Keith Hansen and his Bolinas Wildlife Gallery and Studio
By Charles Post
Sixteen years and 1,400 paintings later, Keith Hansen has once again garnished and expanded our visual exploration and reference of avian ecology, a feat of epic proportions, one that truly captures the beauty of 320 bird species, all of whom call our beloved Sierra Nevada home. This comprehensive text, titled “Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status and Distribution”, authored by Ted Beedy and Ed Pandolfino, will surely become a hallmark for decades to come – a true masterpiece and gift to naturalists and birders from across the globe.
Keith Hansen has long used his artistic prowess to capture the innate, aesthetic subtleties and showy qualities of avifauna from Marin to Mexico and beyond. His card-carrying zeal for birds stems way back to a fateful encounter with an ornate cedar waxwing in Maryland’s broad-leafed forests, a formative moment which propelled Keith on a trajectory that would prove to bisect and intermingle with habitats, landscapes and wildlife research stations from the Galapagos to the Farallon Islands – the latter of which is a series of islets whose jagged crests rise from the Pacific some 30 miles outside the Golden Gate; these islands, and the North American mainland that dominates it’s easterly views, would prove to be a focal point of Keith’s love-affair with the birds of California.
It may even be fair to say that the Farallon Islands are to blame for that initial tug which would inspire Keith to begin laying roots here in Bolinas. One day in particular stands out; when Keith was only in 10th grade he first stepped foot onto those craggy, windswept islands, becoming the youngest Point Reyes Bird Observatory intern ever to work on the Farallons up to that point, a day which marked the first of over 150 more, which Keith continued to spend studying and becoming familiar with the ebb and flow of avian migrants that perennially imbue our skies, creeks, coastlines, marshes, forests and grasslands with splashes of radiance and feverish chatter. This initial attraction to northern California, and specifically the Farallon Islands and West Marin, would, in 1986, land him in Bolinas, and five years later, in 1991, the Bolinas Wildlife Gallery & Studio opened it’s doors.
Today, the Bolinas Wildlife Gallery and Studio has become a destination and hub. With a near steady stream of serendipitous, seasoned and studious visitors, paired with Keith’s hospitality and gregarious, genial nature, it’s not uncommon for this cozy studio to burst at the seams with eager eyes gazing across the avian adorned walls, tables and shelves. Once you’ve entered the portal, and the well-used, white door closes behind you, soon-to-be and self-proclaimed bird lovers find themselves immersed in a world that celebrates and reveres birds, their peculiarities, unique plumage, curious bills, and their fellow Aves whom together represent beloved bird communities from across the globe.
And it’s no coincidence that Bolinas became Keith’s hometown; Bolinas and the greater Point Reyes peninsula is widely known as a hub for birds in and of itself. Remarkably, more bird species have been found in the Point Reyes eco-region than 44 of the 50 states in America; that is, only 6 state’s entire bird list is greater in terms of species richness than that of Point Reyes – which encompasses Bolinas – and data suggests that’s over 500 species! Furthermore, the number of species visually identified from the Bolinas Wildlife Gallery and Studio alone, which currently stands at 225 species, represents 22.5 percent of all the bird species in North America, and holds the title as the most birds identified from any single room on the continent. Just to put that incredible statistic into a global context, Keith recently returned from a lodge situated in a pristine, southern Costa Rican rainforest, with a “Lodge List” (i.e., number of bird species identified from the lodge itself), which topped out at 245 species – and that’s in Costa Rica!
So, it’s clear that we West Marin folk are a lucky bunch, living amongst one of the world’s most unique and rich ecosystems, and just a short drive from Keith Hansen’s Bolinas Wildlife Gallery and Studio. With Keith’s sixteen year, mammoth contribution to the “Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status and Distribution,” you may ask what could Keith be up to next? Well, a “Field Guide To The Birds Of The Sierra Nevada” of course! Keith’s back at it, embarking on a scholastic and artistic endeavor which will certainly prove to be epic in it’s contribution to our hikes and adventures in those luminous mountains, John Muir’s beloved “Range of Light”. And thankfully, Keith doesn’t plan to leave us, or Bolinas any time soon. With smiling eyes, Keith proclaimed: “the longer I live here, the more I realize how unique this place is. What makes Bolinas special is just that it’s so unique, the fact that it’s nestled in this crossroads – if you will – literally on the san Andréa’s fault, riding piggyback between the pacific plate and the continental plate, and just the confluence of so many different types of habitat: the oceanic, the coastal, coastal rock, coastal sand, the lagoon, the mudflats, all of the tidal marsh, the forest, the alder & willow river habitat, the freshwater marsh, the Bolinas sewage ponds, all of these different habitats… that all converge on one small area that really makes Bolinas quite an amazing allure for anybody who’s interested in nature and especially birds. But then socially, morally, ethically, the town is my style, and I just love it here, and love the people and the creativity that flows through the town. And I think it’s probably what everybody else likes about it, it’s surrounded and shrouded with beauty…[where you] can breathe freely.”
If you’re interested in visiting Keith or the Bolinas Wildlife Gallery and Studio, you’ll find him at 48 Wharf Road, adjacent to the Bolinas Museum.