Category Archives: Natural History

Nature in a Minute: Bracken Fern

Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is easy to identify. It has one main stem with three triangular leaves branching from the stem. The leaves (fronds) radiate horizontally from the main stem.

Bracken fern grows to three feet in height.  It’s one of the earliest ferns to come up in the spring.  It grows in large colonies along roadsides and trails in dry woodlands.  The Latin name refers to the shape of the fronds that look like wings. Pteridium for pteron,  meaning wing. Aguilinum for aquila meaning eagle.  

Bracken fern grows in the drier, upland part of MABA’s main loop trail.

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.

Nature in a Minute: New York Fern

New York ferns (Thelypteris noveboracensis) are one of the smallest ferns. They are only 18 inches in height. The frond of New York fern is tapered at both ends. Notice how the leaflets are very tiny at the bottom, get wider in the middle, then are smaller at the top.  

New York ferns grow in small clusters. They prefer a sunny spot in the woods or edges of moist meadows.  

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.

The Vernal Pool: Part 2 by Maris Van Vlack (MABA Intern and RISD Student)

This summer the Museum of American Bird Art is thrilled that Maris Van Vlack, a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, will be interning at MABA. She will be sketching and painting in the wildlife sanctuary. She will be blogging about her experience. Enjoy her post about a week spent at the vernal pool. –Sean Kent

Many different kinds of birds live in the vernal pool area, making it a great bird watching spot! Below is a list of some of the most common species that I have seen there:

Baltimore Oriole– They are black and orange, so are easily seen in the trees above the vernal pool.

Northern Cardinal– the males are bright red, but the females are dull brown and camouflage well in the trees. I typically see them perched on branches that are low to the ground.

Mourning Dove– They are usually seen hopping about on the fallen tree near the back of the vernal pool (pictured below). I’m guessing that they have a nest in that area.

Black Capped Chickadee– They don’t have any bright colors, so they are harder to see. They are found anywhere in the trees or brush by the vernal pool.

Common Grackle– They appear to be completely black, but the feathers on their heads have a bluish iridescent quality. They are often in the mud by the edge of the water.

Grackles at the vernal pool foraging for food, watercolor

Of the birds that spend their time around the vernal pool, grackles are the most prominent because they make quite a lot of noise. They are omnivorous and hop around the vernal pool, looking for insects to eat. I decided that grackles were a good bird to draw because they are willing to get pretty close to me, unlike other birds who keep their distance and are obscured branches.

Drawing from life is a useful habit to form because it will help your drawings capture the movement and 3-dimensionality of your subject. When working on a painting of an animal like the grackle, which holds a position for just a few seconds at a time, I started by observing the bird and doing many quick sketches.

These drawings are all done from the observation of one grackle, which was hopping from branch to branch in the middle of the vernal pool. Each sketch took three to six seconds because I wanted to capture each position in the moment. I kept my eyes on the grackle, not on the paper, so I could draw the lines and shapes that I actually saw, and not the shapes that I remembered when I looked away. The goal of an exercise like this is not to create a beautiful finished drawing, but to quickly sketch as many gestures as I could. Some of my sketches don’t even look like birds! What they are meant to do is capture the shapes of a bird in motion. Here are a few things I learned while doing this exercise:

-You don’t just have to draw birds in profile, like so many drawings do. You can draw them straight-on, upside-down, from below, from above, sideways, flying, and more!

-There is a lot of movement in a bird’s tail. Sometimes it points up, other times it points down. When the grackle was turned sideways, the tail looked like a thin line, but when he turned backwards or was flying, it was fanned out.

-It is useful to draw a line representing the direction of the bird’s spine. It will help show the kind of movement that the bird is making, and will also help you draw the rest of the bird proportionally. This line is usually going to be curved like an S or a C, not a straight line.

This finished piece was painted with gouache. Gouache (it rhymes with squash) comes in small tubes and is very similar to watercolor. The main difference is that it is more opaque, so light colors can be painted over top of dark colors. As I was working on this painting, I was thinking about a dark color scheme that reminded me of the shadowy areas around the vernal pool. I reserved light colors for the highlights on the beak, eye, and parts of the branch. Even though the trees in the background contained a lot of bright yellow where the sun comes through the leaves, I chose to exclude those bright colors to keep the painting moody and dark. Adding little bits of red to the green paint keeps those shades from becoming too vibrant.

Birds are everywhere, so I encourage you to go outside and sketch one this week! Start with a practice exercise to capture basic shapes, and take a photo or two if you need help remembering the colors. Birds occur so often in art, and there is good reason! They have such a variety of colors, sizes, patterning, and shapes that they provide an endless list of possibilities for drawings and paintings.

The Vernal Pool – Part 1 by Maris Van Vlack (MABA Intern and RISD Student)

This summer the Museum of American Bird Art is thrilled that Maris Van Vlack, a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, will be interning at MABA. She will be sketching and painting in the wildlife sanctuary. She will be blogging about her experience. Enjoy her post about a week spent at the vernal pool. –Sean Kent

MABA’s vernal pool is a gathering place for lots of wildlife, and is a great place to watch the comings and goings of woodland wildlife. The pool is located very close to the trailhead, and is easy to find on your trail map. The word “vernal” means spring, so a vernal pool is a body of water that forms when snow is melting in the late winter, and it slowly disappears when the weather gets hot in the summer. Even though it isn’t there all year round, the vernal pool is the home to a variety of animals and is a great place to sit and sketch! Here is a list of wildlife I observed when sitting by the pool for only about 15 minutes:

Green Frog
Baltimore Oriole
American Robin
Mourning Dove

The marker sketch above was drawn from the vernal pool overlook right on the trail. Natural bodies of water don’t have a clear outline, so they can be tricky to sketch. I find that it is best to first draw the things around the water that define its boundaries (like trees or patches of grass) and then draw the reflections you can see on the water’s surface. The vernal pool has a lot of big branches resting in it which create reflections, as well as the sun, sky, and surrounding trees.

An interesting branch and reflection

a sketch of a tree on the bank of the vernal pool, split open and full of shelf fungi

The light by the vernal pool is very captivating because it comes through the leaves overhead and then bounces off of the water’s surface. One day, when I was beginning to sketch, I noticed an interesting pattern of shadows on my paper:

As a drawing experiment, I tried to trace the shapes of the shadows on the paper. This was difficult because the wind kept blowing the leaves back and forth. This was the result:

I find the lines of the drawing interesting, and I think they capture the feeling of the wind blowing leaves back and forth.

The sketch above is drawn from the vernal pool overlook on the main loop path. This view is not as close up as the other place directly on the bank of the pool, but you won’t scare away the wildlife and can watch all the birds fly about! There are often common grackles that hop around the edge of the pool, making quite a racket. I have also seen cardinals, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, and orioles from this view.

Remember, the vernal pool is quickly shrinking! Even just a week later, I noticed that the water level had gone down about a foot. Go visit! It is a great place to sit, draw, and observe nature.

My name is Maris Van Vlack, and I will be blogging for the summer of 2020! I am a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a major in Textiles and a concentration in Drawing. I am especially interested in working with unusual materials in my work, and am inspired by plants, animals, and the patterns found in nature. This summer, I will be creating a guide for the MABA trails with sketches and paintings. I will be recording and writing about my observations, and sharing them through these blog posts. Hopefully this will be an educational and inspiring resource, and will motivate you to sketch what you see when you visit MABA this summer!

Nature in a Minute: Callahan State Park, Framingham, June 12, 2020 by Deborah Stone

This post is by Deborah Stone, a good friend of MABA.

Just as I came down a trail to the edge of Beebe Pond, a Great Blue Heron landed about 20 feet ahead of me. It froze in classic heron statue pose—until I spooked it by lifting my binoculars. Then it alighted for safer territory. Perfect timing. Whenever I see a heron, I can’t resist stopping to watch it catch dinner, and I was beyond ready for a break and lunch. I leaned my butt on a rock with an indent that felt custom made and found the heron farther out in the pond

Holding half a PB&J in my right hand and binocs in my left, I watched the heron stalk— slowly, deliberately, intently. I didn’t have its patience and took a large bite of my sandwich. It felt rude to eat before everyone had their dinner, so I willed my chewing to reach the heron as a kind of telepathic aid to success. Karma didn’t take long to work. The heron thrust its head down and came up with a large fish. Quite the morsel but how to get it down the gullet? The fish was crosswise in the heron’s beak, flapping its tail wildly, trying to escape. 

Five times the heron lowered its head behind some grasses, presumably to maneuver the fish into a better position. After the second, third and fourth time, when the heron lifted its head again, the fish was still crosswise, but after the fourth time, I could see that it was lifeless. After the fifth time, the beak came up with the fish still crosswise. The heron gave a little head toss and Bingo! Straight on, down the hatch. I thought I saw a bulge in the heron’s neck, something like the snake that swallowed a mouse in Le Petit Prince. I estimated it took a full minute from the time of capture to the time dinner was ready. 

I couldn’t see what culinary tricks the heron performed while it had its head down, but I can guess. At Hall’s Pond Sanctuary in Brookline, I once saw a heron make a catch far too large to fit down its throat. It flew to the pond’s edge and dropped the fish on the ground. There, it pecked at the fish to subdue it, then picked it up and carried it to another spot where there was a large flat rock. I watched the heron stab away at the fish, ripping a bite here and there. Eventually, the remaining piece of fish was down to a manageable size. 

Here at Beebe Pond, the water was shallow. I couldn’t see whether there was a hummock or a rock to serve as a butcher block, but I’m guessing the heron found a way to disable the fish without letting it loose in the water. Perhaps the heron held part of the fish on the pond bottom with one foot while using its beak as a pincers. I could try to find answers in a book or on YouTube, but I prefer trying to solve nature’s mysteries with wonder instead of science. 

I was only part way through my half sandwich when the heron caught its next fish. This one was somewhat smaller. This time, too, the heron had caught the fish crosswise in its beak. This time, though, the heron flipped the fish parallel to its beak and swallowed, all in about three seconds. Dessert always goes down easier, doesn’t it?

Note: Photos were not taken during these observations, but are illustrative of the events.

Nature in a Minute: Royal Fern

Royal Ferns (Osmunda regalis) are the largest ferns, growing to a height of 4-6 feet. The leaves are erect and branch-like. Because of its imposing size it’s Latin species name is regalis, royal.

These ferns love to have their roots wet. They grow along streams and in boggy areas all over New England.  This Royal Fern is growing right in Pequit Brook on the MABA sanctuary trail.

The fertile leaves of Royal Ferns are clustered in a dense bunch, taller than the other leaves. Millions of microscopic spores are released from these fertile leaves. The spores are green when they first appear and turn brown as they ripen. 

Nature in a Minute: Sensitive Fern

Sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) are medium to large size. The leaves are broad, almost triangular in shape. They are not as lacy as other ferns. When the first frost occurs in late fall, the Sensitive fern turns brown and withers quickly. That’s the reason for its sensitive name.

Sensitive ferns form a unique fertile fronds. In late summer a stalk appears with bead-like spore cases. These turn brown and persist all winter, long after the leaves are gone. In the spring millions of spores are released.

You can find Sensitive ferns on the MABA loop trail and in the wet meadow near the gallery.

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.

Nature in a Minute: The Cinnamon Fern

Ferns are an ancient family of plants. They were growing on Earth 360 million years ago. They are older than land animals and even dinosaurs. You can find ferns growing on the trails at MABA and in damp woods near where you live. Ferns do not have flowers like other plants. They reproduce in a unique way, by tiny spores that are blown by the wind and carried by water. Ferns are at their peak in early summer when the part of the plant that produces the spores is most easy to see. This is the first in a series on recognizing ferns in the woods. 

Cinnamon Fern  (Osmunda cinnamomea)

Cinnamon ferns grow in a circular vase-like form. The leaves grow to three feet or taller. The fertile leaves that hold the spores are green at first, soon turning to cinnamon- brown. The brown fertile leaf resembles a stick of cinnamon, thus the name Cinnamon fern.

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.

Nature in a Minute: What’s blooming on MABA trails – Starflower

Trails at the Museum of American Bird Art in Canton are open.  Come walk the Main Loop trail and look for these wildflowers.

Starflower   (Trientalis borealis)

The delicate white flowers grow on sturdy little stems above the whorl of leaves. The Latin name for Starflower refers to its size and location. Trientalis means one-third of a foot.  Starflowers grow low to the ground to a height of about 4 inches.  The species name borealis refers to north. Starflowers are abundant in the northern United States.

Starflowers form floral constellations on woodland trails in springtime. This cluster of three Starflowers reminds me of the constellation Orion which is easy to find by three bright stars that create Orion’s Belt. 

Starflower   (Trientalis borealis)

Orion  Constellation 

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.

Nature Notes for Orchard Cove: May 28, 2020

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Pink Lady’s Slippers are blooming this week and next, especially in pine forests. Enjoy our latest Nature in a Minute blog post about Pink Lady’s Slippers.

Pink Lady’s Slipper Video from the University of Delaware

Lady Slipper Pollination

Enjoy this short video about pollination of lady slipper orchids. The lady slipper’s orchid is native to Europe, but this video shows how bees pollinator a lady slipper orchid and it is very similar to how the pink lady’s slipper is pollinated. If you are out for a walk and see large bumble bees – most likely queen bumblebees – flying around near pink lady slippers, take a few minutes to watch and see if the bumble bee flies into the slipper and has to maneuver out of the top of the orchid, it is a real treat to see this pollination in action.

Nature apps for your phone, tablet, or other device.

A nice article in the Boston Globe about 8 nature phone apps you can use when you go exploring.

Barry Van Dusen’s Blog Post about spring wildflowers, including Yellow lady slippers and other orchids.

High ledges wildlife sanctuary and paintings of yellow lady slippers.

West mountain wildlife sanctuary and paintings of the purple fridge orchis.

Painted Trillium at High Ledges Wildlife sanctuary.

Barry Van Dusen’s visit to Cook’s Canyon Wildlife Sanctuary, in Barre on July 11, and his painting of the Yellow blue-bead lily (Clintonia).

Green Frog Call

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Hi everybody, each week I (Sean Kent – MABA’s education and camp director) deliver a live online illustrated lecture called Nature Notes for the residents of Orchard Cove in Canton. I love nature and am infinitely curious with what is going on natural world. I am an educator, naturalist, accomplished landscape and wildlife photographer, and field biologist with expertise in native bee biology, species interactions, and ecology in general.

This post contains additional resources that correspond with the lecture, but might also be of interest to readers of Taking Flight in addition to the residents of Orchard Cove. Please contact me ( if you or your organization/residence might be interested in live online illustrated lectures, including lectures on The Secret Life of Backyard Birds and Native Bees and other Pollinators. Be well and safe.