When I was young, I took it for granted that my father could draw well, but there were some aspects of his skill that puzzle me now:

  • Why did he make so little use of that skill? (He had been an electrician, a wireless operator, and a teacher, but never an artist of any kind.)
  • What happened to all the other artwork that he must have produced? As far as I know, the only way to acquire skill in drawing is to practice it, but I don’t recall seeing any artwork produced by him during his early life. The only remaining examples that I have are these few in my own drawing books.
  • Did my father only draw subjects that were other drawings or photographs? Didn’t he ever draw “from life”? The examples I still have are all copies of drawings or paintings from other books. I also recall his doing some oil paintings later on, but those were copied from his own color transparencies.

Unfortunately, my father is long gone, so I doubt that I’ll ever learn the answers to those questions.

The pencil sketch above shows a barn owl feeding a mouse to its chicks. I know exactly the source of that sketch, because I still have the original book containing the illustration, a children’s book called “More Birds and their Eggs”. The relevant page is shown below:


Barn Owl and Chicks from More Birds and their Eggs

My father also added a couple of sketches to the cover of my drawing book, of which one is shown below. This sketch was done with a ballpoint pen rather than a pencil. I’m not sure of the source of these drawings, but they were probably based on illustrations in the “Observer’s Book of Common Fungi”, which was our source for such information at that time.


Pen sketch of fungi, by my father

I was clearly inspired by my father’s efforts, and produced sketches myself (in the same book of drawings) that were copies of other illustrations in the “More Birds and their Eggs” book. The example below shows a male Merlin:

My pen sketch of a male Merlin, copied from More Birds and their Eggs

My pen sketch of a male Merlin, copied from More Birds and their Eggs

As the example shows, my own technique at that time was to draw everything directly with a ballpoint pen. I allowed myself no opportunity for error correction: if it was wrong, then that was just too bad. It didn’t occur to me to draw an initial sketch in pencil, then correct that before inking in the final drawing, and I wasn’t taught that approach until much later, when I formally studied art at school.

As I said above, my father is long gone, so it’s unlikely that the questions I have about his artwork will ever be answered. It does seem a pity that he didn’t make more use of a skill that was presumably hard-won, so I must try not to repeat that mistake!