Category Archives: Natural History

Nature in a Minute: The Blues

Blue vervain  (Verbena hastata)

On walks last week I observed two of my favorite flowers, both having blue flowers. Though fairly common in this area, they are less showy and can easily be overlooked among grasses and taller plants that dominate in late summer.

Blue vervain commonly occurs in wet meadows, wet river bottomlands, and stream banks. It typically grows 2-4′ tall.  The candelabra-like growth form is distinctive. The tiny flowers are on erect, pencil-like spikes 2-6 inches long.  Flowers on each spike bloom bottom to top, a few at a time. Blue verbena flowers are 5-lobed and purplish-blue.

The leaves are lance-shaped and opposite on the stem. Blue vervain blooms from July – September. This handsome clump is growing along the Neponset River in East Milton. Bumblebees are among the important pollinators of Blue vervain.

Blue vervain.  Neponset River bank, Milton (August 16)

Blue vervain.  Neponset River bank, Milton (August 16)

Blue curls  (Trichostema dichotomum)

The charming Blue curls has delicate blue flowers with a distinctive structure.  The flowers are ½ to ¾ inch long, having five petals. The lower petal is tongue-like with prominent dark spots on white shading. The four upper petals are shorter and all blue. It’s the stamens and pistil, rising above the petals and curling toward the lower petal that give Blue curls their common name. To get a good photo, I held a piece of cardboard as a background for the flowers. 

The flowers are at the tips of opposite stems with a pair of leaves at the intersection with the main stem. Blue curls grow to 18-24 inches. Four to six pairs of flowers may extend from the main stem. It grows along wooded borders, in dry grasslands and sunny dry meadows. 

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

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

The Pine Grove at MABA by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

The Pine Grove Path is the shortest path of the MABA trails, but it is special because it is primarily pine trees, not deciduous trees like the rest of the MABA property. Pine trees tend to have higher branches, so the view of the forest is not blocked with lots of branches and leaves. The ground is the orange color of dead pine needles, not brown with dead leaves. 

In the drawing above, the wavy lines on the path represent the shadows of the trees, and also imply the uneven texture of the path’s surface.
Pine trees have branches growing out on all sides, and drawing trees this way makes them seem more lifelike. 
White pine cones

The pine grove is made up of mostly white and red pines, which are some of the most common pines in New England. White pines have long, thin cones (above) and red pines have shorter, rounder cones (below). 

Red pine cone

I noticed some sassafras plants sprouting up by the side of the paths. Keep a lookout for Black Swallowtail Butterflies, which are attracted to sassafras. 

This painting shows the view looking up at the trees. I find it exciting to look up at this place because the sky is visible, unlike most of the surrounding area. I used a wet-on-wet watercolor technique, which causes the paint to blend more and makes the colors run ino one another. 

This last painting depicts some logs and branches on the Pine Grove Path. I used water to blend the trees in the background, so that there would be a sense of depth in the painting. 

Amphibians at MABA by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

Keep a lookout for the many amphibians that live at MABA! Although all amphibians spend part of their life in water, each species lives in a different habitat. Because of this, you can find them all over the MABA property! I have seen them by the vernal pool, pond, brook, as well as by the sides of the trails. 

Yellow spotted salamander in ink and watercolor; eastern red-backed salamander in watercolor

Salamanders can be found by the brook, usually near or under rotting logs. There are two main species at MABA: the yellow spotted salamander and the eastern red-backed salamander. The yellow spotted salamander is mostly black with yellow spots. The red-backed salamander has a reddish-orange stripe down its back, and tends to have a longer, thinner body. At first glance, you may mistake a red-backed salamander for a small snake. 

Frogs are by far the most common amphibian at MABA, and green frogs are the most common of them all! By the pond at the back of the sanctuary, they will come and sit just a few feet away from me. They range from 2” to 3.5” in length. I have noticed a lot of variety in the coloring of green frogs: some (like the one pictured) have more green spots, and others appear more grayish green.

Green Frog in watercolor

Pickerel frogs are about 2.5” in length and have distinctive black and brown markings on their bodies. When the frogs are in the water and only their head is visible, try and notice if there are any black markings by the eye. This can help you distinguish pickerel frogs from green frogs. 

Pickerel frog in ink and watercolor

Of the MABA frogs, the Wood Frog seems to live the farthest from the water. Often on the trails by the edge of the brook, Wood Frogs are mostly tan or light brown with a dark stripe by their eye. 

Wood frog in watercolor and marker

Frogs and toads are quite similar, but toads tend to have dry skin and live farther from the water.

American Toads, which are the only species that I have seen at MABA, are tan or brown and have spotted, bumpy backs. Below is a drawing of two of the toads I have seen: the larger, older one was about 3” long and the smaller one was only 1” long. Both were seen on the Main Loop Trail. 

American toads in ink

This larger American Toad was being preyed upon by a garter snake when I approached. When it heard me come closer, the snake slithered away and left the toad alone. 

If you cannot get a picture of an amphibian you see, it is helpful to remember its size, coloring, markings, and location so that you can identify it later. A quick sketch might help as well!

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 used to take homeschool classes at the Museum of American Bird Art and have had my artwork exhibiting in their Taking Flight Exhibit for young bird artists.

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!

Pequit Brook at MABA by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

The Pequit Brook runs alongside a large part of the Main Loop Trail at MABA. You can also  reach the brook by taking the Pequit Brook Trail, which ends in a clearing right by the water’s edge. Many creatures live by the brook, including Spotted Salamanders and Eastern Red-backed Salamanders. I’ve also seen many songbirds, and many times when I approach the brook I see a Great Blue Heron disappearing into the trees. (I have yet to get a good picture of it because it flies away so quickly!)

The animals and plants at the brook are exciting, but this series of sketches focuses on the brook itself. For me, drawing the brook means capturing the feeling of water in motion. When drawing bodies of water, I identify the places where there is bright sunlight hitting the water. I also try to show which way the water is flowing around rocks and other obstacles. I find that ripples in the water can be more easily understood with line studies.

Line study of water currents in the brook

In the piece below, I used watercolor for the body of the painting, later adding opaque white gouache for the highlights. When painting water, make sure that you use the colors that you see instead of the colors that your brain thinks should be there. Large bodies of calm water often look blue because they are reflecting the sky, but smaller streams don’t actually look blue. The Pequit Brook is so shallow that light hits the rocks and dirt on the bottom of the brook and comes back up through the water. This makes the water appear different shades of brown, grey, yellow, red, and green, depending on what is underneath the water. 

When painting rocks, I pay attention to how they interact with the water: whether the water is flowing over them, around them, or both. Rocks are each a different shape, and showing this in a drawing will make it more interesting. It is important to notice which parts of the rock are angular and which parts are smooth. Drawing flat sides of rocks and noticing how the light is hitting them will help with this. 

A pen drawing of a rock near the brook, focusing on the unique angles this rock creates

I find that the brook looks different every time I draw it because it is always in motion. It is one of my favorite places to sketch!

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 used to take homeschool classes at the Museum of American Bird Art and have had my artwork exhibiting in their Taking Flight Exhibit for young bird artists.

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: The Wood Lily

Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum)

On a recent walk I was surprised to see these Wood lilies. About twenty were in bloom over a ten square foot area. A power line runs through the woods here so a swath about 20 feet wide is kept clear of woody plants. Wood lilies need sunlight so a clearing like this is ideal for them.  

The cup-shaped flowers are upright, a distinguishing feature of Wood lilies. All other wild lily species nod. The flowers have six purple-spotted petals. 

Wood lilies are 1-3 feet in height.  The leaves are long and narrow, arranged in a whorl around the stem.  They grow from a bulb and are perennial. Tiger swallowtail butterflies are the primary pollinator of the Wood lily.

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: Beauty in Bogs

According to the dictionary, “A bog is a mire that accumulates peat, a deposit of dead plant material—often mosses, and in a majority of cases, Sphagnum moss. It is one of the four main types of wetlands.”  Bogs have wet, spongy ground that floats over a body of water.  

Flora found in bogs is showiest in mid-summer. On a recent visit to Black Pond Bog I was rewarded with these choice beauties.

Rose pogonia  Pogonia ophioglossoides

Nestled in a bed of Spagnum moss, this delicate orchid is a rare beauty. The fringed lip is a distinctive feature. Many species of Bumblebees pollinate Rose pogonia.

Purple Pitcherplant  Sarracenia purpurea

The Purple Pitcherplant is the only pitcherplant native to New England.  Having the unique capacity to derive nutrients from sources other than soil enable this plant to grow in poor conditions. Insects are drawn to the open “mouth” of a pitcherplant. Once inside they are blocked from leaving by downward pointing hairs. A sticky fluid breaks down the inset body and “feeds” the pitcherplant.

The genus name (Sarracenia) comes from Michael Sarrazin (1659 – 1734), who was the first botanist to suggest the pitcherplant devoured  insects.

Purple pitcherplant flower

Purple pitcherplant growing in Sphagnum moss

Swamp azalea  Rhododendron viscosum

Swamp azalea is a deciduous woody shrub that grows in bogs. It is upright, reaching a height of 5-8 feet. The flowers vary from white to pale pink in color. In mid-summer the flowers are fragrant giving off a spicy aroma. The leathery, dark green leaves appear before the flowers. In the fall the leaves turn a colorful yellow/orange.

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: 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
Damselfly
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 used to take homeschool classes at the Museum of American Bird Art and have had my artwork exhibiting in their Taking Flight Exhibit for young bird artists.

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!