Where on Earth?!

At a very early hour in the rosy ambience of a half- moon dawn, I found myself alone on an empty highway and watched as the rising sun cast shadows over corrugated hills that had felt those first rays of the day for millions of years.  Rearranged from periodic burps of the earth, the rounded hills soared to abrupt heights and spread for miles in all directions, preventing any straight lengths of this road, which twisted and climbed and dropped like corduroy pleats in a heap of disheveled laundry.  Vast sheets of rippling grass covered the vertical terrain, while trees and brush clustered along the occasional deep canyons.

After ten miles in this terrain, the road climbed to cross a high ridge, and at the top I approached one of the very few vehicles that were transiting this route, some lost soul that wobbled to the shoulder and let me pass.  The other side of this ridge opened to a vast panorama of coastal mountains that blocked a view that would otherwise reach the Pacific Ocean.  Gifted with flowing streams, the abrupt drop down the other side became more wooded, and in the early morning light I spied a roosting owl securely nestled deep in the tangled branches of a tree.

I had a destination, but it was still far off in the distance; one, two, four layers of ridges away at a minimum.  Winding downward from the mountain top, wide valleys of pasture opened up, and I spied a lone elk with a swath of pasture all to himself.  As the miles clicked by, I mused over the likelihood of finding the wild creatures that I sought at the end of this drive, since it is never a given that nature will reveal her secrets.

And I thought about the miles I had left behind, with relief, since those miles were in the congested realm of freeways and crowded cities.  I had been in crowds for four days of showing art work, and the solitude of this early hour on the long homeward journey was welcome. Those city miles were well worth it, for I had been honored with a permanent sculpture installation in a public sculpture garden and park.  The large eagle pair that I had carved in white cedar was well received in its new location, and I had reunited with past collectors of my work at the weekend art exhibition that coincided with the dedication ceremony of my sculpture.

Finally, I found the turn off that I was seeking on this remote highway, and after four more miles I arrived at the open gates guarding one of our national parks.  Curiously, the admissions booth was unmanned, though that was understandable early on a Monday morning.  I drove on through to the parking area of the trailhead that I had chosen to explore, which was also absent of cars or people.

Elated by the promise of solitude on these wilderness trails, I trekked up through the escarpments without hesitation, eager for a chance to observe one of the rarities of nature that had drawn me to this place.  Within half a mile of hiking, I paused at an unusual hollow tree formation dominating the trail, and as if it were an omen pointing the way, I glanced up at the skyline– a California Condor was sprawled atop a pinnacle of rock!  Preening and rustling his feathers about, he ignored my close presence as I quietly crept up the steep hillside to the base of his rock.  In one thrilling moment I was within fifty feet of the condor, a quiet victory after traveling many miles uncertain if any glimpses of these monolithic birds would actually occur.

After waiting patiently to see him soar with no results, I continued up a narrow ravine that gained altitude and eventually opened up into a wide canyon lined with cliffs and stark pinnacles reaching for the sky. This was the “High Peaks” region of the park, and it was here that I hoped for a glimpse of more condor action.  Just seeing the one fulfilled my endeavor, but true to human nature, I wanted more, and my next desire was to see the magnificent birds in flight, soaring freely in the wild.

I was not to be disappointed. Patiently scanning the escarpments with my binoculars, bumps of black appeared silhouetted against the blue sky at the ridge tops.  I spied three separate groups of condors on three separate cliff tops, and as I watched, random individuals dived from their perches and glided over the canyons.  At one point at least six birds were soaring at once, dipping low over gorges and sweeping high and circling out of sight over the highest crags, and returning to alight on their favored ledges.  The entire time, two kingly elders held their positions at the very peak of two different monoliths with full wingspans stretched out and held in place to absorb the sun’s warmth, a common pose among coastal cormorants.

As an afterthought, I was perplexed that the condor that I first viewed perched on a precipice was not startled into flight.  A wild turkey vulture would never have allowed a human to approach within the same distance without taking flight.  The well- being of wild animals includes a security zone that cannot be breached, with many species intolerant of any human presence.  This encounter of the condor languishing on his pinnacle proved the obvious, that he was familiar with people handlers and although living in the wilds, was not nearly as wild as his turkey vulture cousins.  That degree of “wild” could take many generations of fledglings hatched in the wild to achieve.

Fortunately these carrion seeking birds are heading in that direction, as I discovered later that somewhere up in the High Peaks, up in those rocks pocked with small caves, was a nest with a newly hatched chick.  This boosted the Central California flock to ninety one birds, and most importantly, a newcomer that was not raised and trained in captivity. He [it’s a boy!] is condor number 912.

California Condor, work in progress, free form myrtlewood 18 x 12 x 30 ©Terry Woodall

In many cases, my approach to carving wildlife individuals is to follow a “celebrate the species” mindset, and to acknowledge recovering species by doing so.  The condor recovery program fits this mold perfectly.  It is on the backs of many biologists and ornithologists that we are able to see this endangered species up close and personal in the wild.  In creating art with a “Celebrate the Species” mindset, I am currently sculpting a “celebrate the species” condor in tribute to their dedication and outstanding achievements that has reversed the certain extinction of the California Condor.

Where on Earth?!  Pinnacles National Park, Central California, May 2018

Posted in Artist Travels, Outdoor Adventure, Wildlife Art, wildlife viewing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Carved Eagles Dedication Ceremony

“Winged Companions”  cedar driftwood sculpture, 44″ x 36″

The Fallbrook Art Center recently concluded its landmark 25th annual “Reflections of Nature” wildlife art exhibition and combined the art show with a sculpture dedication ceremony in their nature conservancy sculpture garden.  A special dedication of a Terry Woodall sculpture highlighted the ceremony as “Winged Companions,” an outdoor cedar sculpture of two eagles in Woodall’s signature free form style, was installed in the  sculpture garden.  The sculpture event was followed by the weekend long wildlife art exhibition at the Fallbrook Art Center.  This exhibition has consistently drawn top artists from around the nation, and was founded by wildlife artist Gamini Ratnavira, who spoke about the history of the event at the dedication ceremony.

This sculpture dedication served as a tribute to the many wildlife artists who have attended the show over the past 25 years, and to the collaboration of the Fallbrook Land Conservancy and Fallbrook’s Art in Public Places program.  Over the past 15 years, many sculptures depicting animals of the region have been installed in this Palomares House Park and Sculpture Garden.  At the dedication of his sculpture,  Woodall spoke of his gratitude on the selection of his sculpture and his connections to the Fallbrook community, the merits of the program, and his personal art.

The Fallbrook Land Conservancy’s mission is to bring awareness to the importance of conservation and preservation, and the Art in Public Places program presents art as a means of communication.

Photo credits:  Maria Schaeffer

“Winged Companions”  in their permanent placement at the ceremony.


An admirer of the outdoor sculpture.

Terry Woodall with Vince Ross at left, patron of Fallbrook arts and a sponsor of the installation.









Artist Terry Woodall with his art and the dedication plaque.

Posted in Wildlife Art, Wildlife Art Shows | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Where on Earth?! Southern France

“My work had sold, mission accomplished, I could start for home at the end of the night.   But there were still a few things that I must do….”   continuing from previous story;

The sharp, conical peaks appeared like upside down tops in a slow spin as the plane rotated over them on its long, curving course.  One after another they bumped up through a soft blanket of fog that concealed the earth below.  They were the Cordillera Cantabrica, a mountain range creating a formidable wall between the sea we had crossed from London and the high plateau of Central Spain.

I was on a mission, actually a dual mission, which included a flight to Madrid, but the Madrid destination can wait for a more complete story of a dear friend’s life and time of need.  Next, I was over the Pyrenees, that ancient barrier between France and Spain that had harbored prehistoric humans beneath its pinnacles.  And those prehistoric remnants were part of my quest, a quest that had begun with The Educator.

The Educator read the entire book to the class, out loud, one chapter at a time.  On and on the story went, covering an era of mankind before there was a designation of “mankind”.  The dialogue explored the mysteries of people in a prehistoric world and how they lived, and I was fascinated by the paintings of animals on cave walls and how they were rendered.  That they were discovered by youths at play added to the intrigue, because, like everyone else in the classroom, I was nine and in the fourth grade. When the curriculum ended, I was so enthralled by these stories of an ancient and little known culture that I re-read the book over and over again.

That is how I became familiar with the term Cro-Magnon, and this interest from childhood overlapped with my current career as an accomplished wildlife artist, which led me to a spot called Cro-Magnon, a rock shelter where remains of modern humans were first found that proved to be 30,000 years old.  Hence, the place name of this original find was applied to the peoples of that Paleolithic era.

As a wildlife artist knowing and admiring many excellent wildlife artists around the world, I was driven to see the works of the first wildlife artists known to mankind.  There was no specific goal with this venture, only my romantic notion of reliving what had occurred, of absorbing and observing the bison and mammoths, horses and rhinos, cave bear and ibex, all painted on cave walls and ceilings. I wanted to stand where these first artists stood and did their work.  I wanted to breathe the cave air and follow their same paths meandering from one great work to another, to experience the feeling of the world’s first great art being performed.

Imagine the awesome timeline of these early artists, which goes back 40,000 years to the first cave paintings.  By comparison, the advent of agriculture until the present is 12,000 years, and civilization’s growth began 5000 years ago. These sanctuaries of art were used and reused, creating a cultural connection over millenniums, since new painting were added on the same cave walls as much as 10,000 years apart.   Some of the oldest paintings are also among the very finest, which indicates that there was not an evolution of skills or talent.

Once in Southern France, I headed straight for Pech Merle, a vast network of caverns with paintings dated at 29,000 years ago.  To find the grotto tucked into a rugged hillside, I first dropped down into a gorge of limestone cliffs that lined the verdant Lot River.  Impeccably quaint villages occasionally lined the road as it followed the river upstream through lush green valleys framed by escarpments, and the entire scene could easily be one of fairy tales.  As the elevation increased and the river narrowed, I stopped beside a huge, old gristmill at the river’s edge and cooled off in the fast moving, sparkling water.  When the Cele River joined the Lot, I left the rural road for an even rougher route along the Cele, and eventually climbed to the cave entrance.

When I left the hot summer air for the cool innards of the earth, I was immediately impacted by the narrow, tight corridors and the lengthy trek before me.  After the initial claustrophobic entrance passed, the scene opened into great grotto rooms complete with stalagmites and stalactites, a limestone cavern that was worthy of exploring even without the paintings.  But then a pair of mammoths appeared etched into the soft clay of one wall, and scratches by cave bear claws were pointed out by the guide.  A cave bear skeleton had been found nearby, and when we viewed an exquisite bear head engraved on the wall, the true impact of this venture began to hit home.  Following were beautifully rendered elk antlers in red and a shadow of the head almost erased by time, and on the same wall close by, a human hand print outlined with the same red ocher.  Nearby, footprints of youths embedded in clay had hardened into a permanent testimonial of human activity.

At the end of the extensive walk through time was the grand finale of two spotted horses painted on an upright, monolithic slab of rock over twelve feet in length.  Back to back and dappled with red and black spots, the horses filled the panel, along with outlines of five human hand prints around the perimeter.  The prints were made by placing a hand on the wall and blowing pigments around it using a slender, hollow bone.

At the upper right edge of the slab, the natural rock topography formed the shape of a horse head and could have helped inspire the paintings, since the use of natural shapes on cave walls to enhance the form of a subject was a common practice in Paleolithic rock art.  These type of features especially intrigued me, since I use those same concepts with my wood sculpture.

Stone Age Man–a modern day monument overlooking the main street of Les Eyzies.

After recovering from sensory overload, I drove another hour into the heart of stone- age antiquity.  The village of Les Eyzies is sandwiched between extensive limestone cliffs rife with caves and the Vezere River, and after a few blocks into the town, there I was, at that spot called Cro-Magnon.

Font de Gaume:  The next morning brought me to the Font de Gaume, a grotto at the edge of Les Eyzies.  After following a trail along the cliff edge, two round holes suddenly opened up in the limestone wall.  Among the many animal paintings encountered inside, the frieze of five bison is considered to be among the finest of all Paleolithic art.  Their contours were engraved, utilizing the natural forms of rock, and then were painted in black-brown and red.  One bison in particular is perhaps the most expressive of the five; details of the anatomy, fur texture, and facial expressions make this painting a remarkable example of the skills developed by these artists 16,000 years ago.

Cliffs over Les Eyzies; silhouette of stone age man monument in lower right hand corner.

For the early artist palette, clay ochers containing iron and manganese oxides were used for red, yellow and brown, while ground calcite produced white and carbon made black.  Colorants were ground and mixed with a variety of liquids, and crayons were made from solid lumps of the material.  Extenders of crushed animal bone were also added to make the paint adhere and prevent cracking as it dried.

Another exemplary painting present in this grotto is the “licking reindeer”, a male reindeer licking the head of a kneeling female, both portrayed with fine sets of antlers.  The black tongue brushing the female forehead is fully visible in one of the more touching interactions portrayed by these people from a faraway time.

Abri Cap Blanc: My next destination was four miles away on an empty country road that passed through wooded hills, a drive that was interrupted only by a colorful partridge scooting along.  The parking area was rough, and the path to the rock shelter wound down a hillside and into a river valley, all heavily forested.  As I began down the path with the feeling of negotiating a remote canyon, a view opened up across the valley, and emerging high above the tree line was a blocky and weathered medieval castle!  The Castle of Commarque served as a gentle reminder of the foreign landscape that I was actually negotiating.

An immersion in limestone sculpture awaited at the bottom of the canyon. Beneath a rock overhang were magnificent carved horses in a full bas-relief spanning 27 feet, with fourteen figures identified in the overall mural.  Five horses, some over six feet long, along with bison and reindeer, were all carved into a limestone cliff.  Although the remnants were somewhat meager due to 15,000 years of erosion, enough detail remained to discern the animals and verify that they were masterworks of early man.  A grave site and numerous artifacts were also found in front of this sculpture ensemble, and a limestone relief carving of a female figure [the Venus of Laussel] dated at 25,000 BC was found under another rock overhang a few hundred yards away.

Although I stopped by the rock shelter harboring the oldest known fish carving on the planet, a highly detailed salmon, it was not accessible at that time.  What a thrill it would be, although it would never be allowed, to run my hands over that 3’ fish and see how it would relate to the many routine salmon that I carve!

La Grotte Rouffignac:  Finally, I ventured to a more distant cave complex, which is one of the largest in Europe.  The great hall of this cavern is called the Grand Plafond, and is so distant inside the grottos that an electric tram has been devised to take visitors to the site.   This Grand Ceiling includes 66 mammals outlined in black, all circling on an extensive cave ceiling.  The mammoths, horses and ibex were particularly impressive, as were a trio of rhinos marching on a wall nearby.

It was late evening by the time I left this cave complex and its last tour of the day.  That left a few hours to catch a plane back to London and the ongoing, twenty first century wildlife art show that required my presence.  With a panic drive of two and a half hours, I made the airport and found out that, luckily, the flight had been delayed.

Photos of cave art; see http://www.donsmaps.com/vezereclickarchaeology.html, click on site of interest.

Where on Earth?!  Southern France,  June, 2017

Posted in Artist Travels, Wildlife Art, Wildlife Art Shows | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Where on Earth?! London

On the longest day of the year, when the sun kept its northerly sweep across the horizon unchanged, the window seat at forty thousand feet fronted a blazing sky scape.  Greenland ice bergs dotted the sea far below as that fireball stayed apace with the big jet on its course to the northeast.  Although it was well past its time, that stubborn ole’ sun refused to set, and I refused to take my eyes away as it bobbed along at the very edge of the earth.

This went on for some time, when finally it began to sink below the horizon.  It’s actually going down, I thought, and as its final glimmer disappeared, something amazing suddenly appeared! The green flash! For only an instant, an envelope of gaseous green surrounded the spot vacated by the last sliver of the red disc.  Shortly after the occurrence of this rare phenomenon, the sun began to rise, and in those few short minutes of sunset to dawn the entire night had passed and the next day had begun.

Riding out the rest of the flight, I contemplated the prospects that awaited.  I didn’t know that I was on my way to a magical place called Crystal Palace.  I did not know that I would be walking up a road called Hamlet Street, to the top of a hill called Fox Hill.  It was on that very British flavored Fox Hill that Pablo and Maribel welcomed me into their home.  I did know that a sculpture I created would be exhibited in a major  art exhibition at my destination.

That was yet to come; meanwhile, many mixed apprehensions beset me, although I knew my bronze herons were set to be in the “Wildlife Artist of the Year” exhibition in the heart of London.  Literally in the heart; the Mall Galleries are next to Trafalgar Square on a road called “The Mall” that begins at the square and ends at Buckingham Palace.  Perhaps the gallery and its surroundings of stoic buildings sprinkled with towering monuments were not so impressive to the everyday Londoner going about their daily tasks, but for an artist from the foothills of North America’s Pacific coast, this location had overtones of a fairy tale. Part of the fairy tale was just being juried into such an exclusive art show in a fabled part of the city.

Opening night, Mall Galleries [left center] in the rain, in the summer, in London.

Leading up to my journey to the opening night of this art show, the city was beleaguered with misfortunes, including a spate of extremist attacks and the inferno of a high rise fire with many fatalities. Among my apprehensions, threats to my personal safety were not a concern, but on this mission to sell and show my art, I wondered if less people would be in circulation and venturing out to partake of summer events.  That thought was quickly put to rest when I arrived on the streets of London and mixed with the thousands upon thousands filling the cities’ main thoroughfares with no regard to undesirable events.  Transportation systems were like toothpaste tubes full of humanity steadily being squeezed onto the streets well into the long summer nights.

My hosts Pablo and Maribel were particularly proud of one of their Spanish brethren turned hero in the recent London Bridge terrorist attacks.  A young skateboarder lad from Spain came upon a policeman being stabbed, and immediately began pounding on the assailant with his skateboard.  As he gained the upper hand protecting the officer, he was knifed from behind by another jihadist accomplice.  As I strolled by a makeshift memorial on that bridge, the skated board stood high above the flowers, honoring the heroic act and eulogizing both its former owner and the policeman.

Pablo, an architect in a London firm, was very much intrigued by the many outstanding architectural feats of his adopted city.  He was proud to show me the sweeping lines of the Tate Modern and explained the construction and its visual attributes.  After admiring the museum exterior we climbed to the top floor lounge and found a seat at the long countertop running down a wall of windows looming over the city skyline.  St. Paul’s Cathedral with its huge dome towered over the Thames River directly below and front, while modern skyscrapers filled the view to the right.

As I marveled at the view, Pablo explained the many buildings and we debated their architectural merits, the contrast of modern and old gothic, and their composition along the fabled river bank below us.  Rising above all else was the Shard building, tallest in the European Union.  I thought that some of the odd shaped modern high rises skirting around the Shard seemed out of place in the city skyline, and Pablo agreed.  One was egg shaped and one leaned at a precarious angle.  “The building designs could stand alone as exceptional architecture, but don’t seem to compliment the overall city skyline,” he stated, and went on to describe a funny misstep in the leaning building’s design.  “The unintentional flaw showed up after it was unveiled and functioning.  The super modern design with its angular and concave wall of glass had the detrimental effect of focusing the sun’s rays like a magnifying glass.  The extra heat channeled to the streets below was genuinely uncomfortable, to the extent that things were being melted, and alterations to the building were quickly put in place.”

Every day I passed endless rooftops as I sped from central London to the train’s Crystal Palace Station, a half hour commute to the home of my gracious hosts.  Crystal Palace once was the site of a huge exhibition hall constructed almost entirely of glass, which gave it the appearance of a giant art deco greenhouse.  There were acres and acres of landscaped grounds, complete with replicas of the Egyptian sphinx and other monumental figures.  Extensive retaining walls and stairways surrounded the main hall of this early twentieth century extravaganza.  After a mid-century fire razed the main building, the statues and stone works remain today in an expansive city park that includes a soccer stadium.  Nearby pathways wind through a series of waterways in a lush, wooded area that is a delight for children of all ages because of the life size, cement dinosaurs dwelling there.

Foreign and familiar realities can mix in a surprising brew when you find yourself out in the world.  Once upon a time my homeland was known as the timber capital of the world, so much so that the defining tree of that title was known worldwide as the “Oregon Pine.”  Endless forests of that tree, the stalwart Douglas fir, cover the western third of Oregon, and it is only native to western North America.  Imagine my surprise as I strolled through a main thoroughfare lined with Crystal Palace shops and came across the “Douglas Fir” bar.  Ducking into the doorway, I came to a large countertop bar proudly constructed from Doug fir planks, along with other rustic furnishings.  After some discussion with the bar keep, I learned that the trees are planted in the UK, one being the tallest tree of the British Isles, and the wood for the bar came from a tree cut in the nearby countryside.

Wildlife Artist of the Year art exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London

The opening night of the gallery exhibition came soon enough, and it was packed beyond my wildest expectations.  Champagne was served at the door to a full house of patrons looking forward to the presentation of the Wildlife Artist of the Year Award and browsing the incredible worldwide art on display.

Although working artists seek collectors, many easy associations and friendships occur with fellow artists as well.  Standing in line for admission to the gallery, I met a very friendly and gregarious artist from Germany, Tom Lazic, who traveled to Africa often for studying and painting his favorite wildlife subjects.  A close neighbor to my work on the gallery floor was the work of Pascal Chesneau, a former Wildlife Artist of the Year, whose rugged interpretive sculptures seemed like expressions that would come from a French artist.  Although he spoke very little English and I knew less French, we got along famously.

Besides honoring the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s “Wildlife Artist of the Year”, approximately nine other cash award were presented at this art opening, including David Shepherds personal choice.  That award went to Karen Laurence-Rowe for her serenely beautiful painting of elephants wading in a flooded plain.  Incidentally, both Karen and David were recipients of the Artists for Conservation’s annual Simon Combes Award for wildlife conservation, David being the very first at the AFC’s inaugural event, with Karen’s award presented in 2015.

Midway through the lively buzz of the opening, a gentleman seemed overly interested in the label attached to the pedestal of my bronze sculpture, so much so that he kneeled down close and photographed the label with his I-phone.  I politely inquired if I could answer any questions he may have, and he explained that he needed the photo to identify the piece when he made the purchase at the sales counter.  “I want to buy it before someone else does,” he explained.   Experience has taught me to use restraint when faced with wild optimisms that don’t always become a reality, so I retreated as he continued to admire my sculpture.

Sure enough, a short time later an attendant attached a red dot, and the English gentleman had secured his art piece.  My work had sold, mission accomplished, I could start for home at the end of the night.   But there were still a few things that I must do….

Where on Earth?!  London, England   June of 2017

Footnote:  As it turned out, this was to be the last show for David Shepherd, the mentor of this exhibition and a foremost leader of wildlife protection worldwide.  While writing this account of the tenth annual Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition,  the news came that he had passed away at the age of 86, a few short months after presiding over his final wildlife art exhibition. Beginning in 1973, as an artist and conservationist, he had led an aggressive campaign to protect wildlife worldwide, which evolved into the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation in 1984.  Funds raised by this art show support progressive wildlife conservation programs of the DSWF.


Posted in Wildlife Art, Wildlife Art Shows | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Where on Earth?! These Birds Can Fly


Bronze sculpture of heron pair, original driftwood sculpture on right.
© Terry Woodall

Bronze editions of the driftwood heron pair titled “Matters of the Heart” were recently selected for two international art exhibitions, one in London, England, and one in Qingdao, China.

The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation selected “Matters of the Heart” as a finalist in their tenth annual Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London.  The work will be displayed at the exhibition from June 28 through July 2, 2017.  The wildlife artist of the year will be announced, along with other award winners, at the opening ceremonies on the evening of June 27.

The other bronze sculpture of the heron pair is part of the Artists for Conservation Foundation’s touring exhibit “The Art of Conservation” which travels to Qingdao, China.  The exhibition takes place at the Lan Wan Art Gallery in Lan Wan Art Park, a relatively new 300 acre ecological park, monumental sculpture garden and art village centrally located in one of China’s most beautiful and important coastal cities, Qingdao City.  The Art of Conservation Exhibition runs from August 1 through September 30, 2017.

Where on Earth?!  London, England and Qingdao, China


Posted in Artist Travels, Wildlife Art, Wildlife Art Shows | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Following the Song of the Seal

An Artistic Field Study of the Hawaiian Monk Seal

Purpose of study:  to observe and photograph the rare monk seals in their natural habitat and create art from the study to help promote awareness of this endangered species.


In an island world in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are found the only tropical seals left in the world, the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal.  Historically and currently, these seals have been isolated in their primary habitat of the northern reaches of the Hawaiian Archipelago, starting with the main islands of Kauai and Ohau and ending at Kune atoll past Midway Island.  There are only about 1400 of these marine mammals in existence today, and approximately 40 make Kauai their home base.

For this artistic field study of the monk seal, “celebrating the species” is the approach I take in drawing attention to the efforts and successes of people working hard on behalf of the endangered animals, and the positive results from their efforts.  True heroes, they are fully committed to protecting endangered wildlife and helping to perpetuate their numbers, and in the case of the monk seals they are succeeding as numbers are increasing.

From the Hawaii fisheries department of NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the Kauai Marine Mammal Response team are NOAA personnel Jamie Thomton and Gary Langley, and marine mammals response field coordinator Mimi Olry, all key to the success of this field study.  Their generous assistance and guidance enabled me to observe and record the rare mammals for the purpose of creating art inspired by this unique theater of nature.

It’s just another day in paradise, as three monk seals slumber well apart on this isolated beach.  Unlike most seals, monks do not haul out in groups, but are more solitary in their habits.

A beautiful morning of blue sea and sky finds me clambering over huge lava boulders to the edge of an abrupt cliff dropping off to white sands and the sea.  From here the beach meanders for a long mile until it ends at another escarpment of ancient lava flows, and while I marvel over the scene, albatrosses soar just above my head like sea gulls on steroids.  As a key part of this artistic field study and for likely observations of the Hawaiian Monk Seals, Gary Langley of NOAA has invited me to hike this beach with him, which he monitors almost daily, and when he arrives, we make our way down the rough path to the sand below.

Impressions made in the sand by seals dragging their marine bodies onto the shoreline are the first signs of seal activity we come across.  Gary explains that they are from the day before, as they feed at night and take their siestas under the warm afternoon sun.  As the excitement of our search builds, we round a corner of rock outcroppings and come upon our first monk seal.   Gary surmises that he is likely from another area of the islands further away, as he is more nervous as we approach, glancing up at us often and shuffling around.  The regulars on this beach would just sleep in their sand wallows and ignore us, and we soon see that this is also the case, as we spy two more slumbering further down the same stretch of beach. One is quite large, as they can be seven feet long and weigh 450 pounds.

On an island limited in size like Kauai, nothing is really remote or isolated by distance, but there are many idyllic locations isolated by rugged terrain, inaccessible topography and jungle growth.  This long beach favored by the monk seals was thusly isolated and somewhat difficult to access.  After a comprehensive discourse from Gary on the numbers, identities, and birthing successes of seals frequenting this beach which is on his daily “beat”, I asked about the neighboring land, which was a wide plateau, open and flat, bordered by brush and tree lines.

“Does Zuckerberg know about the monk seals hauling out on this beach on a regular basis, and the need for extra protection here?” I asked.

“Oh yes, I have talked to Mark, and I communicate with his security teams from time to time,” Gary replied.  “I also have clearance for tending to the albatross chicks and their rookeries, which are up on his property.”

This mile long white sand beach is broken up in a few places by black lava rock strew out into the sea, and yes, 200 acres of the inland  plateau adjoining the sand is owned by the facebook king.  Scattered along the edge of his land were user friendly white signs with soft blue lettering appealing to the public with the script “Private Property, thank you for not trespassing,” rather than the more abrupt generic red or black warning signs commonly seen elsewhere.  Regardless of any adjoining private land, the beach is completely open to the public, as are all beaches in Hawaii.

We continued on, around more lava rocks to an idyllic lagoon of aqua green water shadowed with dark shoals, and spy a green sea turtle dug into the sand.  It gets a little nervous as we watch, then the surprise treat of the day unfolded; a monk seal came swimming through the shoals like a black torpedo and zeroed in on the sea turtles stretch of sand.  Incredibly, it swims close to where we are standing and begins squirming onto the sand.  He has decided to haul out right here, next to the turtle.  Meanwhile, the turtle decides he’s had enough and backs out, heading backwards into the water.  The seal continues humping his way up the sandy slope, the turtle hits the water and bobs around awhile.  When the seal scoots into his chosen spot, the turtle changes his mind, hits the beach once again, and shuffles his way back to his very same spot of sand.

By now the monk seal has proceeded to dig his head into the sand, scruffing and shaking to relieve the sea lice, fleas and other personal pests.  This is a typical comforting procedure the seals often carry out.  With some relaxing shrugs and flaps, both animals give in to the heat of the sun and call it a day.  We had watched this interaction of nature, which was the highlight of my field study, from a relatively close distance and were mostly ignored the entire time.

Hawaiian Monk Seal

Many of the seals are scarred by repeated shark bites, and though the tiger shark is their worst nightmare, most of the scars are from smaller sharks found a thousand feet down that nip off flesh when the monks dive down to feed.  If you are a Hawaiian monk seal, the struggle for survival is precarious even without the extra complications posed by humans.  Males fighting over a single female in their breeding season sometimes results in the death of the female.  This action, called “mobbing” will actually target the female.  No female, no new pups.

Monk tucked into the lava rocks.

After a full mile of this shoreline, we have also passed a scattering of nude sunbathers [human], a laysan albatross rookery with a group of grounded adult birds back in the brush line, and fantastic sandstone and basalt rock formations.  Lounging half in tide water while laying against low shelves of black lava rock is another monk seal, and even though his coat is gray, he is well disguised tucked in the crevices of the once molten magma.

We finally work our way out to a high cliff edge of volcanic rock wedging its way into the ocean, complete with an arched tunnel boiling with sea currents and waves.  The arch is our destination, and what a sight it is!  We can see a light house far up the coast fronted by a small island , which is the furthest point north of all the main Hawaiian Islands.  The volcanic rock under out feet was the last lava action of all of Kauai, sputtering out eons ago.

Within a mile out to sea beyond the arch, the humpback whales begin to frolic, and we finish the afternoon perched on volcanic boulders overlooking the arch and watch the humpbacks breaching and blowing over and over again.

*                        *                                  *                               *                       *

The day after my field study with Gary, he was involved in a rescue team to remove a seal from a canal in a populated area of Kauai.  This canal poses various problems for the monks, as they are drawn to fish scraps routinely discarded by local fishermen and risk entanglement in fishing gear, and at least two have been known to drown there.  It’s hard to imagine these adept sea mammals drowning, but entanglement in fishing nets can result in their demise.

Co-mingling is okay at this busy, mainstream  beach park, with yellow ribbons and warning signs staking out the seal’s space.  Another monk seal rests on the sand spit in the distance.

These solitary seals have no fear of humans and will haul out on beaches crowded with people.  Volunteers will stake out a “no go zone” perimeter around the seals with signs stuck into the sand, and the animals will snooze away unmolested by the crowds.  Since it blocks their escape route, walking between the seals and the water can make them nervous, and they have been known to nip at people.

On one occasion, I watched at a crowded beach as young man wandered through the seals private “box” and waded in the surf, oblivious to the wild sea mammal sprawled at his feet.  The diligent volunteer, an elderly lady, immediately shooed him away like a mother hen in a barnyard and pointed out the yellow ribbons he had stumbled through.  The fellow was very surprised and apologized profusely over his blunder.

Sharing the beaches.

Why is this important, these field personnel working with and watching over these marine mammals every day?  Once the Caribbean Sea had a balance of monk seals that were an integral part of nature in an aquatic world dotted with tropical isles.  No more.  The Mediterranean Monk Seal numbers are less than 400, although another colony has been discovered and kept top secret to help their chance of survival.  That leaves the seals inhabiting Hawaii for millions of years as the best chance for monk seals to continue existing on our planet.

Where on earth?!  Kauai, Hawaii, March, 2017

Photos and drawing by the author

Posted in Artist Travels, Outdoor Adventure, wildlife viewing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What on Earth?! Dog with the Heart Shaped Patch

My dog died; last May, when the flowers surrounding the yard where he had played reached for the sky, a full twelve foot wall of vibrant blossoms; rhododendrons exploding in deep purples, soft pinks, pure white and brilliant magenta.

Having experienced it more than enough times, the story is always the same; you lament their short life span, you bury your dog, and you move on.  Except this time was different.

“Rocky” came into our lives as an abandoned pup in a shoe box, rescued by a policeman friend after he was found wandering along a busy curb of a local video rental store.  He was almost twelve when he left us.  He knew lots of words, including “buzzard” which really got him going with barking fits when they circled overhead. For our occasional overnight outings, he would be left at the folks’ house, and many times they recounted how he would know our return was imminent, to the hour, on the day we were due.

Dr. Dan the vet diagnosed a cancerous tumor.  Briefly but gently, he explained ”your dog has two months to live.”  This was followed by what seemed to be a period of remission.  Except for a few not so good days, he stayed the same and did not deteriorate.  There was no spiraling downhill trend.  Then, without any warning signs, exactly two months to the day from Dr. Dan’s prediction, the furry faced terrier mutt with the heart shaped patch on his side dragged himself across the floor to his special corner of the carpet, lay motionless for twelve hours or so, and passed on.

Dog with the heart shaped patch on his side.

Dog with the heart shaped patch on his side.

As my routine shop work commenced three days later, I noticed something bright white emerging from the muddy gravel of the back lot, about fifteen feet from the big bay door that I use daily.  I keep this area clean of debris on a regular basis, walk by every day, and this white object was new and out of place. Further inspection found it to be a hard plastic “chewy” toy bone poking up that must have been buried there for years. Pulling it from the mud, I brushed it off and in a fit of emotion, contemplated the hard worn teeth marks made in my dog’s youth.

Soon, the uncanny appearance of this toy began to sink in, since he only brought his toys up to the shop in his younger years, and never in the latter years of his life. The bay door area merged into a track into the woods, where a 69,000 pound excavator had been working only six months earlier.  It had driven over and parked frequently right where the bone emerged.  Over the years, new layers of gravel had been laid in that same spot, and myrtle logs were dragged over the area routinely.  I could not fathom how this “Rocky Relic” had emerged so suddenly from what must have been deep layers of earth.

Two weeks later, I enjoyed a typical bike ride three miles down to the bay.  An arrow straight slough parallels the road for the last mile before emptying out bayside, and an expansive pasture buffers the coast range foothills on the roads opposite side.  It is a peaceful country ride with many marshland birds and wildlife sightings, and this day was no exception.  From the corner of my eye, I discerned a brown, deer like figure out in this pasture, but it began darting around in a non- deer like fashion.  Stopping my bike, I saw that it was a coyote running away, but looking back at me over his shoulder. Then it sat on its haunches and stared back at me.  When I moved my bike closer, off the pavement, the young looking coyote ran away over the subtle berms of the field.  But then he would stop and look back.

Amused at his antics, I played cat and mouse with him by moving my bike up and down the road, chasing him from a distance.  He would run away parallel to my movements, and then come back again, sitting and staring.  When I tired of the game and proceeded towards the bay, he followed me.  Finally, I left the playful coyote behind, and enjoyed a brief stop with vistas of the bay.  But on my return ride, there he was again, chasing along as I rode homewards and mused over this random canine connection that came so shortly after losing my dog.

Ten days before he left us, I took Rocky in the jeep for a few miles of driving along the edge of the ocean, and let him run on the sandy beach and sniff among the driftwood piles, two things he loved to do.  We drove to the top of a sand dune, with miles of sand and ocean in view.

His final days weren’t the way they were supposed to be.  The dog seemed healthy until his last twenty four hours, and, unfortunately, I was at an art show in Southern California and absent from his final day.  My wife was alone with him instead of me on that morning; it was only right that I should have been there to share in the good bye, and to relieve some of her emotional trauma, but life and death does not follow any convenient script.  As he lay motionless on his corner of the living room carpet, I was there with him at the end of a phone line a thousand miles away, and while my wife and I shared the trauma, he seemed to recognize my voice from a cell phone, and knowing his final links to life were complete, he let go.

The long trip home was a blur, and at the bay so close to the end of the journey I made a stop.  I found a big jagged rock appropriate for Rocky’s marker, and tossed it in the truck.  Because your canine pet is always around, always glad to see you, and always wanting to play, he becomes an extension of yourself, and when they are gone, a part of you goes with them.

I wrapped him in his special “home” blanket and laid him to rest.  All of our county icons were there, printed on the throw blanket that was his for many years; a fishing boat, logging truck, sand dunes, ocean beaches, and the long bridge over the bay.  My wife laid his favorite toy, a raggy stuffed duck, in front of him and said in a whimsical tone “he looks as if he were lying asleep on the floor.”

I caressed a long, floppy ear, those comical ears that would stick up and out of place until he would shake them so they would fall back and hang down where they belonged.  I gently folded the errant ear back into place over the side of his face, stood up and let the shovel erase all but the memories.

What on Earth?!  Dog with the heart shaped patch on his side.

Posted in Oregon Home, wildlife viewing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments