Monday, May 30, 2016

Bluebirds and Happiness

Bluebirds are a traditional sign of good fortune in several cultures, but the Bluebird of Happiness seems to originate in Belgian symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck's 1908 play The Blue Bird. And like the children in the play, we found happiness—and bluebirds—right in our own backyard this spring here at The Malibu Post. While its fate is still in the balance, the Western bluebird, Sialia Mexicanaappears to be on its way to a happy ending. This beautiful bird came close to extinction in the 20th century, due to DDT, habitat loss, and competition from non-native species like the house sparrow. Bluebirds are making a recovery, thanks to passionate advocates who are providing a voice for the species and are seeking to reintroduce it to areas—like Malibu—where bluebirds have been missing for decades.

Encouraged by the presence of a bluebird family at our birdbath last year, we purchased a bluebird box this spring and installed it in a liquidamber tree. The first visitor to the box was an oak titmouse, but apparently the box didn't meet his requirements. A week later, a pair of bluebirds moved in.

Nest building commenced at once. This is the male, bringing grass and what looked like palm tree fibers into the box. Both Eastern and Western bluebirds need cavities like hollow trees to successfully nest. In the Santa Monica Mountains, they compete with wrens, tree swallows, and the oak titmouse, as well as non-native sparrows, for nesting space. The right kind of real estate can be scare. Nest boxes offer a good alternative, but they have to be the right kind of box. Wrens aren't particular—they'll nest in almost anything. But bluebirds need a tall narrow box for safety. It should have good ventilation and an entry hole that is the right size for the species.  It's important to avoid the kind of bird boxes that have a built-in perch. Predators like crows and squirrels can use a perch to gain access to the nestlings. It is important to place the bird house in a safe location where cats, raccoons and rats don't have access, and also to monitor the box to make sure house sparrows don't move in before the native birds have a chance. 

The industrious female kept showing up with astonishing amounts of building material. Here she is with a beak full of pine needles. 

Here she is again, carting in a bunch of oxalis stems and a dead leaf.

Finally, the nest was finished and the business of laying eggs and incubating them begun. The bluebirds rapidly adapted to their human and canine neighbors. We often saw the female watching us from the entrance of the nest, but she never seemed to mind when we walked past. 

The male brought food to his mate and kept watch from the top of the tree for potential hazards.

The neighborhood fox squirrel was the biggest threat. 

He lurked like a kind of rodent Godzilla, but never managed to break into the nest.  Here's how he looked to the bluebirds. Not remotely cute and furry.

Our looney dog took no notice of the birds until the eggs hatched and the chicks grew big enough to make noise. Then she became obsessed and had to be temporarily vanquished from that part of the garden. Cats and dogs can have a catastrophic impact on wild birds and we didn't want to take any chances.

Once the eggs hatched, the nest became a hive of activity, with both parents swooping in and out all day long with insects for their brood. 

Here's mama bird with a fine fat caterpillar. Bluebirds depend on open areas for foraging and often seek out lawns—a reminder of why it is important to avoid toxic pesticides and lawn chemicals. Ecologists warn that homeowners
 who replace their lawn with gravel or artificial grass in a well-intensioned effort to conserve water may actually be removing essential bird habitat, inadvertently creating wildlife wastelands. Replacing lawns with native plants, or adopting a turf-management program that conserves water through the use of mulch and other organic methods are bird-friendly options.

That caterpillar went straight into the open beak of a hungry nestling. 

As the chicks neared fledging day they became increasingly noisy and active, peering out of their front door and chattering to each other. 

We never saw the young ones fledge. One day, the nest was a hive of activity; the next, it was empty. I caught one last glimpse of mama bluebird on her favorite perch overlooking the garden, and then they were gone. The garden seems strangely empty without them. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Drawn from Life

I will be teaching a special new class called Creative Nature Journaling this summer at the Michael Landon Community Center at Malibu Bluffs Park. 

"To see a wren in a bush, call it "wren," and go on walking is to have (self-importantly) seen nothing. To see a bird and stop, watch, feel, forget yourself for a moment, be in the bushy shadows, maybe then feel "wren"— that is to have joined in a larger moment with the world." 

—Gary Snyder, Language Goes Two Ways, 1995.

I've kept a nature journal for many years, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to teach a course on creating one through the City of Malibu's community classes program.

I carry a small journal and some simple art supplies everywhere I go. This  sketch was done in the space of a few minutes between work events using a couple of water-soluable colored pencils and a Sharpie pen. 

Leonardo Da Vinci is regarded as the most celebrated nature journalist, recording his observations in painstaking detail and spectacular profusion. However, you don't need to be an artist or a scientist to keep a nature journal, although there are elements of art and science involved. All that is required is curiosity and the time to observe and experience nature. 

Delicate and detailed sketches of bird wings and feathers from the journals of Leonardo Da Vinci show the artist's meticulous attention to detail.

Well-known natural journalists include Lewis and Clark, John Wesley Powell, John Muir and Mary Austen all kept nature journals. So did Beatrix Potter and Edward Lear. 

A sketch from the journal of John Muir.

Edward Lear, best known for his nonsense poems, kept detailed journals of his travels that often featured drawing of plants and animals, especially birds. He  is justly famous for his scientifically accurate illustrations of parrots.

Edith Holden (1871-1920), made famous through the posthumous publication of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady in 1977, filled her journal with delicate watercolors simply for the joy of recording the seasons.

Edith Holden was a largely self-taught artist who kept a nature journal. It was published decades after her death and received much acclaim but was created as a private record of the artist's joy in nature, with no thought for posterity.

Writers Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez, and naturalist Bernd Heinrich are contemporary nature journal keepers, but all kinds of people keep a nature journal.

Biologist, bird behaviorist, and nature journalist Bernd Heinrich takes what he calls a "hands-and-knees" approach to observing nature. 

A Google image search will turn up an amazing range from the drawings of grade school children to pages that resemble the jewel-like illuminations in a medieval manuscript. The one thing they share in common is an interest in the natural world.

Here in Malibu, the natural world is never more than a few steps away. Most of us see—or hear—mourning doves every day in the spring. Adding a sketch of one to the journal is an opportunity to really look at this bird, observe its colors, shape, habits. I find that drawing fixes the subject in the mind in a way that observation or even photography cannot match.

In her book Keeping a Nature Journal, author Clare Walker Leslie describes the difference between a nature journal and a personal journal like this: "a diary or personal journal records your feelings toward yourself and others, a nature journal primarily records your responses to and reflections about the world of nature around you.”

Capturing a fast-moving sea lion is half observation and half drawing on memory. It doesn't matter if the sketches in a nature journal are detailed or rough, as long as the memory is fixed, the observation recorded, that's all that matters. 

In the class, we'll use watercolors and pencil to chronicle  some of the plants, animals, and landscapes at Bluffs Park. We'll also explore the art of observation—sharping the ability to describe what we see. I think it will be fun and useful, whether you are new to nature journaling or have kept a journal for years.

My journal, especially in springtime, is full of birds, but almost anything can be the subject for a nature journal. Poetry can evolve out of written descriptions. Some journal-keepers press objects like leaves or flowers between the pages. Sketches might range from stick figures dashed off with a ballpoint pen to intricate pen and ink drawings. Watercolors might be used to match the exact colors in a leaf or feather, or in loose, abstract washes that attempt to capture the colors of the sky or the rush of birds in flight.

The Creative Nature Journaling class is offered in two four-week sessions on Wednesdays, 10 am-noon. The first session is June 15 to July 6; the second, July 13-August 3. There is an $80 fee per session, and a $25 material fee that includes all of the necessary art supplies. I would be delighted, dear reader, if you would join us. More information, including the registration form, is available on the City of Malibu's Parks and Recreation website, here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Flying Whales

The 2016 gray whale migration is winding down, but it seems to be going out with a splash this year. This group of five northbound whales appeared to be engaged in a sort of cetacean ballet, punctuated with spectacular leaps and tail lobbing. I have no idea if the performance had to do with vigilance and safety or joie de vivre, but I've never seen anything quite like it, not in a lifetime of watching the horizon for marvels. All photos © 2016 S. Guldimann

Have you ever seen a whale fly, dear reader? I have. For nearly twenty minutes this evening I watched gray whales leap through the air, splashing back into the sea with an explosion of spray.

That heart-shaped spout is the most conspicuous sign that gray whales are in the water. Although, sometimes the best way to spot whales is to look for humans pulled over by the side of the road pointing out to sea with expressions of wonder.

The adventure began with the telltale sight of whale spouts off Corral Beach. Stopping on Pacific Coast Highway can be a dangerous endeavor, but there wasn't much traffic. I pulled over in the company of four other carloads of spectators and stood sharing the feeling of awe and wonder with a group of strangers I had never seen before and would probably never see again. "Oh, look!" we said to one another. "How beautiful!" "Did you see that?" "Can you believe that?"

A whale rockets out of water...

Launching itself into the air...

Then, splash!

On many occasions I've watched whales steam decorously and determinedly across the bay with just the occasional spout or glimpse of back visible. This group danced and rolled and flapped their tails and flew through the air.

This whale is spyhopping—poking its head out of the water presumable for a look around.

How can something that vast be so incredibly graceful?

One last breath, and the travelers are on their way again.

My companions and I watched the whales until they vanished out of sight, headed toward Point Dume and on the next phase of their epic journey to the arctic seas that are their summer home. 

The last heart-shaped spouts caught the light of the setting sun, and then the whales were gone. One by one, their earthbound watchers awoke from the spell, got back into their cars, and drove away, each of us aware that we had witnessed something amazing; whales, flying through the air like birds, or like angels.