Author Archives: Barry

An Island of Sand, Part 3: An Oily Experiment

November 3 – 6, 2016

Sasachacha Heathlands Wildlife Sanctuary, Nantucket

Canvasbacks pencil study, 10″ x 14″

Back in the studio, fresh from my visit to Nantucket, I make a pencil sketch of a group of canvasbacks, based on digital photos taken at Hummock Pond.   I am contemplating various ways that I can convey the robust character of these ducks, when I remember a painting in a book I have about Bruno Liljefors, the noted Swedish animal painter.  It’s an oil painting of Arctic Loons, painted in 1901.

Arctic Loons by Bruno Liljefors, 1901

The color in the painting is rich and dark.  The water, especially, is pitched in deep, saturated tones, so that the edges of the darkly colored loons are lost and found against the background – a very appealing effect!

Several months ago, I had purchased some newly developed paper formulated for use with oil paints.  Called Arches Huile, the paper looks and feels like ordinary 140 lb watercolor paper, but is ready for oil painting without any additional surface preparation.   I thought the canvasbacks might be my opportunity to give this paper a try.

In my first session of painting, I put down a thin “turpy” wash of color, which soaks into the surface, but stays workable for a relatively long period.

STEP 1 – after the first “washes” of thinned oil paints

After an application of wet color, “open time” is that period in which the paint can be freely manipulated BEFORE the passage dries.  Open time in watercolor is measured in minutes or seconds – a brief period due to the rapid drying time of the watercolor washes.  Oil paints are the opposite, with a much longer period of open time.  Hours, even days may pass before a passage of oil paint dries to the touch.  This first session of working on the canvasback painting is like doing a watercolor in slow motion, and I have plenty of time to develop soft edges in the wet washes of color.  After these first washes, I let the piece dry completely (which takes several days).

DETAIL of finished painting

Next, I build up the detail and the modeling of the birds with heavier, opaque passages of color.  I decide to leave those first washes untouched in the background, since adding more layers of paint may destroy the sense of movement and that feeling of the wind riffling the surface of the water.

Canvasbacks at Hummock Pond, oil on Arches Huile paper, 15″ x 22.5″

 

 

An Island of Sand, part 2: Nantucket Birds

November 3 – 6, 2016

Sesachacha Heathlands Wildlife Sanctuary, Nantucket

sketchbook studies of scrub oak, pencil and watercolor, 7″ x 9″

I spent the early morning hours of my second day on Nantucket at Hummock Pond, which abuts Mass Audubon’s Lost Farm Wildlife Sanctuary.  As any New England birder will tell you, November is “duck time”, and Hummock Pond is an excellent place to take in the show.  The light is good this morning, and an excellent variety of waterfowl are present, including canvasbacks, wigeon, scaup, bufflehead, gadwall, Canada geese and mute swans.  With a little searching, I also locate a single redhead and a single Eurasian wigeon!

Eurasian Wigeon, watercolor on Arches coldpress, 9″ x 12″

Canvasbacks are the NFL linebackers of the duck world, with necks like Gronkowski!  They exude strength and power.  A flock of two dozen “cans” are present when I first arrive, but most of them take flight within a half hour, and I’m left to study the four or five stragglers that remain.

pencil study of canvasbacks, 11″ x 14″

Most of the ducks at Hummock Pond are quite far off – easy to I.D. with the scope but too distant for sketching.  I try to approach a group of wigeon more closely, but they spook and take off, so I content myself with sketching some nearby mute swans and buffleheads, filling a page in my sketchbook.

sketchbook studies of mute swans, 6.5″ x 12″

As I prepare to leave, some movement catches my eye abit further down the shore.  It’s a smartly patterned juvenile pectoral sandpiper.  It affords me stunning, up-close views with the scope, and the morning light is perfect to bring out every detail.  The bird is actively feeding, and in constant motion, but I make some pencil studies to explore its characteristic shapes and gestures, then take some digital photos.  Back in the studio, I determine to make a more comprehensive study.

Juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper, watercolor on Arches hotpress, 10″ x 13.5″

The challenge with a bird like this is to avoid over-rendering the details – and in the process, destroying any sense of life.   I struggle to maintain a light touch, despite the fact that to do the bird justice, I need to render almost every individual feather.

At Sesachacha Pond, (it’s pronounced SACK-a-ja!, like a sneeze, according to Edie) I find a single Forster’s Tern perched on a small lobster bouy or net float.  It scissors its wings and tail to maintain balance, and hunkers down in the breeze.  I especially enjoy the way the color of the bouy reflects onto the birds’s undersides, giving it a glowing belly!

Forster’s Tern at Sesachacha Pond, watercolor on Winsor & Newton coldpress, 12″ x 15.5″

Although there should still be a few common terns around at this late date, the only tern I saw during my visit to Nantucket was this one.

 

An Island of Sand, part 1: Give and Take

November 3 – 6, 2016

Sasachacha Heathlands Wildlife Sanctuary, Nantucket

Although the official list of Mass Audubon Sanctuaries names only Sesachacha Heathlands, the Society actually owns three properties on Nantucket.  Sesachacha Heathlands is the largest and most ecologically significant, but the other two properties are equally interesting.

My overnight accommodations are at Lost Farm Wildlife Sanctuary – a 90 acre tract that borders Hummock Pond and features an extensive pitch pine forest.  Mass Audubon’s smallest property on Nantucket is a 30 acre parcel at Smith’s Point near Madaket.

On my first day, Ernie Steinauer, Mass Audubon’s director of sanctuaries on Nantucket, gives me a tour of the Smith’s Point property, and then shows me some extensive areas of sandplain grassland at Medaket and Miacomet Plains.

Sandplain Grassland

Like coastal heath, New England sandplain grassland is an extremely rare and localized natural community, and the best remaining examples in the world are on Nantucket.

The Crooked House

The Smith’s Point property was once owned by Mr. Rogers of television fame.   His house, which he named “The Crooked House” and often referred to on his show, is at the edge of the reserve.  I chuckled when I noticed that the sign on the house is also mounted crooked (Fred Rogers had a good sense of humor!)

I soon realized that the landmass of Nantucket exists very much at the whim of wind and waves.  The section of Madaket Beach at the base of Smith’s Point is rapidly being buried in sand, as a big dune marches over the area.  In the front yard of this cottage (just a few doors away from Mr. Roger’s Crooked House), a split rail fence is nearly buried, with only the tops of the fence posts still visible above the sand.

Inundation at Madaket

Elsewhere on the island, property owners are plagued with the opposite problem: EROSION.  Later in my stay, I visited Siasconset on the south shore, where homes along the top of a 100 ft. bluff are watching their backyards crumbling into the sea at an alarming rate – some losing as much as 30 feet of property in a single winter storm.

Erosion at Siasconset

Contractors are busy moving several homes back from the edge of the bluff, and a neighborhood association is scrambling to find ways of slowing the erosion.

Ernie had made arrangements with two eminent Nantucket birders to continue my orientation tour, and I meet up with Edie Ray and Ginger Andrews at mid-day.  Their expert guidance familiarizes me with the best routes and vantage points, and furnishes a deeper understanding of both Nantucket’s natural history, and the challenges involved in protecting the remaining natural areas.

Although early inhabitants viewed the expansive coastal heaths in the center of the island as a desolate wasteland, today this area is recognized as a “globally rare community”, with the Nantucket Heath representing the best remaining example in the world.   Mass Audubon’s Sesachacha Heathlands sanctuary preserves more than 800 acres of this unique habitat.

The reserve can be accessed by navigating a maze of crude sand tracks, and Edie and Ginger show me how to find the two highest points in the moors.  From the summits of these hills, I can take in the expanse of the heath, rolling away in all directions.

Set-up at Quarter Mile Hill

I find my way back to Quarter Mile Hill the next day in Mass Audubon’s well-used Isuzu Rodeo, and set up to paint a landscape.  The view south takes in the sparkling waters of a large cranberry bog nestled in the distant hills, and in the foreground is a varied mosaic of heath vegetation.   Also in the foreground is an old post next to a boulder (uncommon items in the moors).  These supply both a sense of scale and a center of interest for my painting.  The autumn colors are slightly past their peak, and mauve and rust tones predominate – they’ll be a challenge for my watercolor palette!  (I carried the orange hat as a precaution –  deer hunting season is in full swing!)

The View from Quarter Mile Hill, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

I have, by necessity, stylized the heath vegetation in my watercolor, but anyone familiar with the botany of the heath should be able to pick out the dominant plants.  In the near foreground is a mix of bearberry and false heather: low-growing shrubs that form a dense groundcover.  The bright red patches are huckleberry, and the masses of purplish brown are scrub oak.  You might also pick out a patch of little bluestem grass in the middle ground, and a distant patch of high tide bush – showing mint-green in the distant right.  Another big swath of scrub oak spans the ground beyond the bog, and in the distance are the developed areas of the south shore.

Bearberry and False Heather

I painted a related watercolor back in my studio.  I wanted to create another composition that emphasized the gently rounded shapes of the moors, and by introducing one of the sand tracks, I could lead the eye into the scene and help define the rolling topography.

Sand Track in the Moors, watercolor on Arches rough, 8″ x 12.25″

I had seen a merlin an hour earlier at nearby Sesachacha Pond, and introducing it into my scene for a sense of movement.

Of Valleys and Summits

September 29, 2016

Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox

AHHHH – the Berkshires in autumn: cold nights, crisp dawns, and warm afternoons!  The landscape is still predominantly summer-green, but the swamp maples are flush with color and the hills, too, are painted with strokes of carmine, orange, gold and violet.

At Pike’s Pond, I hear some harsh croaks and look up to see two ravens frolicking in the air currents over Lenox Mountain, while beyond them a parade of Turkey vultures drifts southward.  Nearby, a common yellowthroat engages me in a game of hide-and-seek from a stand of cattails.

Sketchbook studies of a common yellowthroat, pencil, 6″ x 5.5″

Yellowthroat in Cattails, watercolor on Fluid 100 cold-press, 12″ x 9″

I see many yellowthroats around the sanctuary today, but only one with the black mask of an adult male.

Yokun Brook

Along the Beaver Lodge Trail

I make a circuit of the Yokun Brook, Old Wood Road and Beaver Lodge Trails, and encounter a few waves of migrant warblers, among them a magnolia and palm warbler.  Their fall plumages are a ghostly version of their springtime finery.  Compare the male magnolia warbler I painted last May at Marblehead Neck with this non-breeding male at Pleasant Valley.

Magnolia Warbler in fall plumage at Pleasant Valley, watercolor, 8.5″ x 12″

Magnolia Warbler in spring plumage at Marblehead Neck

I knew that the Trail of the Ledges would be steep and challenging (the trail map instructs NOT to attempt DESCENDING this trail!), so I leave my scope and binoculars in the car, carrying only my pack-stool loaded with art supplies, a drink and some snacks.  The lower portion of the trail is steepest, with hand-over-hand climbing in many spots – more like crawling than hiking!

Trail of the Ledges

As I climb, the plant communities reflect the change in elevation.  I pass through dark stands of hemlock and copses of hobblebush.

Hobblebush

Down among the rocks at my feet are clumps of common polypody, stunted by the thin, nutrient poor soils.  I’m fascinated by these miniature ferns – most fronds only about an inch wide.  In normal situations, the polypodys would tower over the partridgeberry, but here they are in pleasing scale.

Polypody and Partridgeberry, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 11.75″

There are two scenic overlooks on the way up the Ledges Trail.  The first is a narrow window through the trees looking south.  The second is more open; with a view east back towards the Sanctuary.  I decide to set up and paint this view.

View East from Lenox Mountain, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10″ x 13.25″

The Sanctuary is on the slopes below me, wrapped around the base of the mountain, so you cannot see it from this high viewpoint.  What you DO see is the town of Lenox spread out below, and beyond that the hills that roll eastward into the Pioneer Valley.

The view from the summit of Lenox Mountain is more dramatic, and well worth the extra hike.  This view is to the north and west – Greylock to the north and the Taconic Range in the west.

View West from Lenox Mountain summit

The eastern side of Lenox Mountain falls into afternoon shadow early at this date, and I have to watch my footing carefully as I descend the Overbrook Trail.  The hemlock gorge is especially dark and gloomy, but the footing becomes easy again as the trail flattens out at the base of the mountain.

Sketchbook studies of a winter wren, pencil, 10″ x 6″

On the Bluebird Trail, a fleeting brown blur darts under the boardwalk as I approach.  I pause and make some soft squeaks and “pishes” – enough to coax a winter wren out into the open.   It makes some quiet notes that remind me of a song sparrow, and hops around some decaying birch logs on the forest floor.  I make some sketches – noting that impossibly short (and jauntily cocked) tail.  What a charming imp!

Winter Wren at Pleasant Valley, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

 

 

Way Out West

September 28, 2016

Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, Pittsfield

Arriving at a new sanctuary, the first thing I do is make a quick circuit of the immediate vicinity, noting the location of the trailheads and perusing the visitor’s kiosk that describes the property and features a large color map.   At Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, I am doing just that when I hear a shriek from the nearby bushes, and a hawk bursts out and sails away clutching a small bird.   It happens so quickly that I can’t identify either the hawk or its prey, but I know that late September is prime time for migrating raptors, and I’ll likely see more before the day is over.

sketchbook studies of young wood ducks, pencil, 9″ x 12″

The Carriage Road passes through an intriguing mix of wetlands and shrub swamps, where I encounter several families of wood ducks.  The young birds are well grown by this date, but their plumage is quite distinct from adults.   I puzzle over these plumages, finally concluding that these are ALL young birds – a mix of juvenal males and females.  I’ve read that the adults – in heavy molt at this time of year – are reclusive and seldom seen.  I map out these juvenal plumages in my sketchbook and later make a more detailed watercolor study.

Young Wood Ducks, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold press, 12″ x 16″

The Sacred Way Trail follows the Housatonic River for a stretch, then skirts an oxbow pond left behind years ago by the meandering river.  It passes by an impressive beaver dam on Sackett Brook, then over a series of boardwalks through shrub swamp before returning to West Pond and the parking area.

Sackett Brook

A group of mallards are hanging out at the pond, but with them is a much smaller duck – a blue-winged teal!  I try to capture its gentle facial expression in my sketchbook, and struggle with a shorthand way to render the intricate pattern of chevrons along the flanks.  Every now and then the bird preens or flaps, and I get a glimpse of that lovely powder blue patch on the shoulder.

sketchbook studies of a blue-winged teal, pencil, 8″ x 11″

The view of West Pond from the meadow near the parking area is one of the nicest views on the property, so I set up to paint a landscape.

The skies are overcast, which brings out the autumnal colors, and the suppressed contrasts lend a softness to the scene.

Canoe Meadows, watercolor on Arches cold press, 9.25″ x 12.25″

As I’m packing up to leave, a hawk flies in and lands in a big poplar across the pond, which immediately raises a clamor among the neighborhood crows.  I train my scope on the bird and see that it’s a Cooper’s Hawk – a young bird (brown upperparts and fine streaking on the breast) with a lean, hungry look.  It strikes me as impossibly elongated or stretched out – like a figure painted by El Greco!   The bird is driven off by the crows several times, but each time it returns to perch in the big poplar.  It’s that LEAN, HUNGRY look that I keep uppermost in mind as I develop its portrait.

Young Cooper’s Hawk, watercolor on Arches rough, 16.25″ x 12.25″

Uncommon Looks at Common Birds

September 2, 2016

Boston Nature Center, Mattapan

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Mass Audubon operates only a few sanctuaries that can truly be categorized as “urban”, and of these, the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan best fits the description. Only a short distance from Mattapan’s downtown, and on the grounds of the former Boston State Hospital, this small oasis of green (67 acres) is surrounded by urban neighborhoods, highways and businesses.  You’re never quite out of earshot of traffic, sirens, construction noise and other sounds of the city.

The Nature Center is a hive of activity when I arrive at 8 am.  Today is the final day of summer camp, and a steady parade of parents are dropping off their kids.  Counselors are busy preparing for the day’s activities and herding the campers into groups.   I wander through the impressive George Robert White Environmental Education Center – the first “green” municipal building in Boston, and then stroll through the Butterfly Garden outside.   A diverse assortment of trees surrounds the Center, many of them huge, venerable specimens.  I get busy with a painting of a mourning dove basking in the morning sun.

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Mourning Dove in Tamarack, watercolor Arches coldpress, 9″ x 11″

The dove is perched in an old tamarack, and the twigs and cones provide an interesting pattern around the bird.   A song sparrow and several goldfinches also make for good models, and as I work, a warbling vireo sings from a big poplar nearby.

I meet program coordinator Adam Leiterman and get a tour of the Nature Center, including the indoor observation hive of honeybees.  Then, Adam offers some advice and helpful tips before I set out to explore the two miles of trails.

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Clark-Cooper Community Gardens

My first stop is the Clark-Cooper Community Gardens – one of the oldest and largest community gardens in Boston, providing garden space for more than 260 local families.  With acres of flowers, vegetables and fragrant herbs, it’s a great place to escape the bustle of the city for a few hours.

On the Snail Trail, I pass through a mature forest of oaks and silver maples, interrupted by sunny glades of lush undergrowth.  I watch a flock of young starlings gorging on wild grapes, and make some drawings.

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Sketchbook studies of young starlings, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

Young starlings display this unusual plumage for only a short time in late summer.  Their tawny gray heads are set off by black vests densely spangled with bold white spots.  A black “bandit mask” on the face gives them an intense, slightly sinister look.  The combination of the fruiting grapevines and the smartly dressed birds leaves a powerful impression – and one that I re-create later in my studio.

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Young Starlings and Wild Grapes, watercolor on Arches rough, 12.25″ x 16.25″

The Fox Trail circles a large cattail marsh.  It’s an unexpected surprise, this expanse of cattails in the midst of the city.  If it weren’t for the roar of traffic coming from the American Legion Highway, I could imagine I’m in a wild and remote place!

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It’s been a very dry summer, and there is precious little water in the marsh.  Deer and other animals have trampled down trails through the cattails, and several of these “game trails” can be seen from the overlook.

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Game Trail

Back at the Nature Center, the last day of camp is winding down, and a group of kids are playing tag while they await their rides home.   I live in a lightly developed, rural area of the state, where nature is right outside the door.  To me, the city can seem like a place where nature is losing the competition for space.  The Boston Nature Center demonstrates that the natural world can be accessible to all people in all places.

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Around the Museum

September  1, 2016

Museum of American Bird Art, Canton

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The Museum of American Bird Art in Canton is the sponsoring sanctuary for this residency, and I’ve been looking forward to spending some time exploring the property.  I’ve visited MABA many times to take in exhibitions or present workshops and lectures, but I’ve never explored the trails!

It’s raining when I arrive at the Museum – which is notable, since less than 4” of rain has fallen throughout ALL of this hot, dry summer.  Massachusetts is experiencing a drought of historic proportions.  So, I don’t mind the rain as I start down the Main Loop Trail behind the Gallery.  The moisture has intensified the color of the pine needles carpeting the forest floor in the Pine Grove, and I pause to take in the scene.

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The Pequit Brook Trail leads through the center of the reserve, providing the shortest route to the brook.  I’m hoping to find some cardinal flowers still in bloom along the brook – which is classic cardinal flower habitat.  I’m afraid I might be too late, but with some searching I locate one small plant topped with a single blossom.   Encouraged, I make my way up the brook, hopping from rock to rock and pushing past the heavy growth along the banks.  Upstream, I find several tall, mature flower spikes heavy with bloom, and other spikes that have nearly done flowering, with just a few buds remaining at the tip.  The rain has let up, so I take out my sketchbook and make some pencil drawings. To get the right viewpoint, I need to squat or kneel on the rocks as I draw, and the discomfort of these precarious drawing positions urges me to draw faster!

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Sketchbook studies of Cardinal Flowers, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Later, in my studio, I use these pencil drawings to develop a finished watercolor.   You’ll see how I’ve re-arranged the pencil studies for a better composition, and used a background wash to tie the individual studies together.  I’ve also transcribed some of the written notes to the painting – they supply another layer of information that adds to the understanding and appreciation of this gorgeous native wildflower.

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Cardinal Flowers at Pequit Brook, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 11.5″ x 13.5″

Bird activity is best in the meadow below the Gallery building, so I linger here on my return.  A young phoebe hunts from a high, open perch at the edge of the meadow.

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Sketchbook study of a young phoebe, pencil, 6″ x 6″

The vantage point, looking upwards at the bird, shows the BROAD base of the bill – which is not so evident in a straight side-view.  Catbirds, robins, and cardinals dodge from shrub to shrub searching for berries, while nuthatches, chickadees and a red-bellied woodpecker work over a big, dead snag.

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Pokeweed

Though it’s been an exceptionally dry summer, the ripeness of autumn is everywhere in evidence.   Heavy fronds of goldenrod and curly dock rise above the ripe grasses, and bright, arching spires of pokeweed lend some notes of bright color.

In the grape arbor, the fruits are turning from lime green to pink to deep ultramarine blue…

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Sketchbook studies at the Grape Arbor, pencil and watercolor, 8.5″ x 10″

I walk slowly around the Gallery building, looking for the best angle on this handsome structure, and finally settle in a spot near the bird blind and bird feeders.  It’s not a view of the Gallery that most visitors see, but I like the way the two graceful chimneys bracket the building, and the tudor-style articulation on the south- facing gable makes a good focal point.  I make a careful pencil drawing, paying extra attention to the angles and proportions.

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The pencil drawing, made on location

My father was a good draughtsman, and taught my brothers and I to draw in perspective at a young age, so drawing in perspective is fairly natural to me.  Still, I need to observe closely and draw slowly to capture the unique character of the structure.   As I’m finishing the drawing, the rain starts up again, and I’m forced to put the drawing away…

You’ll notice that there are no BIRDS in the picture.  Instead, I’ve made an oblique reference to them by including the bird feeder in the foreground.  There are lots of wonderful birds, of course, INSIDE the building!

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The Museum of American Bird Art, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

The Exhibition Gallery was built in 1938 as a studio where the previous owner, Mildred Morse Allen, could practice her art.   The building was extensively renovated and updated after Mass Audubon acquired the property in 1992.  The lower level was converted to a conservators office and a fire-proof, climate controlled storage vault.   The south gable you see here encloses a small exhibition space, while the spacious main gallery occupies the bulk of the upper level.  If you haven’t visited the Museum, and perused one of its beautifully presented exhibitions, you’re in for a treat!

 

 

Outermost Nature, Part 2

August 19, 2016

 

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, South Wellfleet

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Stilt Sandpiper, watercolor on Winsor & Newton coldpress, 11″ x 12.5″

I fork off from the Try Island TraiI, and follow the boardwalk out to the beach.  A group of kids are busily exploring the shallows, sweeping the water with dip nets and whooping with delight!

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On my way back over the boardwalk, I pause to watch the fiddler crabs.  These are mud fiddlers, Uca pugnax.

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Fiddler Crabs at Wellfleet Bay, watercolor on Arches hotpress, 9″ x 11.5″

The males, with those impossibly large and dangerous looking pincers, pop in and out of their holes in the mud, or scuttle after intruders.  It occurs to me that the abundance of crabs is the reason for the presence of so many laughing gulls on the marsh.  Their wheeling and pouncing dives must be attempts to capture the elusive crabs.

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Coastal Heath

The Goose Pond Trail passes through a coastal heath restoration area.   Mass Audubon is working to restore and protect this rare natural community, consisting of low shrubs and a thick ground cover of bearberry.   I’ll have more to say about coastal heaths when I visit Sesachacha Heathlands Wildlife Sanctuary on Nantucket, which I plan to do in November.

By early afternoon the day is hot, and Goose Pond is quieter as I make my way back to the visitor center.  I meet an enthusiastic young naturalist, and we bird together for a while.   I show him the stilt sandpiper (which is still present), and he spots a yellow-crowned night heron perched in a big pitch pine, which we scope from several vantages along the trail.

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Yellow-crowned Night-Heron sketchbook studies, pencil, 9″ x 12″

In my sketchbook, I work to capture the preposterous facial expression of this bird, which from head-on looks downright WEIRD!

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Outermost Nature, Part 1

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August 19, 2016

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, South Wellfleet

I’ve been told that Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary hosts more visitors each year than any other Mass Audubon property.  Located on the outer Cape, surrounded by portions of the Cape Cod National Seashore, and in an area which is a prime tourist destination, it’s not surprising that so many people visit this 1200 acre reserve each year.  And, it’s well worth the visit, with five miles of trails that traverse an amazing variety of natural habitats!

Arriving early, I head for the bird blind on the east side of Goose Pond.  I had not checked any tide charts before my visit, so am relieved to find that the tides are favorable, and the pond is alive with birds.

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Shorebird Studies at Wellfleet Bay, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Least and semi-palmated sandpipers, both species of yellowlegs, and semi-palmated plovers are abundant, and a careful search turns up a pretty stilt sandpiper in juvenal plumage.   The star of the show, however, is a handsome female belted kingfisher which favors a perch directly in front of the blind.  With my scope I get point blank views that bring out every detail.

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Kingfisher at Goose Pond, watercolor on Arches rough, 12.25″ x 16.25″

I walk the loop of the Try Island Trail, admiring the vista back over the marsh.

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Where the trail meets the boardwalk to the beach, I meet a group of volunteers who are monitoring diamondback terrapin nests.   Each nest is protected by a wire enclosure, with a warning flag and a numbered metal tag, and I’ve encountered many of them as I walk the trails.

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The nest monitors watch for hatching activity, then assist the hatchlings in their first hours out of the nest.   These first hours are the most precarious for the young turtles, and many are lost to predators (gulls, skunks, raccoons, foxes, etc).  The volunteers place the hatchlings in Tupperware containers, taking care to keep them moist with a spray bottle, then relocate them to safer areas on the upper marsh.  The first years of a diamondback terrapin’s life is poorly understood, and conflicting information abounds, but most studies indicate that the hatchlings spend their first years on DRY LAND, and they DO NOT head for water after leaving the nest.  The nest monitors: Theresa Hultin, Steve Monroe and Nancy Munger, kindly allow me to watch as they assist at a hatching nest.

terrapin-volunteers-at-72-dpi

The number of hatchlings and eggshells are carefully counted and recorded in a log, along with location of nest, time of hatching, and the depth of the nest.  Theresa, the team leader, tells me that 85 terrapin nests have been located on the sanctuary this year.  Each nest, if it is not disturbed by predators, will produce between 12 and 22 young turtles.   The nest we are currently attending is 14 centimeters deep, and produces 16 hatchlings.

diamondback-terrapin-hatchlings-wellfleet-bay-at-72-dpi

Diamondback Terrapin Hatchlings, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

While I could not draw the hatchlings from life (doing so would expose them to too much heat and dryness), I made these drawings from digital photos taken at the nest site.   The hatchlings are about 1.5” long, and perfect in every miniature detail!

 

Ghosts of the Farm

August 2, 2016

Road’s End Wildlife Sanctuary, Worthington, and Lynes Wildlife Sanctuary, Westhampton

Pine Forest at Lynes Woods - at 72 dpi

I’ve combined these two sanctuaries into one blog post because they have so much in common.  Both are in the foothills east of the Berkshires, both are just under 200 acres in size, with one mile of trail each, both are abandoned farmsteads, and both were visited on the same day by yours truly!

Road’s End Wildlife Sanctuary is aptly named.   Turning off Rte. 143 onto the lightly traveled Williamsburg Road, I then turn onto a dirt road (Corbett Road), which eventually narrows down into a grassy cart path before ending abruptly at a small turnaround.  Road’s End Indeed!

Old Farm Wagon, Roads End - at 72 dpi

Reminders of the sanctuary’s agricultural heritage can be seen along old Corbett Road.  Stone walls, ancient sugar maples, an old dump, and fragments of rusting farm machinery are scattered along the old roadbed.   By 1750, approximately 80% of the forests in this area had already been cleared for lumber and firewood, and the land given over to agriculture.  But as early as the 1820s, farmers were leaving the area in search of more productive soils – a trend that continues more or less to the present day.

A beaver pond west of the road is not visible through the trees, so I wander down an old track that leads in that direction.  I find no open views of the beaver pond, but discover a lovely spot where Steven Brook flows into the pond.  Sparkling, clear water bubbles over a bright gravel streambed, while the flute-like song of a wood thrush drifts up from deep in the forest.

Stevens Brook, Roads End - at 72 dpi

The Brookside Trail passes through an “old field white pine forest”.  Recent rains have soaked the ground, and robust clumps of Indian Pipes are poking up through the pine needles all over this area.   The ghostly white flower stalks look like skeletal fingers (another name for this flower is “corpse plant”).  Perhaps the farmers of old are rising up to take a look around!

Indian Pipes at Roads End - at 72 dpi

Indian Pipes at Roads End, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.25″ x 12″

Lynes Wildlife Sanctuary was also a farmstead years ago, and featured a farm pond and orchards.  The farm pond is still there.  The lilies growing along the bank form exotic, tropical-looking patterns, which I pause to photograph.

Farm Pond Lilies, Lynes Woods - at 72 dpi

The fruit trees and orchards are gone, but several old fields, which are mowed annually, remain.  These fields are warm, sun-filled pockets in the forest, buzzing with dragonflies and butterflies.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Lynes Woods - at 72 dpi

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

At the edge of the field are witch-hazel shrubs loaded down with ripening fruits.  The flowers won’t appear until October, at about the same time the fruits burst open and expel the seeds.  The genus name Hamamelis refers to the simultaneity of these two events.

Witch-hazel Fruits - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook studies of Witch-hazel Fruits, pencil, 5″ x 8″

On the Lyman Brook Loop Trail, I paint a small watercolor of the handsome white pine forest that straddles the steep bank above the brook.

Pine Forest at Lynes Woods - at 72 dpi

Pine Forest at Lynes Woods, watercolor on Arches rough, 9″ x 9″

It’s mid-afternoon and quiet as I make my way further along Lyman Brook on the eastern edge of the property, but more than once, I disturb small frogs that squeak and leap out from under my feet.   These are young northern green frogs (Lithobates clamitans melanota).  These aquatic frogs are the ones you’re most likely to see around small streams and brooks in summer.   Despite their name, they can be brownish or coppery in color, but they usually show at least one bright patch of green on the upper lip.

Green Frog sketchbook study - at 72 dpi

Green Frog sketchbook study, pencil and watercolor, 4.5″ x 7″

One of the frogs sits motionless on a gravel bar after I frighten it from its perch in the streamside vegetation.  I focus my telescope on it and make some drawings, taking special care to record the intricate pattern of spots and stripes on the face and throat, and that startling bright green on the upper lip.  I learned from my books that this individual is a female – with an eardrum smaller than the eye, and a whitish (not yellowish) throat.

Green Frog at Lynes Woods 2 - at 72 dpi

Green Frog at Lynes Woods, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12″

While working on this watercolor later in my studio, I remembered (with pangs of guilt) how as kids we would gather frogs like this into buckets and sell them to a local bait shop!