Author Archives: Barry

Outermost Nature, Part 1


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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, 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!

Kingdom of Grass

July 12, 2016

Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary, Marshfield

Daniel Webster Meadows - at 72 dpi

 Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield is truly a ‘Kingdom of Grass’ – acres and acres of it in all varieties, textures and colors.  It’s a little piece of midwest prairie plunked down here in the Massachusetts coastal plain.

At the head of the Fox Hill Trail I’m surrounded by a rollicking flock of goldfinches, attracted to the ripe seed heads of knapweed.  The bright purple blossoms paired with the lemon yellow birds makes for pure EYE CANDY, and I’m struck by the way the morning light rakes over the bird, casting most of the head in shadow.

Goldfinch and Knapweed - at 72 dpi

Goldfinch and Knapweed, watercolor on Arches rough, 12″ x 9″

Purple martins fill the air as I branch off onto the Pond Loop.  This colony appears to be doing well.  I see adults and young birds perched on the sumacs near the ‘gourd colony’.

A unique feature of this Mass Audubon property are the British-style bird blinds – two of them positioned at either end of a shallow, marshy panne.  Inside the easternmost blind, it’s cool and dark.  A bench is mounted below the observation windows to allow comfortable, sustained viewing.  It’s a fine vantage on the wetland, enhanced by the placement of natural-looking perches in strategic locations.  I settle in, and am soon joined by a local photographer, John Grant.  We chat quietly and scan for subjects…

Daniel Webster - View from the Blind - at 72 dpi

view from the blind

I notice a movement at the base of the cattails, and watch a Virginia rail emerge into the open water, followed closely by another, darker bird.  A moorhen or coot???  NO, it’s too small and the bill isn’t right for either of these species.  It’s charcoal black, save for a few fuzzy patches of chestnut, and the bill is dark and thin, with a pale nostril and pale tip.  It is, of course, a young Virginia rail!  It shadows the adult closely, following every movement of its parent with keen interest.   The adult finds what looks like a dead frog or tadpole, and both birds take turns poking, prodding, lifting and tossing.  The show is over all too soon, and the birds melt back into the cattails – but I’ve fired off some shots with my digital camera, and use these, along with a crude memory sketch, later in the studio…

Virginia Rail and Young - at 72 dpi

Virginia Rail and Young, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.5″ x 14″

Near the far end of the Pond Loop I pause in the shade before venturing out into the fields.  The day is warming quickly, the skies clear and sunny.   There won’t be much shade once I emerge from the woods. At the edge of the path, I notice an unfamiliar plant – a few tiny, pink blossoms on a tall, grass-like stalk, each blossom attached to the top of a swollen pod or calyx.  I make a simple study in my sketchbook and a friend later identifies the plant as Deptford pink – an introduced species in the genus Dianthus.

Deptford Pink, retouched - at 72 dpi

Deptford Pink, sketchbook study, 4.5″ x 8.5″

Bobolinks are jinking around in the fields.  The nesting season is winding down for them, and the males are in an unfamiliar transitional plumage, with brown napes and chestnut splotches on the head and chest.

Bobolink in Moult 2 - at 72 dpi

I stroll the River Walk (the GREEN Harbor River an opaque BROWN at this time of year) and pause on the boardwalk where the walk rejoins the Fox Hill Trail.  There is a shallow panne here next to the river, with lumps of mud and algae rising above little pools of water.

Daniel Webster Boardwalk and Panne - at 72 dpi

Killdeer are making a racket off to my left, and a snowy egret patrols an open channel.  A small flock of peeps sweeps in and lands – seven or eight least sandpipers.  Sandpipers are one of my favorite groups of birds and I welcome any chance to work with them.  These peeps are feeding actively, but I build up a series of poses in my sketchbook, working back and forth between the various poses.

Least Sandpipers sketchbook page - at 72 dpi

Least Sandpiper Studies, sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

Least Sandpipers at Daniel Webster - at 72 dpi - Copy

Least Sandpipers at Daniel Webster, watercolor on Windsor & Newton cold-press, 9″ x 10.5″

I hike up to the observation platform on Fox Hill to take in the sweeping view toward Cape Cod Bay.  This is the largest unbroken tract of grassland on the sanctuary – a truly impressive sight.  A kestrel drifts past and a monarch butterfly glides over the grass…

Heading back along the Fox Hill Trail, I like the view back towards Fox Hill.  What attracts me most are the converging lines of perspective – a row of telephone poles in the rear, another parallel line of fence posts in the middle distance, and the wide track of the Fox Hill Trail – all converging on a point just out of the picture on the right.  From this vantage there is virtually no shade, and the afternoon heat is relentless.  I take out a sheet of cold-press watercolor paper and do a drawing, but decide to add the color later in my studio.  Cold-press is not as nice to draw on as hot-press, and in the dry heat, the surface feels like sandpaper under the tip of my 3B pencil.

View Toward Fox Hill, drawing - at 72 dpi

View Toward Fox Hill, pencil on Arches cold-press, 8.75″ x 12.25″

Aside from exaggerating the colors in the ripe grasses, I make one other change to the scene – I move the crossbars on the telephone poles to the tops of the poles.  Perhaps it’s my nostalgic side, but this is the way telephone poles always looked when I was growing up, and it just feels better to me this way.

View Toward Fox Hill - at 72 dpi

View Toward Fox Hill, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 8.75″ x 12.25″


Boat Trip!

July 11, 2016

Sampsons Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Cotuit

Least Tern Incubating - at 72 dpi

Incubating Least Tern, watercolor on Fluid 100 cold-press, 9″ x 12″

 Sampson’s Island is my first sanctuary visit that requires a BOAT.  I meet two coastal waterbird wardens at a rendezvous point in Cotuit, and load my field kit into a small, open runabout.  Brad Bower is the Sampson’s Island “crew leader”, and his associate is Brian Lonabocker.   They are students of biology and environmental science, and this is a summer job for them.  Today, they load signs into the boat, which they’ll be posting in various spots around the island.  During the peak breeding season, boats are not allowed to land on the island, in order to safeguard the birds during this critical period.

Sampsons Island Warning Signs - at 72 dpi

During the ride over to the island, Brad fills me in on the latest news regarding the breeding birds of Sampson’s Island.  He calculates there are between 30 and 40 pairs of least terns nesting on the island, and remarks that some of the tern eggs are just starting to hatch.   This season, seven pairs of piping plovers have also established nests, with six young fledged so far from two nests.  Many nests of both species have failed for various reasons.  Overwash from storm tides has been a factor, as well as predation by crows, a coyote and other unidentified culprits.  So far, less than half of all nests have produced fledglings.  For coastal waterbirds, raising a family is a hit-or-miss proposition.

Incubating Least Terns - sketchbook page - at 72 dpi

Incubating Least Terns – sketchbook page, pencil, 8.25″ x 12″

Once on the island, I position myself for good views of the least tern colonies and get to work.  Incubating birds are wonderful models – very dependable and obliging!  After some warm-up sketching, I take out some watercolor paper…

Least Tern Eggshell detail - at 300 dpi

detail of finished watercolor

As I’m watching one sitting bird, I notice an eggshell near the nest, and suspect that a chick has recently hatched.  The adult bird is abit restless, shifting and resettling on the nest.  Next, I see a tiny bill poke out from beneath the adult’s wing, then a small, fluffy head!

Least Tern Chick detail - at 300 dpi

detail of the finished watercolor

The adult bird’s mate arrives with a tiny minnow, and both adults stand on either side of the nestling, prodding it to take the food, which it finally consumes with a gulp.   I modify the drawing I’ve been making to include both the eggshell and the chick!  A drawing from life, unlike a photograph, can be a composite of many moments.

Least Tern with Chick and Eggshell - at 72 dpi

Least Tern with Chick and Eggshell, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

There were two piping plover nests on this part of the island, but the eggs hatched weeks ago.  Now, the young birds can be seen foraging around a small salt pond behind the beach.   The parent birds are nearby and vigilant.  Several times I watch them chase off an intruding plover.   The pale, plump chicks are in constant motion, and difficult to follow with the scope.   They are nearly as large as the adults, but have puffy white collars around the back of the neck, and none of the crisp, strong markings they will sport as adult birds.  Brad tells me they are 27 days old.

Piping Plover Chicks at 27 days - at 72 dpi

Piping Plover Chicks at 27 days, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 12.25″




Finishing the Frog

Bullfrog and Spatterdock - at 72 dpi, cropped

June 30, 2016

Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Part 2

I end my day at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary back at the visitor center, where a big spreading mulberry tree, with lots of ripening fruit, is attracting a parade of birds.   I meet Sandy Selesky, whose lovely photographs often grace the pages of BIRD OBSERVER magazine.  We watch rose-breasted grosbeaks, cardinals, waxwings, red-bellied woodpeckers and robins gorging on the fruit.

Full Frontal Bluebird - at 72 dpi

Full Frontal Bluebird, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 11″ x 9″

Nearby, a massive old white ash is attractive to birds that prefer an open perch.  I get superb views of a wood pewee, than a handsome male bluebird.  I start a drawing of the bluebird, and in the course of my work, notice a band on the bird’s right leg.  The volunteers who monitor the nest boxes must know this bird well!

Remember the drawing of the Bullfrog and Spatterdock that I mentioned in my last post?

Bullfrog and Spatterdock - drawing at 72 dpi

Here’s the sequences of washes I used to finish the watercolor back in my studio:

Step 1…

Bullfrog and Spatterdock - STEP 1 - at 72 dpi

I often start a watercolor by mapping out the overall pattern of light and shade.  Here, I used a neutral color mixed from ultramarine blue and vermilion.  This mixture can be more bluish or more purplish by varying the proportion of the two pigments.   By starting the picture this way, I’m encouraged to work all over the picture, rather than focusing on any one part.  It also forces me to consider the composition, especially the overall pattern of light and dark.  I allow this step to dry completely.

Step 2…

Bullfrog and Spatterdock - STEP 2 - at 72 dpi

Next, I start to establish the local colors of the various elements, painting these colors right over my tonal washes from step 1 (in the vocabulary of watercolor, this is known as glazing).


Bullfrog and Spatterdock - at 72 dpi

Bullfrog and Spatterdock, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 8″ x 11.5″

The final phase of the painting adds the rest of the local colors, and makes minor adjustments of tone and color to bring all parts of the picture into balance.

Wet and Green

June 30, 2016

Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield,  Part 1

View from Stone Bridge, Ipswich River - at 72 dpi

View from Stone Bridge

According to my Mass Audubon Sanctuary Guide (2015 edition), Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary is the largest of the Mass Audubon properties, comprising 2,267 acres.  One has to keep in mind, however, that wetland communities cover approximately 70% of the sanctuary, thus a huge portion of the property is underwater at any given time!  The trails traverse a series of drumlins, eskers and other areas of higher ground left behind by the glaciers, and these are woven in and around the extensive wetlands.   Boardwalks have been built to enhance access to some areas, but beaver activity causes water levels to fluctuate from year to year, and a few trails were impassable on the day I visited.  It’s not an uncommon situation.

With twelve miles of trails and only one day to explore them all, I knew I’d need to plan carefully to maximize my time at the sanctuary.  Luckily, I meet Scott Santino in the parking lot.  Scott is the staff naturalist, and he generously goes over the trail map with me, pointing out areas of special interest, places where I might encounter various species, and warning me of flooded trails.

First, I head to Bunker Meadows – a huge buttonbush swamp adjacent to the Ipswich River and Canoe Launch Area.

Pond Lily, Ipswich River - at 72 dpi

The pond lilies here are a sight to behold – forming huge floating carpets of pink and white on any areas of open water.

Bullfrog and Spatterdock - drawing at 72 dpi

Bullfrog and Spatterdock, pencil on Arches hot-press paper, 9″ x 11.5″

A bullfrog near the canoe launch looks to be a good model, and reminds me that I have not yet painted a frog for this residency project.  I start a drawing on hot-press paper, re-arranging the frog’s head, the lily pads and a spatterdock blossom to create a more interesting composition.   Care must be taken to maintain SCALE when you move elements around like this!

Technical note: hot-press watercolor paper is a nicer surface for drawing and better for detail work than cold press or rough paper.  With a cooperative subject and a good drawing surface, I spend more time on this drawing than I normally would for a watercolor, but the shapes and details of the frog’s head and the intricate structure of the spatterdock blossom call for careful observation and precise rendering. Having spent a good deal of time on the drawing, I put it away to finish the color in my studio.  It’s nearly noon, and I still have most of the sanctuary to explore…

Scott had explained how changing water levels in recent years have led to many dead silver maples in the floodplain of the river, and these are making the area more attractive to certain birds, especially cavity nesters like tree swallows, bluebirds and great-crested flycatchers.  Indeed great crested flycatchers are abundant along the Ipswich River Trail.  Wood pewees, warbling vireos, gnatcatchers and kingbirds are also in evidence here – and in the surrounding marsh the clattering calls of marsh wrens come from all directions, though they offer me only brief glimpses among the cattails and buttonbush.

The Drumlin Trail passes through mature forest, where I hear a scarlet tanager, orioles and more flycatchers.   Whenever I pause along the trail, I notice an interesting phenomenon:  small birds (mostly titmice and chickadees) approach me closely, coming to within an arm’s length.  Odd!

Beaver-flooded Trail, Ipswich River - at 72 dpi

Beaver-flooded Trail

As I near the Stone Bridge Area, I encounter the Waterfowl Pond Trail, now flooded by beaver activity.

Garden Loosetrife, Ipswich R - at 72 dpi

Garden Loosetrife

Evidence of the sanctuary’s early history as an arboretum can be found here.   Growing along the trail are garden loosetrife (L. vulgaris) and smooth azalea (R. arborescens) – both in glorious bloom.

Smooth Azalea, Ipswich R. - at 72 dpi

Smooth Azalea

The view from the handsome old Stone Bridge is restful and sublime, as are the views of Hassocky Meadow from the elevated North Esker Trail.   Atop the esker, I set-up my kit to paint a landscape of this large cattail marsh, with Averill’s Island as a backdrop.

Set-up at Hassocky Meadow - at 72 dpi

As I’ve discussed previously in this blog, the greens of high summer in New England can pose a challenge for the landscape painter – how to add some variety and interest to all that unrelenting GREEN?  Today, the clouds cast sweeping shadows across the scene, adding dark accents to the distant pines.  Additionally, the shrubs in the marsh are a warmer yellow- green, supplying some variety and color contrast.

Hassocky Meadow 3, Ipswich River WS - at 72 dpi

Hassocky Meadow, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

I urge my workshop students to pay special attention to the temperature of the greens in their landscape painting – placing the cooler (bluish) greens in the distance and warmer (yellowish) greens in the foreground to create a feeling of space and depth.  At Hassocky Meadow, I break this general rule.  I paint the band of cattails in the near foreground a decidedly COOL green, and somehow it seems to work.  “Rules” in art are never hard and fast!

As I’m painting, a white-breasted nuthatch approaches closely on a nearby tree trunk, inspecting me with a curious expression.  This happens at least three times while I work on my landscape, and I’m beginning to fancy that through some mysterious telepathy, the birds recognize me as a kindred spirit!  Much later, back in the parking lot, I relate these “close encounters” to a regular visitor, and she laughs, explaining that Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary is well known to locals as a place where the birds have become habituated to taking hand-outs of food from visitors!  So much for my communion with the birds!

STAY TUNED for Ipswich River, part 2

The Plovers of Little Beach

May 29, 2016

Allens Pond, Dartmouth – Part 2: Field Station/ Little Beach

Piping Plover and Shore Flies - at 72 dpi

The next day, I return to Allens Pond, arriving at the Field Station entrance by 8:30 am.  I’m first to pull into the parking area, but am soon joined by Jocelyn, the coastal waterbird monitor.  Just the right person to ply with questions!   She is very helpful, suggesting areas where I might concentrate my efforts.  Jocelyn explains that six pairs of piping plovers have established territories along Little Beach, and that several are within easy walking distance.  I’m told that further out on the east end of the beach, two large least tern colonies are also doing well.

Willet at Allens Pond - at 72 dpi


As I’m setting out on the Beach Loop, several noisy willets put on a good show – perching up on fence posts and stonewalls.  I pass an active osprey nest on a platform over the marsh, and pause to scope the common tern colony on Timmy’s Rock.  In the dunes, beach plum is in full bloom.

Beach Plum at Allens Pond - at 72 dpi

Beach Plum

I cut over to the outer beach and soon notice the areas that Jocelyn has roped off for the plovers.  I stay well back from the ropes and signs, but the first plover I encounter runs from the roped area and engages in a series of distraction displays.

Piping Plover Distraction Display - at 72 dpi

I must be too close to a nest, so I back off and the bird soon settles down.  But it never stays for long in any one spot and following its course over the sand with my scope is challenging.  Only occasionally does it pause to preen or sit down briefly.

Piping Plovers sketchbook page dropout - at 72 dpi

Bulkier than other plovers, piping plovers are rotund and rather “dumpy”.   I enjoy working out their shapes in my sketchbook.  The pale tones of the upperparts have a “bleached out” look that blends seamlessly into the sandy environment and the few dark accents on the forehead and chest can easily be mistaken for random bits of flotsam.

Piping Plover and Shore Flies - at 72 dpi

Piping Plover and Shore Flies, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.25″ x 13″

This bird appears to be feeding primarily on shore flies (family Ephydridae, genus Notiphila ?) which are abundant – crawling over the sand and beach vegetation.

Further along the beach, I’m scoping another plover territory when I locate an incubating bird.  A few times it stands up, and I can see at least three speckled eggs under the bird.  It’s an opportunity made for a bird artist, so I take out a sheet of watercolor paper and set to work…

Piping Plover on Nest - at 72 dpi

Piping Plover on Nest, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12″


White-eyed Wonder

May 28, 2016

Allens Pond, Dartmouth – Part 1: Stone Barn Farm and Reuben’s Point

Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary is a big, sprawling property with seven miles of trails and three separate entry points.  Most visitors park at the Field Station entrance, with its proximity to Little Beach, and previous to my current residency project, this was the only section I had explored.

Stone Barn Farm - at 72 dpi

Desiring to see these other areas, I started my visit at Stone Barn Farm.  The historic barn has been beautifully restored and renovated, and this will be the site of the future Mass Audubon Allens Pond Visitor Center.   It’s a handsome structure, and the architects have been careful to retain the original lines and proportions.

A barn swallow pair has built a nest on a ledge over the big sliding door of the barn, and while I’m there the bird sits quietly – a good model for sketching!

Barn Swallow at Stone Barn Farm - at 72 dpi

Barn Swallow at Stone Barn Farm, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 8.5″ x 11.25″

The Quansett Trail leads through open fields, then coastal woods before intersecting with the Reuben’s Point Trail.

Wetland on Quansett Trail, Allens Pond - at 72 dpi

Closer to the Point, a simple boardwalk passes through a rich coastal wetland.  I linger here to examine the interesting wildflowers and sedges.

Bladder Sedge - at 72 dpi

One species of sedge is particularly striking, with flower clusters that look like medieval battlefield weapons!  Joe Choiniere helps me to identify it as Bladder Sedge (Carex intumescens).

The trail rises onto a rocky outcrop as you near Reuben’s Point, affording a splendid view of the upper reaches of Allens Pond and Barney’s Joy.   It’s a good place to set up for some landscape painting.

View from Reuben's Point - at 72 dpi

View from Reuben’s Point, watercolor on Lanaquarelle hot-press, 6.5″ x 10.5″

The pastel hues of Spring still predominate in the distant woods, and the marsh displays a rich mosaic of color.

I’m surrounded on three sides by coastal scrub: dense thickets of shrubs and low trees that are home to a variety of birds.  Catbirds and yellow warblers are abundant, but an unfamiliar song captures my attention.  It’s a loud, persistent song starting and ending with a sharp chip.  I jot it down in my sketchbook thus: “chip-che-wheeyou-chip!”  For forty-five minutes I stare intently into the thickets, trying to pinpoint just where that song is coming from.  Persistence finally pays off when the bird moves to a higher perch in a small cherry tree, and I have a clear view of a white-eyed vireo.  Only later do I read that these birds usually sing from a low, concealed perch!

White-eyed Vireo sketchbook page - at 72 dpi

White-eyed Vireo sketchbook page, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

I make careful notes on color and plumage and map out with my pencil the characteristic shapes and proportions of the bird.  I have seen white-eyed vireos a few times before in Massachusetts, but never in a breeding situation.

White-eyed Vireo in Cherry - at 72 dpi

My observations at Reuben’s Point fill in the gaps of my mental picture of this lovely vireo, and afford me a better understanding and appreciation of its life history and biology.

Songs from the Thicket

May 20, 2016

Nahant Thicket Wildlife Sanctuary, Nahant

Boston at Dawn from Nahant - at 72 dpi

The sun is just rising out of the sea and lighting up the tops of Boston’s skyscrapers as I drive over the causeway to Nahant.  It is 5 am.

Nahant Thicket is the smallest of the Mass Audubon sanctuaries at only 4 acres.  A walk down the sanctuary trail is over before it begins, so I poke along slowly, looking and listening.

Wilson's Warbler sketchbook page dropout- at 72 dpi

Wilson’s warbler sketchbook page, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

A Wilson’s warbler sings from a willow.  I recognize the song from that little trill at the end that drops in pitch.  I haven’t sketched a Wilson’s in a long while, so I spend some quality time with the bird, following it as it moves from tree to tree. The little black cap on top of its head seems to puff up slightly (my wife thinks it looks like a yarmulke!)

Wilson's Warbler - at 72 dpi

Wilson’s Warbler, watercolor on Fluid 100 coldpress, 9″ x 12″

The thicket is bisected by a ditch or channel of fresh water, and I pause on the wooden bridge to watch a thrush bathing along the water’s edge.

The Ditch at Nahant - at 72 dpi

A northern waterthrush sings nearby, and from deeper in the undergrowth a bird delivers bursts of a rapid staccato song.  A year ago I heard that same song along the Waterthrush Trail at High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary in Shelburne.  It’s a Canada warbler, which fills another page in my sketchbook…

Canada Warbler sketches - at 72 dpi

Canada Warbler sketches, pencil, 6″ x 11″

The same species of warblers that were abundant at Marblehead Neck yesterday are numerous again today at Nahant Thicket: redstarts, northern parulas, magnolias and black-and-whites.   But I add some new species, too, including a yellow warbler and a black-throated blue.

Blk-Wht Warbler and Shelf Fungus - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study, pencil, 8″ x 5″

N Parula in Oaks 2 - at 72 dpi

Northern Parula in Oaks, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 9″ x 10.5″

By 9:30 am the neighborhood is waking up and along with it come the myriad sounds of humanity: lawn mowers, a garbage truck making the rounds, leaf blowers, and the general banging and slamming that seems a constant daytime sound in any busy neighborhood.   It’s time for me to migrate home…

Peak Migration

May 19, 2016

Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Marblehead

Magnolia Warbler - at 72 dpi

Magnolia Warbler, male, watercolor on Fluid 100 cold-press, 7″ x 10″

In New England, May is the busiest month for Spring songbird migration, and most birders agree that the 2nd and 3rd weeks of May are prime time.   This is when the greatest numbers and variety of migrating passerines move through Massachusetts.

Two Mass Audubon properties are of particular note at this time of year.  Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and Nahant Thicket Wildlife Sanctuary are well known “migrant traps” – small plots of woodland on heavily developed peninsulas surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.

As with most types of birding, hitting a place like this on just the right day is largely a matter of luck, but visiting during the prime weeks aforementioned gives one a pretty good chance of having a good day.  The days I visited did not coincide with any spectacular “fall-outs”, but neither did they disappoint.  I saw 16 species of warblers in the course of my two visits, plus a smattering of vireos, thrushes, tanagers, orioles and gnatcatchers.

Traveling to these heavily developed areas from other parts of the state, one must anticipate traffic – HEAVY traffic at certain times of the day.   I realized I would need to:  a.) start out pre-dawn and try to arrive at the destination before the morning traffic rush begins or b.) travel later in the morning when rush hour is tapering off.  I chose the second option for Marblehead Neck, and the first for Nahant Thicket. 

Arriving at the Marblehead Neck parking area at 10:15am, I claimed the last parking spot.  It had been a busy morning, and some birders were just returning to their cars.  They had the usual report, which was basically: “You should have been here yesterday.”  However, I could hear a Blackpoll Warbler, a Magnolia Warbler and a Black-throated Green from the parking lot, so how bad could it be?

Wood Anemones, Marblehead Neck - at 72 dpi

Wood Anemones

Wood Anemones are in full bloom along the Warbler Trail, and as I near the small pond at the end of the Vireo Loop, I hear the “burt-burt” calls of a Northern Rough-winged Swallow.  A pair is using a snag above the pond – periodically perching and preening between bouts of aerial foraging.  I seldom see Rough-wings perched, so take the time to make a quick sketch, noting that the wingtips are often held below the tail.

Rough-winged Swallow sketch - at 72 dpi

While a brilliant tanager, grosbeak or oriole can steal the show momentarily, it’s the wood warblers that are the star attraction here.  On the way to Audubon Pond I begin to get a sense for which warbler species are most abundant today.  Northern Parulas and Magnolia Warblers are everywhere, and Black-and-whites and Redstarts are nearly as common.

Redstart Studies - at 72 dpi

Redstart Studies, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10″ x 13″

Bay-breasted Pair - sketch - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study, pencil, 5″ x 5″

At the pond, I spy a handsome male Bay-breasted Warbler foraging in a flowering oak, and a short time later spot the female.  The pair keeps in close proximity to one another, and at one point I have both of them in my binocular field at once, perched only inches apart.  I refine my sketches later to make careful studies of both the male and female.

Bay-breasted Warbler, female - at 72 dpi

Female Bay-breasted Warbler, watercolor in Stillman and Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

Bay-breasted Warbler, male - at 72 dpi

Male Bay-breasted Warbler, watercolor in Stillman and Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

With so many birds to sketch and all of them moving about, I content myself with pencil studies, observing with binoculars.  It’s a challenging way to draw, and demands all the visual memory I can muster.   With species I haven’t drawn recently, I have to re-learn the field marks – struggling to get all those stripes, spots and bars in just the right places.

Blackbunian female - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study, 3.5″ x 5″

A female Blackburnian Warbler is a nice surprise on the Warbler Trail.  No male “fire-throat” today, but the female’s throat has a lovely bright apricot color.

Soloman Seal at Marblehead Neck - at 72 dpi

Up ‘til now, the morning has been gray and overcast, but at 2 pm the sun breaks out and the day warms quickly.  Birdsong tapers off and the action slows.   On my way back to the parking area, I give my “warbler’s neck” a rest, and admire a patch of Solomon ’s Seal that forms an attractive pattern on the forest floor.