Category Archives: Nature in a minute

Nature in a Minute: Marsh Marigolds

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The marsh marigolds are blooming! These early spring wildflowers come up in wet places and along brooks.  Look for them when you are walking near shallow streams in the woods.  The showy, bright yellow flowers, surrounded by green leaves, are easy to spot at this time of year.

Marsh marigolds are in the buttercup family (Ranunculacea).  They look much more like buttercups than marigolds.  The Latin name is Catha palustris.  “Cup of the marsh” is the translation.  The big, early flowers attract bees and insects to Marsh marigold aiding in pollination. 

Enjoy this post by Barry Van Dusen about his visit to High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, Shelburne on May 21, 2015 during his artist in residency at MABA, where he encountered Marsh Marigolds and other spring flowering plants.

Painted Trillium, High Ledges. Barry Van Dusen

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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: Birches

Birch is plentiful in the northern United States and Canada. Birch trees have distinctive bark making it easy to identify different species.  Two birches common in our area are Gray birch and Yellow birch. Look for these trees on your walks in the woods.

Gray birch  (Betula populifolia)

Gray birches have chalky white bark with black triangular patches on the trunk.  As a gray birch gets older the black chevrons become more distinct. The bark is smooth and tough. Native American people used the flexible, highly waterproof sheets of bark for canoes and shelters.

Gray Birch Bark

Often several trunks will grow from one root source. Gray birches are easy to spot in the woods as they are the only trees in our area with a white bark. 

Yellow birch   (Betula alleghaniensis)

Yellow birch is one of the largest hardwood trees in the northeastern United States. The bark is yellowish and slightly shiny. The outer layers of the bark peel horizontally in thin, curly strips. 

The wood of Yellow birch is strong and even-textured. It is an excellent building material for cabinets, and interior woodwork. 

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

         From Birches by Robert Frost

Birds in Blue and Gray from Barry Van Dusen

Enjoy Barry Van Dusen’s post from Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, Holden, MA on May 11, 2015 and warblers foraging in birch trees.

Nature in a Minute – American Kestrel

Guest post by Julianne Mehegan

American Kestrel and Prairie Falcon by David Sibley, gouache on Bristol board. Mass Audubon Collection.

On my afternoon walk I spotted an American Kestrel. This handsome bird was doing what kestrels do, sitting on an open perch, hunting for insects and small rodents. Seeing the kestrel was a huge thrill for me, it really lifted my spirits.

Back at home I got out the Sibley Guide to Birds to refresh my knowledge about kestrels.  Kestrels are the smallest and most widespread falcon, ranging throughout North America. The kestrel I saw was a male. Its wings were bluish gray, the back and tail feathers were rusty-red, the breast speckled. When perched, the kestrel pumps its tail to maintain balance. The illustrations in the Sibley Guide show both the female and male kestrel and how the bird looks in flight.

David Sibley’s original art for this illustration in the Sibley Guide to Birds is in Mass Audubon’s art collection at the Museum of American Bird Art. To see more of David Sibley’s art, and to read about his new book, What It’s Like to Be a Bird, visit his website. MABA’s exhibition of original art from the book is expected to be on view again when the museum reopens to the public.

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 – Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Catching its breath in between catching gnats this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher catches a few rays from the sun. Migrants are returning to Massachusetts. This Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was photographed in Easton on April 6, 2020.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers spend most of their time in broadleaf and mixed forests with a healthy understory, especially those with streams and wetlands. They eat small insects, arthropods, spiders, and other small invertebrates. Check out their nests in the video below, amazing to see how it is camouflaged with lichens and built so naturally right on the branch.

A nesting Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Barry Van Dusen spends some time with Blue-gray Gnatcatchers

Enjoy Barry Van Dusen’s blog post about Blue-gray Gnatcatchers when he visited Mass Audubon’s Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, Holden, MA on May 11, 2015 during his residency at MABA.

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Nature in a Minute – Skunk Cabbage

This is a guest blog post by Julianne Mehegan, a wonderful friend of MABA, birder, and naturalist.

Skunk cabbage is a plant with super powers. It grows in wetland areas. In winter skunk cabbage can warm the mud up to 70 degrees. The flowers push up through the warm mud and attract pollinators before any other plants come up. 

A few days later the leaves appear. They are bright green and resemble cabbage. When crushed the leaves give off an unpleasant odor, like a skunk. That’s how this plant got it’s common name skunk cabbage. 

In early spring as you walk in wetland areas, look for Skunk cabbage growing in the mud. Look closely at the flower and the leaves. Skunk cabbage loses its leaves every year but the plant can live up to 20 years. The scientific name is  Symplocarpus foetidus. In Latin foetidus means foul smelling.

A Moment of Zen
Skunk Cabbage at the Pequit Brook at MABA

Barry Van Dusen visits Habitat and finds Skunk Cabbage, Owls, and much more

When Barry Van Dusen was MABA’s artist in residence, he wrote a nice blog post about skunk cabbage while he was at the Habitat – a Mass Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary and Education Center in Belmont Massachusetts.

Nature in a Minute – I Happen to Be Standing

As our patterns of life have fragmented into a new routine, the ritual of finding solace and comfort in nature – whether it from my living room window while my girls jump on the couch (happening right now as I write), in my yard, or at nearby conservation land – seem all the more important. 

“I Happen to Be Standing” from A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver  

“…While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm…”

When the chance allows in the morning, during the days with my kids, or in the late afternoon, I’ve been trying to spend time observing nature and taking photographs to share with you.

With the spring really starting to spring, the Red-winged Blackbird takes center stage.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird photographed on April 4, 2020. Photo by Sean Kent

You will see Red-winged Blackbirds spending their breeding season in Massachusetts in places like freshwater ponds, fresh and saltwater marshes, and streams. They especially love areas with reedy plant growth. Red-winged Blackbirds will occasionally nest in forests along waterways, sedge meadows, and fallow fields at farms.

For the next few months, you will see males making dramatic displays and calls to defend their territory. Learn more by watching the video below.

Flamboyant Displays: Learn more about the territorial displays of the Red-winged Blackbirds

The song of the Red-winged Blackbird is a constant sign of spring in wetland areas. The song of a male is a creaky conk-la-ree! Listen to it in the following video.

Red-winged Blackbird call

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Photographed in May 2018. Photo by Sean Kent

Blending in is the goal of the female Red-winged Blackbird. She will sit still on her nest, usually built in the reeds with brownish grasslike material. It is imperative that predators overlook her and the nest. Few female Red-winged Blackbirds have arrived in Massachusetts, they usually arrive 2 to 3 weeks after the male Red-winged Blackbirds.

Red-winged Blackbird soaring away

Red-winged Blackbird photographed on April 4, 2020 Photo by Sean Kent

Photos by Sean Kent

Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –          
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;          
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush          
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring          
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; 
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush 

And remember, be safe, be well, you’re not alone, and we will meet again.

Nature in a Minute: Ancient plant

This is a guest blog post by Julianne Mehegan, a wonderful friend of MABA, birder, and naturalist

Look for this small green plant when you are walking in the woods.  These plants evolved about 410 million years ago.  They are found throughout Massachusetts.

Running Cedar Wompatuck State Park, Hingham April 4, 2020  J. Mehegan

The common name of this plant is Running cedar.  It looks like a small cedar tree and it “runs” along the ground.  The scientific name is Lycopodium digitatum.  Running cedar is in the family of plants called clubmosses.   It reproduces by spores instead of seeds. The spikey, yellowish top of the plant in the center of the photo is the part of the plant that has the spores. 


Nature in a Minute with a Great Blue Heron

Many Miles by Mary Oliver

The feet of the heron,
under those bamboo stems,
hold the blue body,
the great beak above the shallows
of the pond.
Who could guess
their patience?
Sometimes the toes
shake, like worms.
What fish
could resist?

A Great Blue Heron answers the dinner bell

Great Blue Heron, April 2, 2020, Norton Reservoir, Norton, Massachusetts

Although the iron grey sky hung low and the drizzle damped the muddy spring earth, I’ve been trying to spend time in communing with nature each day and enjoying the restorative power of simply being outdoors. Especially for those who can’t make it outside during our days of shared isolation, I’m always searching for the spectacular in the ordinary and not so ordinary that surrounds us everyday to bring you some wonderful glimpses of the natural world through my photography. As I was driving around the Norton Reservoir looking for Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, Bald Eagles, and other ducks, I spotted a faint flash of bright white in some cattails and reeds along the pond’s edge. I was delighted to see a Great Blue Heron and really excited when I realized it was enjoying a meal, mostly likely a sunfish – either a Pumpkinseed or Bluegill. I hope you enjoy these photographs of this amazing natural history moment.

Great Blue Herons will eat almost anything – from fish, small mammals, frogs, and more. Because herons and other birds lack teeth, they can’t chew and swallow their prey whole.

Will the Fish Fit?

It Fits!

Swallowing it Whole! Look at the Neck…

Where is my next meal???

Landscape of the Norton Reservoir with two Common Mergansers in the Distance

Thank you so much for reading our Nature in a Minute photo essay. We hope you are doing well in these challenging and uncertain times. Also, we have linked to a wonderful post by Barry Van Dusen, our former artist-in-residence at MABA, about his wonderful visit to a Heron Rookery at the Rocky Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in Groton.

Barry Van Dusen visits a Heron Rookery at the Rocky Hills Wildlife Sanctuary during his artist-in-residence at MABA

Enjoy this wonderful post from Barry Van Dusen about his visit to the Great Blue Heron Rookery at Mass Audubon’s Rocky Hills Wildlife Sanctuary.

Nature in a minute…The restorative power of Spring

Although it remains mysterious to science how nature calms and restores our brain, it never ceases to amaze me how a brief respite walking through a garden to watch seedlings emerge after a long winter or sauntering through a woodland and hearing the songbirds sing for the first time in many months revitalizes the spirit.

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.

― Mary Oliver, How I go to the Woods

The woods and meadows at the Museum of American Bird Art are alive with sounds, sights, and spirit of spring – renewal and rebirth.

The wood frogs and spotted salamanders have come and gone from the vernal pools, leaving tens of thousands of eggs that will soon hatch. The young tadpoles and salamander larvae that emerge are tenacious. In their struggle to survival and transform, their tiny bodies expend so much energy that the pond is constantly full of tiny ripples that are visible only when you slow down, look closely, and remain still. Oh, what joy these splendid little puddles in the woods bring after a long winter.

Wood frog male calling on April 1, 2019 in our main vernal pool on the main loop trail at the Museum of American Bird Art

Spotted Salamander in our main vernal pool on April 1, 2019
A wood frog playing peek-a-boo in an interior vernal pool at the Museum of American Bird Art
A few amphibian eggs on a leaf in our wildlife sanctuary on April 1, 2019. I still wondering if they hatched when we had a few good rainfalls…

While the vernal pool awakes, it’s bounty will nurture the nearby woods and the Barred Owl eagerly watches and waits…

Barred Owl watching over the vernal pool on the main loop trail. April 17, 2019