The Art of Nature at Home: Megan Gnekow

Explore science illustration with artists featured in our annual exhibit, The Art of Nature, and get tips for how to make your own science illustrations at home. This post is from Megan Gnekow, recipient of the Museum’s 2019 Laura Hecox Naturalist Award.

I make scientific illustrations because I want to inspire folks to look closely at the world around them. I want to make complexities and relationships more clear, helping people understand that all organisms are connected to each other. — Megan Gnekow

Prompt: Sequential Observations

There are so many great ways to use a nature journaling project to connect to your local habitat(s). One of my favorites is sequential observations — making notes and sketches about an organism you observe over time. Spring is a great time to do this because there are so many visible changes happening in our environments.

Choose an organism that you can observe regularly over a period of time (the period of shelter-in-place is a good place to start!). Observe the organism you have chosen as frequently as you are able to and make notes and sketches about what you observe. Note date, time, location (macro-habitat and micro-habitat). Use as many of your senses as you can and record what you learn!

Recording your observations over time gives you insights into an organism and the environment in which it lives. Hopefully this plants a seed for further observations and exploration. Don’t worry about making beautiful drawings. Just sketch and/or note what you observe! 

If you can’t get outside or have other limitations to observing organisms, there are plenty of webcams available to inspire you — I would suggest a bird camera hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the falcon cam at UC Berkeley.

Read more about Megan Gnekow here and visit her website here. Explore all of her illustrations from this peregrine falcon series here.

Natural Pigments

Sourgrass produces a bright yellow color

Experiment with creating art from nature! Many plants and rocks have pigments inside of them that you can paint or draw with. You can even go one step further and try making your own paint brush from found natural materials! 

How to find materials

Look in sidewalk cracks for leaves or flowers and look in dirt patches for different types of rocks. Look on bushes or trees for berries, flowers, and leaves. My favorite is oxalis, more commonly known as sourgrass (pictured to the right). It is a yellow flower that is common in Santa Cruz and makes a highlighter yellow color when used as natural paint. Bonus: this plant is invasive and is often considered a weed that you could completely remove.

Look in your kitchen for pigment materials!

On the other hand if you want to create art from nature but want to stay inside you can do that too! Some of your food can be used to paint and draw. For example, you can use colorful spices such as turmeric or paprika to create paint by mixing the powder with water. Beets, purple cabbage, and berries will also work – they often turn my cutting board different colors when I am chopping them! If you have a fireplace you can even use the small pieces of burnt wood that are left behind to draw with or you can grind it up and mix with water to create black paint. 

Collecting plants

  • Be respectful of the plants you collect
  • Only take what you need or take less than 10% of a plant (If there are 10 leaves on the plant, take only 1 and find other plants to pick from if you need more)
  • Collect with permission on private property and do not collect in State Parks
  • Stay away from harmful plants such as poison oak and stinging nettle

Creating Paint

  • Use your hands or a spoon to grind up the plants or rocks 
  • Try adding water or soaking items in warm water to soften them
  • Be patient, making your own paint is an experiment and it will often give you interesting surprises! See what happens if you add baking soda or vinegar- sometimes this will change the color of a paint!

Questions to ponder

  • What colors do you predict will be created from your items?
  • Did any of the colors surprise you? Why?
  • How did the colors change over time?
  • How did the colors change when you added different things (like baking soda or vinegar)?

Post by Elise

Solo Beach Cleanup

Beach cleanups are a way we can all enjoy the outdoors while serving our community. Whenever you’re walking along a beach, river, or other waterway, you can help keep it clean. While there’s a lot we can all do with reducing our own waste, cleanups can prevent some of it from going into our oceans. (As with all activities, remember to practice good social distancing!) Here’s what you need to know about conducting your own beach cleanup:

  1. Never touch anything with your bare hands. Be sure you’re wearing gloves. As for me, I use gardening gloves. The best thing is that they are washable, so I can keep reusing them. I also recommend close toed shoes.
  2. I use a bucket instead of a plastic bag to reduce my waste. A reusable shopping bag is also effective. Here’s me with all of my beach cleanup regalia.
  3. Do not touch anything sharp or organic. If you find dead animals or waste (poop), just leave it. If you find a biohazard, like a syringe, do not pick it up. If you want, you can call the police and tell them exactly where the biohazard is located, but you are not obligated to.
  4. If you see any living wildlife, give it plenty of space and do not disturb it. Even if that elephant seal is sitting right on top of a piece of plastic, let it be. Also, remember that all Marine Mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Act.
  5. Both the city and the county of Santa Cruz have specific but different criteria for what constitutes trash or recycling. I highly recommend you take a look at those before you start your cleanup:
  6. Pay attention to microplastics, or plastics that are smaller than 5 mm. Microplastics are by far the majority of the plastics that make it into our oceans. Just like larger pieces of plastics, any microplastic that gets ingested can’t be digested. And that’s not just for ocean animals. It’s estimated that we humans eat about a credit card’s size worth of plastic every week. Learn more here! 
  7. Take data! This will help researchers implement policies to reduce plastic pollution worldwide. I recommend you either download the Save Our Shores Marine Debris App or use the Save Our Shores data card. If you use a data card, you can take a picture of it and send it to us at volunteer@santacruzmuseum.org.

And lastly, remember to have a good time. Take a moment to enjoy the waves and the fresh air. We are so lucky to live in a place with gorgeous forests, a healthy ocean, and, most of all, with wonderful people. Thank you so much for being part of our community, and we look forward to seeing you sometime at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

Post by: Natalie

Gettin’ Birdy: Seabright Neighborhood Walk

There are quite a few habitats to be found around the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Today we will go on a short walk starting at the Museum, and ending at Arana Gulch Open Space Park. The Museum is located in Tyrrell Park. Let’s start there, where a number of interesting neighborhood birds live. House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) and golden-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) can be found flying through the bushes while the occasional red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) can be seen in the big eucalyptus tree. Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) can be seen flitting through the shrubs, making their “plinking” calls as they look for insects, sounding like tiny little tambourines.

As you walk out toward Seabright Beach you will probably see a wide variety of gulls and the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) poking around looking for something to eat. In the water you might see the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentails) flying around or the double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) swimming around chasing fish. As you walk towards the Santa Cruz Harbor and lighthouse keep your eyes peeled for the snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus) hiding in the sand dunes. Please keep your distance from these adorable and threatened birds as they nest on the same beaches that we play on, so we need to respect their space and their home. 

While you’re walking through the Santa Cruz Harbor, be on the lookout for some of the marine mammals that occasionally cruise through including California sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis), the Pacific harbor seal (Phoca vitulina richardii), and the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). Perched on the masts of the boats you might see the black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) or even a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with its wingspan of over 6 feet. 

If you head north through the Harbor you will come to Arana Gulch Open Space Park. This 67 acre park has open meadows surrounded by wetlands and beautiful oak forest. There have been many amazing wildlife sightings at Arana Gulch, including coyotes (Canis latrans) and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos). The wetland on the east side is home to the belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), a small and vocal bird which can be seen diving into the water to catch fish. The oak forests surrounding the edges provide habitats for the downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) and the California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica). In the meadows you can see the western bluebird (Sialia mexicana) and the western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) perched along the fences while you can often find the red-tailed hawk soaring overhead.

This short, hour-long walk takes you through some beautiful habitats and shows how nature is your neighbor and not something far away or hard to find.

Post by: Chris

Lecture: Loma Prieta +30

The Loma Prieta Earthquake of October 17, 1989 did over $6 billion in damage to the Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay areas of central California. This Naturalist Night lecture at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History was presented by Capitola Museum Curator Frank Perry on the occasion of the quake’s 30-year anniversary, October 17, 2019, in partnership between the two museums.

This lecture focuses on the geologic setting of the epicenter and phenomena associated with the earthquake. This video was created by Frank, combining an audio recording with the slides used in the talk. The speaker, Frank Perry, is introduced by our Public Programs Manager Marisa Gomez.

Gettin’ Birdy: Where are the Birds?

Birds are, quite literally, all around us. They are a constant presence in our cities, parks, and open spaces. The previous post provided an introduction to the “why” of birdwatching, and some basic tools and tips to get started. This post will introduce a selection of species that are common across nearly all habitat types in Santa Cruz – “the regulars”. Following “Gettin’ Birdy” posts will take deeper dives into particular birding hotspots, as well as bird biology and behavior. 

One of the great benefits of birdwatching is that birds are present in our cities and urban spaces. You don’t have to get far out into nature to see interesting species or witness unusual behavior. In fact, there are many interesting behaviors that are exhibited by birds that thrive alongside our city streets and buildings. Look for nests under the eaves of buildings or in brushy areas of backyards, and even in planters and garden boxes – certain ground-nesting birds often hide beneath ornamental shrubs and flowers! As you begin to explore your neighborhood and local area for birds, it can be nice to have an idea of what you might be seeing. The species list and images below can serve as a nice primer for “the regulars” that you may be able to see from your own window, front porch, or yard.

Post by: Spencer

Cultivating Nature Awareness

So much can be revealed to us when we immerse ourselves in our surroundings and give our undivided attention to nature! When we slow down and focus our senses, our awareness deepens and we begin to notice more. Noticing, in turn, leads to connection, familiarity, a desire for stewardship, a sense of place, and so much more. By familiarizing ourselves with nature in this way we can also learn to recognize patterns and relationships that exist all around us.

The intention for this guide is to help you build your sensory awareness skills through nature journaling, games, stories, and exercises in mindfulness. So grab a journal, head outside, and let’s begin!

Explore:
Nature Awareness Guide

This Nature Awareness Guide by our Education Assistant Ellen Stone was written as a capstone project for the California Naturalist Program, 2019.

Exploring Neary Lagoon

Neary Lagoon Wildlife Refuge is a beloved park nestled at the heart of Santa Cruz. Once a true lagoon (with an open connection to the ocean), Neary Lagoon is now a freshwater marsh. It is an important part of an 850 acre watershed that drains into the lagoon via Laurel Creek and Bay Creek before draining into the ocean through a controlled flood gate.

This is a 44-acre park with roughly 14 acres of freshwater lagoon, and is an important habitat for many animals. CLICK HERE to download a guided hike for a 1-mile loop through this beautiful wildlife refuge. As you observe wildlife, refer to this guide of commonly-spotted animals.

Post by: Chris

Our Animal Neighbors: Western Gray Squirrel

Have you seen a western gray squirrel quickly climbing a tree or running fast to cross the street in between cars? What else have you seen it do? Is there one that you see daily? I see one every day, climbing up and down a tree outside of my home. It often sits close to the fence, flicking its tail back and forth. Sometimes I feel like it does this just to taunt my dog, who is captivated by the squirrel on the other side of the fence.

Western gray squirrels live in Santa Cruz all year long. They mostly eat seeds and are known to steal from people’s bird feeders. They nest up in trees in “dreys”, which are made out of twigs and lined with moss or fur. They hide their food in caches (secret food storages) and will return to them when food is scarce. Their alarm call sounds like a bird chirp and it is used to warn others of a predator or danger in the area. 

Fun Facts:

  • Their large tail helps them balance when climbing and jumping between trees.
  • They can live up to 8 years old.
  • Their teeth never stop growing – they can grow up to 6 inches per year. Their teeth are never that long though because they are constantly wearing them down when they eat hard seeds. 
  • A group of squirrels is called a scurry.

CLICK HERE for a coloring sheet of a grey squirrel!

Here’s a video of Squirrel Sounds! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVRJsCsqFB0-

Post by: Elise