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I go to Natural Bridges quite often, to play in and study the rocky intertidal. But at this time of year, before the low tides really get useful, there is another reason to visit Natural Bridges—to see the monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Natural Bridges State Park is a butterfly sanctuary, providing a safe overwintering spot for migrating monarchs.

Yesterday morning, while it was still cool enough for the butterflies to be hanging in clusters, I went out and photographed them. Last year's count was only 550 for the winter, but I'd heard that there were more butterflies this year and it was definitely worthwhile going out and looking for them.

Monarch butterflies clustered in eucalyptus tree
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Park
2021-11-06
© Allison J. Gong

The butterflies rest with their wings up, so when they are hanging like this you see the duller underside of the wings. A few of them were starting to warm up their flight muscles and showing off the more brilliant orange of the dorsal wing surface.

Monarch butterflies clustered in eucalyptus tree
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Park
2021-11-06
© Allison J. Gong
Monarch butterflies clustered in eucalyptus tree
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Park
2021-11-06
© Allison J. Gong

I am really not good at counting things like this, but my guess is that there were hundreds of butterflies, all told. Based on the 2020 season, when I didn't see any monarchs at all at my house and only a few scattered individuals at Natural Bridges, this year's population seems to be doing much better. 2020 was an awful year in California in general, and in the Santa Cruz region in particular. The CZU August Lightning Complex fire put air quality into the unhealthy-for-everybody range for several weeks. Much of the rest of the western U.S. also burned, with much habitat loss for nature. Maybe that's part of why there were so few monarchs last winter in Santa Cruz. Of course, the monarchs' populations have been declining for years, so last year's population crash may be only a dip in the grand scheme of things.

Whatever the cause, it really was good to see even this many butterflies at Natural Bridges.

Oh, and before starting my butterfly hunt in earnest, I spent about an hour watching and listening for birds. I wanted to get the birdwatching in before human activity drowned out the birdsong. Unfortunately, most of what there was to hear was the cawing of crows.

Nature journal page of birds seen and heard
Page from my nature journal

Next time I'm at Natural Bridges, I'll try to remember to check in with the visitor center to see what the official count for monarchs is. Fingers crossed the number is a lot higher than 550!

Over the weekend we had dinner with some family members down in Monterey, and my niece gave me a leaf. She had collected it somewhere and carried it around for a while, and I never did get a clear answer about where it came from. To me it looks like a magnolia leaf. When I said it looked like a fun leaf to paint, she told me I could take it home.

December's leaf

The next day I sat at my desk and studied the leaf for a while. And, as most things do, the leaf became more complicated the longer I looked at it. The shape wouldn't be difficult to get on paper, but I wanted to work with the colors. I always think that getting the right color is easier with colored pencils than watercolors, so I started with what I assumed would be the greater challenge.

As anticipated, I had real difficulties with the highlights. I still haven't figured out how to paint shine. And in retrospect it might have been better to paint wet-on-wet instead of letting the paint dry before adding more color.

And that shape, which I thought would be a slam-dunk? I was so wrong about that! The paper in my sketchbook isn't heavy watercolor paper at all, and with all the erasing I had to do to get that foreground curve right I was afraid I'd remove too much of the texture. I like the overall effect, and I did kind of get the perspective right, which is always hard for me. I stopped before experimenting more with the bright highlights because I didn't want to overwork this sketch. I still don't know what to do about those.

Now, onto the pencil version.

As I noted in the sketchbook, what I thought would be easier ended up being not. I do like the color rendition here, and I think the toned paper works well. And as an aside, the Prismacolor Black Grape pencil does make pretty shadows. In this sketch I positioned the highlights with too much symmetry, and as a result this leaf looks like a feather. It might look better if I made the veins more visible. I can still do that.

Looking at both of these sketches, I think I like the watercolor version better. What do you think?

A week ago I snagged a stint with a traveling nature journal that is making the rounds. It's a nature journal that is being sent to whoever wants to take it. Each user keeps the journal for five days or until five pages are filled, then sends it on to the next person. I was lucky enough to be the first person to respond when it became available, and the journal arrived chez moi this past Monday.

I gotta say, thumbing through the journal and looking at the work of the folks who had it before me was both thrilling and a little intimidating. But it was so exciting to get to study other people's nature journal pages. Just seeing the different styles and focuses was a fantastic learning experience for me. At first I wondered how the heck I would find five pages' worth of stuff to write/draw about in five days. However, something about having the book in hand released the mental block and stuff just flowed onto the pages. Oh, there was a lot of erasing and a little trepidation the first time I put pen to paper, but overall it was a lot of fun.

Anyway, here are my pages.

Monday 2021-05-17 I found the not-so-secret nesting spot for the Brandt's cormorants. This is apparently a new site for them. I had a lot of fun with the cormorants on the rock—all those postures to study and draw! And I'm very pleased with the larger pair in the corner. They actually look like cormorants!


Tuesday 2021-05-18 The journal has both white paper and tan toned paper. Nobody had used any of the toned pages yet. I decided to use it for these sketches of blooming sand plants. My favorite sketch on this page is the California poppies.


Wednesday 2021-05-19 While flipping through the photos I had taken at Asilomar over the weekend, I decided to draw some of the molluscs. My favorite on this page is the turban snail. And octopuses are really hard to draw!


Thursday 2021-05-20 I used my last two pages to diagram sea urchin larval development. The difficult thing about this page was getting the layout to flow the way I wanted. I used about half an eraser, trying different arrangements of text and drawings! The sketches themselves were not that difficult, as I've drawn these larvae many times before.


So there you have it—a week's worth of nature journaling. It was an immense honor and pleasure to participate in this living document of nature observations. I've sent the traveling journal up to Anchorage, Alaska, and am excited to see what the next person does with it.

The other day I was on a field trip with a couple of students in the Natural History Club, at Younger Lagoon. We had permission to go down into the lagoon itself, where we chased tiny red mites around rocks in the intertidal without getting caught by waves, observed a very interesting interaction between a coyote and assorted water fowl, and witnessed killdeer mating. Did you know that in killdeer the actual copulation is preceded by about half a minute of massage? Neither did we! The purpose of the field trip, other than merely to be outdoors looking at cool stuff, was to spend some time doing focused nature journaling. As a result I didn't have my big camera with me. But I did have the good binoculars, and got to watch all of the action closely.

Nature journaling should be part of any natural history club. Over the years I have seen an increase in the tendency to equate nature journaling with science illustration or other types of art. This conflation is what causes people to believe that they can't keep a nature journal because they don't produce museum-quality works of art. While I appreciate a beautiful science illustration as much as anybody else, a nature journal serves a completely different purpose. A nature journal's job isn't to be beautiful. Its job is to be informative.

If you were to compare my nature journal entry with a photograph of the site, you would see that my sketch is nowhere near realistic in the sense of looking exactly like the real thing. I've compressed the entire lagoon into a short stretch that I could fit in these two pages. But I think the sketches and notes do convey the fascinating things what we saw that day. And even if I were not familiar with Younger Lagoon, I would be able to look at these pages and remember them. That's the job of a nature journal.

Entry in my nature journal

I returned to Younger Lagoon two days later with the camera in tow, hoping that some of the birds we'd seen on Monday would still be there on Wednesday. In addition to the usual Canada geese and mallards, I hoped to shoot a couple of water birds that I didn't recognize.

Let's start with the obvious:

Three Canada geese in flight
Trio of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) coming in for a landing
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

All told, there were a couple dozen Canada geese, in the water, in the air, and on the sand. They were a noisy bunch, as usual. Except for when the coyote showed up. Read that little story in my nature journal.

Now take a look at these geese:

Gaggle of 12 Canada geese and one greater white-fronted goose swimming in Younger Lagoon
Gaggle of geese
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

See the one goose that doesn't belong? That was the mystery goose I saw on Monday, and was fortunate enough to see again on Wednesday. From the photos in my bird field guide—National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America—I thought it might be a greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), although I couldn't be entirely certain. I knew I hadn't seen one before, but a consultation with Cornell's All About Birds verified the ID. iNaturalist shows only a handful of observations of A. albifrons in the Monterey Bay region. The greater white-fronted goose is a long-distance migrator, breeding on the tundra of the high Arctic and overwintering in California's Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana.

Canada goose in water, greater white-fronted goose on land with wings outspread
Greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons)
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

A third goose, and another winter-only bird, is the snow goose. It is a little bigger than the greater white-fronted goose. While the word "snow" implies white plumage, snow geese also come in a blue form, which is a dark blueish gray with a white head. The blue coloration is due to a single gene, and the allele for blue is incompletely dominant over the allele for white. The blue and white morphs are the same species and interbreed freely. The offspring of a pure blue bird and a pure white bird will be dark, but may have a white belly. Goslings from pure white parents will be white, and those from pure dark parents will be mostly dark but may have some white.

Snow geese (Anser caerulescens)
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Of the two snow geese in the photo, the one in the front is all white except for the black wing tips of the species, while the one in the back has more dark coloration. In the photo the beak looks dark, but in better light it's as pink as on the bird in the front.

So that's three species of geese. Now whose butts are these?

Duck butts at Younger Lagoon
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

These tails belong to American wigeons (Mareca americana), a male and female pair in the background and a lone male in the foreground. As you might guess from the behavior, wigeons are dabbling ducks, foraging on aquatic vegetation. Like the greater white-fronted goose and snow goose, these are also winter visitors to California's waterways, and will soon be headed north.

In their winter plumage, the wigeons are rather dull. The breeding male has a brilliant green patch extending backwards from his eye and a broad white streak from the top of the bill over his head. During the winter the green patch becomes is much less conspicuous, although the white streak remains.

Trio of wigeons, with their tails sticking up out of the water
American wigeon (Mareca americana)
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Three species of waterfowl. I couldn't get the snow geese to cooperate and make up the quartet.

Greater white-fronted goose, American wigeon, and Canada goose
Left to right: greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), American wigeon (Mareca americana), and a pair of Canada geese (Branta canadensis)
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Living as we do along the Pacific flyway, we find that spring and autumn are great times for watching birds as they migrate between summer breeding grounds and wherever they overwinter. Sometimes I think it's rather unfortunate that I don't get to see these birds in the glory of their breeding plumage, but that's okay because I get to see them in the winter. And the birds that left here for the winter are returning: I saw the first barn swallow of the season right after the vernal equinox! Soon they and the cliff swallows will be building their nests on the buildings at the marine lab. At home, the first of the season's hooded orioles flew past the back deck. He may have been on his way to a nesting site in a palm tree down the street. There is so much going on right now. I do love the spring!

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