Category Archives: Barry Van Dusen Residency

Adventures in Limestone Country, part 1: FEEL THE BURN

July  5/6, 2017

Lime Kiln Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Sheffield

Sketchbook Study of a Black-and-white Warbler, pencil & watercolor, 4″ x 6″

I plan an overnight excursion to visit two unstaffed sanctuaries in the Southwest corner of the state, and book two nights in a hotel in Great Barrington.  By 8 am, I’m on the Mass Pike heading west.  Driving through Palmer, I’m astonished by the extent of gypsy moth defoliation.  For as far as the eye can see in every direction, the hills are brown and bare.  It’s been reported that 900,000 acres in Massachusetts have been defoliated this summer, and one of the worst hit areas is the one I’m currently driving through…

I arrive at Lime Kiln Farm Wildlife Sanctuary by noon.  It’s a warm, sunny day and butterflies are active around the gravel parking area.  A red admiral, an orange sulfur and a tiger swallowtail flit around the lot, where my car is the only one present.  It’s a pleasant spot, surrounded by meadows that keep the view open to the mountains on the horizon.

Sketchbook Studies of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, pencil, 6″ x 9″

A copse of trees at the edge of the meadow includes some dead spruces, whose lichen-encrusted tops are a favored perch of a ruby-throated hummingbird.  I set up my telescope and break for lunch, but am interrupted by frantic bouts of drawing when the hummingbird appears.  In my final watercolor, I use a pose from my sketchbook that helps to coveys the feisty character of these birds.

detail of finished watercolor

I make one change to my sketchbook pose:  I move the wingtips to BELOW the tail.  It’s something hummers often do when perched, and to me it makes the bird more assertive.   Ruby-throats just don’t seem to comprehend that they are VERY SMALL!

Hummingbird on Spruce Top, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 13.5″ x 10.25″

As I’m drawing, I can hear the calls of an alder flycatcher coming from a shrub swamp below the meadow, so I follow the Lime Kiln Loop Trail hoping to get closer to the bird.

The old Lime Kiln is an impressive structure, towering forty feet into the forest canopy.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, the lime industry was a prominent part of the New England economy.  Lime was a key ingredient in plaster and mortar.

When limestone is burned, it produces lime (calcium oxide).  Lime kilns in New England used wood or coal to burn the limestone.  The kiln was loaded with a cord of wood at the bottom, and then piled with limestone broken into basketball sized chunks.   After the burn, the lime was loaded into casks for transport.  By 1900 the lime kilns in New England were shutting down due to competition from newer building materials and cheaper lime from other sources.

I crawl about the relic kiln, shooting it from various angles, and imagine the roar of a cord of wood blazing in the belly of the old kiln.  FEEL THE BURN!

I follow the Quarry Trail, then the Taconic Vista Trail to the “Scenic Vista”.   And, it is indeed SCENIC – with the Taconic Mountains to the west and the nearer Berkshire Hills to the north, all viewed across a wide meadow.  A yellow-throated vireo sings it’s “three-eights” from a big oak while I set up to paint.

painting in progress at the Scenic Vista

I’ve written previously about the artistic challenges posed by the unbroken greens of summer in New England, and here again I’m faced with the challenge:  how to deal with all that GREEN!

View of the Taconics I, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10″ x 13.25″

My first attempt at painting the scene disappoints me – it feels heavy-handed and overworked, so I immediately start another version.

View of the Taconics II, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

On my second attempt, I scale back to a smaller sheet and deliberately compress the landscape from left to right.  I make the mountains more prominent and paint them with a purer, brighter blue.  I pay special attention to the zone that links the distant mountains with the nearer trees (i.e. where the greens shift from cool to warm).  I simplify the foreground and bring more light into the closest trees on the left.

I’ll leave it to YOU to decide which painting YOU prefer!

Summits and Snowies, part 2: Creature Feature

March 2/3, 2017

Blue Hills Trailside Museum, Milton

My second day at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum is colder, with temperatures remaining in the 30s all day.  It’s sunny, however, so I do some more drawing at the snowy owl enclosure.  The two birds are again huddled on the ground in the rear corner of the pen.

Snowy Owl sketchbook studies, pencil, 9″ x 12″

drawing at the snowy owl enclosure

It’s early in the day, and I’m the only one in the little zoo behind the visitor center.   Suddenly, I hear a great flap of wings and turn to see a wild turkey vulture alighting on the nearby turkey vulture enclosure.    It hops around atop the cage and peers down at the “prisoner” within.  I wonder what has attracted the wild bird: curiosity? food? sex?   It’s a handsome specimen – much more colorful and sleek than the captive bird – and I turn my attention to it.  I take some photos and start a drawing, but another (human) visitor arrives and scares off the wild bird.

Turkey Vulture Head Study, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

We go inside to warm up, and meet director Norm Smith.  He is busy getting ready to host an important international meeting of scientist and researchers focused on snowy owls.  Norm has been conducting his own research on these birds for nearly twenty years.  He was the first to put satellite transmitters on wintering snowy owls in an attempt to better understand their seasonal movements in New England.    His research has called into question many long-held assumptions about the owls that move south into Massachusetts in winter.  Needless to say, the snowy owl is a bird of special significance at the Trailside Museum!

Norm introduces us to staff members in charge of the live animals at Trailside, and we get a tour of the lower level.  Some of the animals are recovering from injuries and will eventually be released, while others are permanent residents who, for various reasons cannot be returned to the wild.

A raven and a box turtle have the run of the place, and follow us around as we take our tour.  The box turtle develops a special fondness for my shoe!

The staff generously offers to set up any of the animals for us to work with, so I select a gray phase screech-owl, which is taken from its cage and placed on a padded perch in the center of a low table.

Sean and I get to work, and the owl proves a good model, sitting quietly and studying US!  The owl seems especially fascinated when I take out my paints and brushes!  (Thanks, Sean, for your photos in this post!)

Gray Phase Screech-Owl, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 11″ x 9″

Upstairs in the museum, a variety of live animals are on display.  One enclosure holds two timber rattlesnakes: one very dark and the other predominantly golden brown.

Timber rattlesnakes are endangered in Massachusetts and persist at only a handful of widely scattered sites in the state – mostly in mountainous areas.  There is a small population in the Blue Hills Reservation, but they are reclusive animals and seldom encountered.  They pose virtually no danger to the public, in fact, only one person has ever died of snakebite in Massachusetts, and that was over 200 years ago!

I have not yet painted a snake for this residency, so this is a good opportunity, and the snake is a very cooperative model – I don’t believe it moved once during the time I worked on my picture!  I decide to indicate a natural setting for the snake and substitute a suggestion of leaves, rocks and twigs in place of the wood shavings in its enclosure.

Timber Rattlesnake, wartercolor on Arches cold-press, 14.25″ x 10.25″

Before leaving Trailside, I go back outside and check the snowy owls one more time.  To my delight, the paler bird is sitting atop a natural perch in the center of the enclosure.

Snowy Owl sketchbook study, pencil, 9″ x 12″

It’s a much more dynamic pose than the birds made on the ground, so I make a careful drawing that I use later to develop this watercolor.

Snowy Owl at Trailside, watercolor on Arches rough, 16.25″ x 12.25″

 

Summits and Snowies, part 1: Great Blue Hill

March 2/3, 2017

Blue Hills Trailside Museum, Milton

It’s cold and very windy on the morning I arrive at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton.   Mass Audubon runs and manages the Trailside Museum, the visitor/interpretive center for the Blue Hills Reservation.   This 7,000 acres public reserve is the largest open space within 35 miles of Boston, and is owned by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

I figured winter would be a good time to visit the Trailside Museum, since it would offer opportunities for both outdoor and indoor work.  The Trailside Museum is only minutes from the Museum of American Bird Art in Canton – the sponsor of my residency.  I’ll stay overnight in MABA’s guest suite and spend two days at Trailside.  Sean Kent, the education director at MABA joins me both days (thanks, Sean for your photos in this blog entry!).

Boston Skyline from Great Blue Hill summit

Today, March 2, Sean and I hike to the top of Great Blue Hill (elev. 635 ft.) and take in the view of Boston and the Harbor Islands.  While at the summit, we visit the Blue Hill Weather Observatory – the oldest continuously operated weather observatory in the United States.

Blue Hill Weather Observatory

We crawl up onto the observation deck at the top of the observatory and hang onto the railings with the wind gusts nearing 60 mph (the anemometer is a spinning blur!)

Descending from the Observation Deck

Below, in the control room, a technician points out a glass case of antique mercury barometers – still working and very accurate!

Antique mercury barometers

Down off the summit, and out of the wind, we set up to do some landscape work featuring the rocky outcrops along the Summit Trail.

The temperatures have been dropping throughout the day, and it’s in the low 40s when I begin drawing. I’ve brought along a few of those chemical hand-warmers, and slip one into the glove of my drawing hand.  I can’t draw with the glove on, but I slip it on and warm up my fingers periodically.

The completed drawing done on location

I complete the drawing on watercolor paper, but am getting seriously chilled by the time I finish, and can’t summon the courage to take out my paints.  I’ll finish this one in the studio…

the work in progress…

Here’s the painting about half finished.   You can see that I laid in the tones of the distant background first – I’ll want them to recede in the finished painting, so deliberately make the colors pale and subdued.  Next, I paint the areas of ground between the rocks with a rusty brown tone, which at the same time organizes the shapes of the rocks.  Then, I paint the shadow pattern of the rocks and lay in the darker tone of the three dominant tree trunks.  The shadows on the foreground rocks are among the darkest notes in the painting, so I’ve now established the full range of values.

Summit Trail, Great Blue Hill, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

Now, it’s just a matter of laying in the middle value grays of the rocks.  I try to add some interest and variety here, by varying the complements used to mix the grays.   Most of them are mixed from ultramarine blue and cadmium orange, but I also throw in some burnt sienna and cobalt violet here and there.

Back at the Trailside Museum that afternoon, Sean and I make some drawings of the snowy owls in one of the outdoor pens.  The birds are sitting on the ground in the rear corner of the enclosure, but with my telescope, I have “in-your-face” views of the bird’s heads and do several pages of studies.

sketchbook page, pencil, 9″ x 12″

sketchbook page, pencil, 9″ x 12″

There are two owls: one almost completely white with only a few scattered markings on the wings and tail, and the other heavily spotted and barred all-over.

stay tuned for Blue Hills Part 2: Creature Feature…

 

SMALL MIRACLES, part 2: Lost in the Weeds

January 29, 2017

Endicott Wildlife Sanctuary, Wenham

Back in the studio, I spread out the winter stems I collected along the entrance drive at Endicott Wildlife Sanctuary.  I arrange the stems on a big sheet of Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper, moving them around and trying out various arrangements until I have a nicely balanced composition.   You might notice that the pepperbush in the center arches outward to the left and right, while the two outermost stems curve gently inward, bracketing and containing the stems in the center.

Seeds of Promise, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 21″ x 22.5″

I have a pretty good idea what the various species are.  I’ve got goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, an aster, sweet pepperbush and meadowsweet.   Only one of the specimens has me puzzled: a tall, narrow spire with densely packed cylindrical seed capsules.   I check my Newcomb’s and realize – of course! – it’s purple loosestrife.  This is one species I’m sure the Audubon Society would have NO objection to my collecting!  In fact, I had read on the visitor’s kiosk that the Society had successfully introduced a beetle into the wet meadow to control the spread of this invasive, non-native plant.

the drawing phase (purple loosetrife)…

After settling on an arrangement, I make a careful drawing of each specimen with a 2B pencil, working from the specimen itself.  I call this approach “indoor field sketching”, since even though I’m not outside, I am working directly from life.  I’m aiming for an accurate botanical portrait of each species, so draw carefully and slowly using a modified contour drawing technique.

detail: goldenrod and pepperbush

It’s amazing how much you can learn about botanical structure by working directly from specimens like this.  For example, I noticed how the twigs of the pepperbush branched smoothly off the main stem without any obvious scars or marks at the junctions.  Doing some research, I read that the new woody growth of pepperbush is forked or branched, and the side twigs do not always originate from a bud, as in most woody shrubs.

painting in progress…

I work from left to right in both the drawing and painting stages, so as to minimize smudging (I’m right-handed).   I strive for accuracy but also a light touch, and I mix the subtle grays and browns with care, slightly emphasizing the color shifts.  The attraction of this painting is really in the details, so here are some more close-ups:

calico aster

Queen Anne’s lace and pepperbush

meadowsweet

This is the largest watercolor that I’ve painted for the residency so far, at 21” x 22 ½”.

Seeds of Promise, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 21″ x 22.5″

I’ve probably spent more hours on this watercolor than any of the others, too.  The painting and drawing took more than four full days of work.  The original watercolor is currently on display at the Museum of American Bird Art in Canton, Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

Show Time!

Museum of American Bird Art, Canton    May 2017

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that the posts have slowed down abit.  There’s a reason for this.  With the opening of my residency exhibition at the Museum of American Bird Art scheduled for May 21, 2017, I’ve had to put the sanctuary visits aside and spend all of my time on show preparations.

IN A NATURAL STATE: Barry Van Dusen Paints the Nature of Mass Audubon, presents more than 60 original watercolors from the residency project.  On exhibit are watercolors of birds, landscapes, flowers, mammals, fish, insects and more, inspired by my visits to 54 Mass Audubon properties across the state.  The paintings are accompanied by narrative labels that chronicle my experiences and adventures over the course of the two-year project.

Gary Clayton (President of Mass Audubon), Amy Montague (Director of the Museum of American Bird Art) and Barry Van Dusen (Artist)

In the mezzanine, visitors can see a display of my sketchbooks and field kit, and a chronological slideshow on the large mezzanine monitor includes ALL of my residency paintings up to the present time (more than 150!), along with related sketches and photographs.

The installation would not have been possible without the extraordinary efforts of the Museum staff: Amy Montague, Sean Kent, Owen Cunningham, Sarah McClellan, and volunteer Julianne Mehegan.  Their dedication and professionalism continues to fill me with awe!

 

Museum staff Owen Cunningham and Sean Kent talk over details of the installation

There’s plenty of time to take in the exhibition, which will be on display throughout the summer, closing on September 17, 2017.  I hope those of you who have not yet seen the exhibit (or the Museum), will pay a visit!

Getting back to the residency project – I still have a few Mass Audubon properties to visit this summer, so stay tuned for future blog posts from Endicott (Wenham), Blue Hills Trailside Museum (Milton), Felix Neck (Edgartown), Lime Kiln Farm (Sheffield)  and Richardson Brook (Tolland).  With my sanctuary visits coming to an end, I’m feeling a reluctance to finish.  It’s been a wonderful experience exploring the Nature of Mass Audubon!

A Note to Collectors

A selection of my original watercolors has been purchased by the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Museum’s permanent collection, but many of the originals are available for sale to private individuals.  When you visit the Museum, ask for a price list at the front desk.  Also, feel free to contact me to check on availability of any of the paintings you see on the Taking Flight blog, or on the slideshow in the Museum’s mezzanine.  Write me at vandusen@dslextreme.com.

 

Small Miracles, Part 1: Kid’s Stuff

January 29, 2017

Endicott Wildlife Sanctuary, Wenham

These days, Endicott Wildlife Sanctuary is best known as home of the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary Nature Preschool.  The school operates out of the historic estate house once owned by the renowned Endicott family (John Endicott was the first colonial Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony).  The sanctuary, which lies within earshot of Rte 128, is small at just 43 acres, and the half mile of trails can easily be explored in a half day or so.

Upon arrival, I pass through a small but attractive cattail marsh on either side of the entrance drive.  I make a mental note of this, and after parking and studying the visitor’s kiosk, I decide to walk back down the driveway to this marsh.  The cattails are in various stages of going to seed.  Some are nearly falling apart, with gauzy fragments waving in the light breeze.  Others are largely intact, with only small patches turned to cottony fluff.

Sketchbook study of Cattail, pencil and watercolor, 8.5″ x 5″

A small movement catches my eye, and I watch a chickadee working over one of the riper heads, tearing away clumps of fiber.   Several times, the bird drops a wad of fluff, then dives down to retrieve it from the base of the plants.  I’m not sure what the chickadees are after, but later I go on-line and find references to Chickadees gleaning both seeds and insect larvae from cattails.

Chickadees and Cattails, watercolor on Arches rough, 10.25″ x 14.25″

Near the entrance to the Ellice Endicott Trail, I pause where a patch of common polypody is growing atop a large boulder.  I can’t resist turning the fronds over to examine the regularly spaced dots loaded with spores on the undersides.

They remind me of a type of penny candy that we coveted as kids:  colored candy dots arranged in rows on a paper ribbon.   I wonder if you can still buy the stuff, and if the kids in the nature preschool would know what I’m talking about!

The trail passes by a play area where “toys” made from natural materials are spread out on a bench next to a hut built from sticks.

There’s also what looks like a large sieve or sifter, with separate compartments and a cover.  I’m not sure what the kids do with this contraption, but I bet it’s FUN!

I pass through a mixed forest of mature white pine and red oak, interspersed with hemlocks and beeches.  The young beech trees in the understory hang onto their leaves all through the winter.  The pale, papery leaves are curled into tight coils and hang in orderly rows from the delicate twigs.  I decide to do a drawing of a particularly attractive branch, then take out my watercolors and add some soft washes of tan.

Beech Leaf Ballet, watercolor on Lana hot press, 8.5″ x 12″

The dorsal surfaces of the leaves are richer in color, and lend an orange glow to the inside of the coiled leaves.  They remind me of ballet slippers – all up on their toes in a delicate dance – so I decide to title the painting Beech Leaf Ballet.

The trail descends into a moist and mossy hemlock gorge, skirts a swampy stream lined with sphagnum, and then leads to a spur trail offering a vantage into the wet meadow.  There’s a rich variety of wetland plants here: maleberry and winterberry, sweet pepperbush and arching sprays of rushes out in the middle.

Before I leave, I again walk down to the cattail marsh – this time to collect some of the interesting “weeds” growing along the driveway.  Visitors are discouraged from collecting natural materials at any of the Mass Audubon properties, so I discretely gather only a few stems, making sure to avoid any rare or unusual species.  I’ll bring these back to the studio to paint in a warmer, more controlled environment (stay tuned for Part 2: Lost in the Weeds).

 

Confessions of a Fish-Watcher

Eagle Lake, Holden (revisited)

I spent my childhood in the Sebago Lakes region of southern Maine.  In summer, my brothers and I spent nearly all of our time IN or ON the water: boating, swimming, snorkeling, fishing – and fish-watching.  Some of my earliest memories are of times spent gazing into watery depths, spying on various piscine forms.

Sketches made at the Sandwich,MA state fish hatchery, May 2012, pencil, 9″ x 12″

In November, we’d go on special fish-watching expeditions to the old fish hatchery on the Jordan River, where we could watch spawning landlocked salmon up the river from Sebago Lake.  More often, we’d simply lurk around the dock at my grandparents place on Panther Pond, watching the bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and an occasional largemouth bass defend their nests in the weedy shallows.

One behavior I find especially attractive is the way pumpkinseeds and bluegills wave their aqua blue fins as they guard their nest sites.  If an intruder draws too near, they give chase, then return to the nest and resume waving those fins.  I’ve come to think of them as “Fan Dancers”.

Fan Dancer II (Pumpkinseed), watercolor on Arches cold-press, 8″ x 11″

I watched this same behavior when I visited Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary in Holden, Massachusetts back in May, 2015.  I took some digital photos at that time and made a few quick sketches, but with the press of other subjects, never got around to doing anything more with them.  Winter in the studio is a good time to revisit these “lost opportunities”, and the watercolors you see here are the result.

Fan Dancer I (Pumpkinseed), watercolor on Arches cold-press, 8″ x 11″

 

 

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.