Category Archives: Natural History

Lecture by Deborah Cramer, author of A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and An Epic Journey on October 17th at 3pm


Knots on beach in New Jersey: credit © Christophe Buidin

The Museum of American Bird Art is excited to announce a free lecture by Deborah Cramer, author of A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey on Saturday, October 17th at 3:00 pm in our gallery. Book signing to follow the lecture.  Click here for directions.

The Museum of the American Bird has on display (a generous loan from the estate of Dix Campbell) two beautiful and rare decoys of the red knot, a sandpiper that once frequented the southern coast of Massachusetts.  Ornithologists once described this bird as representing “an untrammeled wildness and freedom that equaled by few and surpassed by none.”

In her new book, The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, Deborah Cramer follows the knot along its extraordinary 19,000 mile annual migration, tracking birds on remote windswept beaches along the Strait of Magellan, and  into the icy tundra where it nests.

Deborah Cramer, author, at Wingersheek Beach in Gloucester, MA, November 13, 2014. © 2014 Shawn G. Henry • 978.590.4869

Deborah Cramer, author, at Wingersheek Beach in Gloucester, MA, November 13, 2014.
© 2014 Shawn G. Henry • 978.590.4869

She follows them in Delaware Bay, where at the new and full moon of spring’s highest tides, she finds  the world’s greatest concentration of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs fuel shorebird migration and whose blue blood safeguards human health.  The red knot, newly listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, its existence threatened by global warming, has become the twenty-first century’s “canary in the coal mine.”

Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer-winning author of The Sixth Extinction, wrote that The Narrow Edge is “at once an intimate portrait of the small red knot and a much larger exploration of our wondrous, imperiled world.” National Geographic Conservation Fellow Tom Lovejoy wrote that Cramer’s account is “more thrilling than the Kentucky Derby.”

Join Cramer to follow the birds’ odyssey, and to explore what’s at stake for millions of shorebirds.

Learn More:

Summer Break

This is from a series of posts by MABA resident artist Barry Van Dusen

Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary, Hopkinton on August 2, 2015

POND at Waseeka (small)

There are distinct rhythms to the natural year – times when everything is happening at once and other times when nature seems to slow down and take a breather. By August, most birds have raised a brood (or several broods). Young birds have left the nest and are learning to make their way in the world.

Young Phoebe at Waseeka - at 72 dpi

Young Phoebe at Waseeka, watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius cold-press, 15″ x 11″

At Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary, the most common birds at the pond today were eastern phoebes and a good percentage of these were young birds. You could tell them from the adults by a soft lemony wash on the undersides and more clearly defined wing bars. I wondered if phoebe adults customarily bring their broods to places like this after leaving the nest – spots where there’s lots of food (i.e. insects) and many open perches from which to hunt. Or perhaps these are simply wandering youngsters that find these places on their own.

Waseeka Pond 2 - at 72 dpi

Osprey Nest at Waseeka, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 8″ x 11″

The big nest out in the middle of the pond is vacant, too, but I had read that it has been used by a pair of ospreys for a number of years, so I was keeping an ear and an eye out for them. Around 1 pm, I hear some high pitched, chirping notes and observed a large bird land in a big dead pine on the far shore of the pond. Putting my scope on the tree, I noticed not one but TWO adult ospreys – one of them actively devouring a fish!  Even in my scope the birds are tiny, and abit too far off for serious drawing.

POND SHORE at Waseeka (small)
The shorelines at Waseeka are rich and varied. Beaver activity flooded these shores some years ago and drowned many trees, opening up the canopy and encouraging lush undergrowth. When the pond levels were restored, these open shorelines quickly regenerated with a striking variety of plants. Sweet pepperbush and pickerel weed are in full bloom along the shore today.

Many nest boxes have been mounted in the pond, attached to standing dead trees, and I presume some of these are used by breeding wood ducks and hooded mergansers. The boxes create interesting rhythms among the vertical trunks. I do a simple line drawing and add a wash of ivory black to establish the light.

Nest Boxes, Waseeka - at 72 dpi

Nest Boxes, Waseeka, pencil and wash on 80 lb drawing paper, 8″ x 12″

On my way back down the dike, I stop to admire some royal fern growing along the trail, mixed with fronds of sensitive fern – a neat contrast of fern shapes and colors. It’s a quiet, shady spot, so I sit and start a watercolor…

Royal Fern and Sensitive Fern, Waseeka - at 72 dpi

Royal Fern and Sensitive Fern, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 11.25″

Monarch Butterflies at the Museum of American Bird Art

Monarch butterflies arrived in the middle of July and taken up residence in the meadow at the Museum of American Bird Art. So far, I’ve counted 4 adults in the meadow at once, with one or two butterflies present on most days. They have been laying lots of eggs on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and these have been hatching over the past two weeks. I’ve counted around 20 or so eggs and found 6 caterpillars munching away on milkweed. Monarch caterpillars only eat plants in the milkweed genus (Asclepias) and common milkweed is by far their most important host plant. Approximately 90% of migrating North American monarchs eat common milkweed as caterpillars. I will post updates on monarchs periodically, but wanted to share photos and time lapse videos about the monarchs at MABA. Further, some background information about their migration and conservation can be found at end of this post, including two tremendous Mass Audubon resources.

Monarch Butterfly Eggs

1-DSC_5066 2-DSC_5068

Look at the beautiful sculpturing that is present on this teeny tiny egg. Once the caterpillars hatch, voracious consumption of milkweed ensures. Check out these time lapse videos.

Adult Monarchs Nectaring At Joe Pye Weed

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Current Status of the North American Monarch Butterfly

In North America, monarch butterfly populations have dramatically declined over the past 20 years, with the population hitting their lowest total ever in the winter 2013-2014. However, Chip Taylor, professor at University of Kansas and founder of Monarch Watch, is guardedly optimistic about this years monarch population.

Where do Monarch Butterflies Spend the Winter?

The majority of North American Monarch Butterflies spend the winter in the pine and oyamel trees located at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve on the border of Michoacan and Mexico State, Mexico. Monarch butterflies in the Pacific Northwest typically overwinter in trees along the California Coast and there is some evidence that Monarch Butterflies in the Northeastern United States also overwinter in Cuba in addition to Mexico. Check out this fantastic video by of the forests in Mexico where monarchs will spend the winter before migrating back North.


Citizen Science Opportunities:
Check out this map of 2015 monarch butterfly and caterpillar sightings. Here are MABA, I report our sightings to this organization to be part of this national citizen science project. Email me,, if you’d like more information.

Resources to learn more about Monarch Butterflies:

Ready to be inspired and amazed? The Caterpillar Lab is coming to the Wild at Art Summer Camp

The Caterpillar Lab is Coming!!!

We have exciting news for this summer’s Wild at Art Camp…The award winning, innovative, engaging, and awe-inspiring Caterpillar Lab is coming to camp during the Natural Connections 1  (July 6 to 10) and Taking Flight (July 13 to 17) week.

By incorporating a visit from the Caterpillar Lab with the Wild at Art Camp experience, campers will have a strong foundation to experience powerful moments of discovery throughout the year in their own backyards and daily life. In addition, this experience should infuse them with the confidence to create and express themselves more confidently through art. Only a few spots remain, so sign up today so that camper in your life won’t miss out!

During each week, the Caterpillar Lab will allow campers to get up close and personal with many different species of native caterpillars and learn about their adaptations.

Mother and daughter at a live caterpillar show seeing a cecropia moth caterpillar for the first time.  © Samuel Jaffe

Mother and daughter at a live caterpillar show seeing a cecropia moth caterpillar for the first time. © Samuel Jaffe.


Campers will:

  • Learn more about many fascinating species of native caterpillars
  • Discover native caterpillars at the wildlife sanctuary and at home
  • Create art inspired by these amazing natural creatures
  • Become excited about discovering their natural world and sharing it with others


Week 1: Natural Connections (July 6 to July 10)

For the first week, campers will learn about how these caterpillars interact with plants, like how the monarch caterpillar is able to consume milkweed and turn the toxins in the milkweed into a defensive weapon.

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Week 2: Taking Flight (July 13 to July 17)

For the second week, campers will learn how caterpillars are adapted against birds. Because, unless they are “told otherwise”, birds view caterpillars as big, juicy snacks. For example, the caterpillars of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly look likes snakes, which is an adaptation that scares birds and saves the caterpillar from being lunch. We have lots of spicebush in the wildlife sanctuary and are optimistic that campers will be able to find these caterpillars on the property.

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar. Creative Commons License.

Do you know a creative kid or a nature detective…then open up a world of exploration, imagination, and investigation this summer by signing them up for the Wild at Art Summer Camp in Canton.

Great Blue Heron: Natural History Notes

“The heron stands in water where the swamp
Has deepened to the blackness of a pool,
Or balances with one leg on a hump
Or marsh grass heaped above a muskrat hole.”
Theodore Roethke, “The Heron”

Barry just posted about a wonderful day he spent sketching and observing great blue herons at the Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Groton, Massachusetts. Although they were once quite rare in the Eastern United States due to pollution and over hunting, great blue heron populations have rebounded and are now a common sight in Massachusetts.

Great Blue Heron, John Sills, Copyright Mass Audubon

Great Blue Heron by John Sill, watercolor. © Mass Audubon

Great blue herons are the largest and most widely distributed heron in Massachusetts and Eastern US. Great blue herons are wading birds in the order Pelicaniformes and in the family Ardeidae, which consists of bitterns, herons, and egrets in the United States.

Nesting: Herons nest in rookeries, specifically in the tops of tall dead trees located in swampy habitat, which Barry captured in his watercolors. In Massachusetts, many rookeries are the result beaver dams that have flooded areas, creating swamps or small ponds, killing trees. Nests are made out of sticks that form platforms and are lined with leaves, moss, pine needles, and other leaf material. Check out the video below to learn more.

Feeding: Herons are one of the top predators in many aquatic ecosystems and play an extremely important role in the aquatic food web. Their diet consists primarily of fish, using their spear-like beak to pierce their prey and swallow it whole. In addition, herons will also hunt for frogs, salamanders, snakes, rodents, other small mammals, crustaceans like crabs, small birds, and other small animals.

Population declines in the 19th and 20th century: Their status as a top predator also made them extremely susceptible to widespread pollution and played a large role in their dramatic population declines in the early and mid 20th century. Because herons eat other aquatic predators, which eat plants rich with toxins, including by-products of now banned DDT and PCBS, herons would ingest large quantities of pollutants which had dramatic negative effects on their reproduction. This process is called bio-accumulation.

Natural History Tidbits from Recent Research:

  • The natural world is full of surprises!
    In the Pacific Northwest, great blue herons have become more likely to nest in bald eagle territories. This seems extremely odd because bald eagles are extremely territorial and have been observed to attack herons and other birds that are present in their territory. However, Jones et al. (2013) has shown that herons that build nests within eagle territories have higher reproductive success because the eagles keep out potential predators that would eat heron chicks. Talk about free security.
  • Are herons aquatic gardeners? Yes…but indirectly.
    Herons can change the types of plants and animals present in a sea grass ecosystem. Herons eat lots of fish, especially in the spring and early summer. When herons eat lots of fish, there are less fish present to eat other aquatic invertebrates, which eat the sea grass, these little critters are called amphipods. More herons, less fish, more amphipods, less sea grass. When herons were excluded from the aquatic system, more fish are present and they eat lots of aquatic invertebrates, specifically really important invertebrates call amphipods, and the entire system changes to a shrimp dominated system and the plant community changes. Learn more about this study by Huang et al. (2015).
  • Wow! Herons were recently observed to eat stringrays…the picture speaks for itself. Find out more about herons eating stingrays.

    Heron consuming a stringray

A few delightful comments on the great blue heron from the late 19th century:

How do great blue herons do in a Massachusetts winter:

“In such an event they (great blue heron) might survive the following winter if it should prove to be a mild one, while the stoutest heart among them would probably succumb to the rigors of a genuine ‘old-fashioned’ New England winter.” Walter Faxon, MCZ, Cambridge, Massachusetts

“The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is a bird that rarely favors us with his presence in the winter months. It may be worth while, then, to chronicle the capture of one in the Arnold Arboretum, West Roxbury, Mass., either December 31, 1889, or January 1, 1890. A tub of water stocked with minnows served to keep him alive for five or six days, when he suddenly died either from cold or the enervating effects of imprisonment.” Walter Faxon, MCZ, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Source: The Long-Billed Marsh Wren, Maryland Yellow-Throat, Nashville Warbler and Great Blue Heron in Eastern Massachusetts in Winter Author(s): Walter Faxon,  The Auk, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Oct., 1890), pp. 408-410

To Learn More:

Sweet Spot at Brown Hill

This is from a series of posts by MABA resident artist Barry Van Dusen

Wachusett  Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Princeton on April 28, 2015

There’s a sweet spot in the Hickory/Hornbeam woods on the back side of Brown Hill at Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary.  Joe Choiniere tipped me off to this rocky slope where Hepatica, Dutchman’s Breeches, Early Saxifrage and Small-flowered Crowfoot can be found. Today, with the help of some marker flags placed by Joe, I found the lovely Hepaticas in full bloom.

Hepatica, Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Hepaticas at Brown Hill, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 12.25″

The blossoms varied from white to pale pink to a lovely sky blue. I set up my field kit and made a painting showing the three color variations. You can see a few trout lily leaves in the upper left of my watercolor – these handsome, mottled leaves were poking up all over the forest floor.

Set-up at Hepatica, Wachusett Meadow - 72 dpi

In this photo of my painting set-up you can just see a few of the Hepatica blossoms in the upper left corner.  They are truly small flowers.

While I worked, yellow-rumped warblers murmured from the trees overhead and a sapsucker sounded off periodically. By about 4:30 pm the blossoms started to nod and close up for the night. I did another drawing of the nodding blossoms, and added color back in the studio.

Hepatica (Blue), Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Nodding Hepaticas, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.5″ x 8″


A Day at Rocky Hill: Part 3 – Palm Warbler Watercolor

This is from a series of posts by MABA resident artist Barry Van Dusen

Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, Groton on April 15, 2015 (Part 3: Palm Warbler)

On my way back to the car, I encountered a group of about eight brightly colored palm warblers moving low through the oak forest. I couldn’t resist stopping to make a few sketches.

Palm Warbler detail - at 72 dpi

sketchbook study, 4″ x 5.5″

A Day at Rocky Hill: Field Sparrow

This is from a series of posts by MABA resident artist Barry Van Dusen

Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, Groton on April 15, 2015

A breezy, sunny day as I found my way to the new trailhead at Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Groton.  I had read about the heron colony there, and knew the birds would be sitting on eggs about now.

As I neared the power line crossing on the way to the heronry, I heard the clear, plaintive notes of a field sparrow.  I located the bird singing from a shrub under the power lines and got a scope on it quickly to do some drawings.

Field Sparrow Studies, Rocky Hill - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

In Ken Kaufman’s bird guide he uses the term “baby-faced” to describe the facial expression of this species.  It’s an apt description, and I strove to get that sweet, innocent expression in my drawings.  Field sparrow habitat is shrinking in New England and I encounter them much less frequently these days.  Power line cuts, with their predominance of shrubs and other early successional growth, seem to be one of the most reliable places to find them.  This bird was singing from a withe-rod, so I detailed the distinctly shaped pinkish-tan flower buds and “Y” shaped twig configuration.   In this watercolor (done back in my studio), I also wanted to convey the soft, high-key colors of early spring in New England.

Field Sparrow in Withe-rod, Rocky Hill, Groton - at 72 dpi

Field Sparrow in Withe-rod, watercolor on Lana hot-press, 14″ x 10.25″

To learn more about their natural history, check out this post by Sean Kent


Field Sparrow Natural History

Barry just posted about a wonderful day he spent sketching and observing Field Sparrows at the Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Groton, Massachusetts. Here is some background about their biology and natural history. Field sparrows are part of the New World Sparrows, in the order Passeriformes and in the family Emberizidae, which consists of about 320 species in 72 genera.

Field Sparrow. Copyright Mass Audubon

Field Sparrow. Copyright Mass Audubon


  • Field sparrows typically eat both seeds and insects, relying on seeds in the winter and both insects and seeds in the Spring, Summer, and Fall.


  • Field sparrows return in April from their over wintering habitat in Southern United States and Northern Mexico. Check out their range map. Males are territorial and will set territories at farmlands, old fields, and other open habitats.


Nesting Ecology:

  • Field sparrows typically lay eggs once or twice in a season, but may lay a third if their first brood fails. Nests will have anywhere between 1 and 6 eggs.
  • Field sparrow nests are usually made out of grass and twigs, either on the ground or just above the ground and have been found in Goldenrod, Multiflora Rose, and in other shrubs. Early season nests are typically on the ground or close to the ground, while later season nests will be higher in shrubs and trees to better avoid ground predators.
  • Field sparrows nest in habitat that is associated with old fields, farmlands, and prairies. Because of their close association with farmlands, the field sparrow population in Massachusetts is experiencing declines due to the decline in farmlands and old field habitat coupled with an increase in housing development in the suburbs. Decline in grassland birds has been well documented by Mass Audubon’s breeding bird atlas.

To Learn More:

Sailors of the Atmosphere: Queens of Spring

In this blog, I will touch on happenings around the Museum, exhibitions, conservation, natural history, the wildlife sanctuary, and much more. One of my main passions and areas of interests in addition to birds, education, and art is with pollinators, especially our diverse and amazing species of native bees (did you know there are more than 360 species of native bees in Massachusetts alone). First, I’d like to talk a little bit about the humble bumble bee.


Common Eastern Bumble bee visiting goldenrod. Photo credit: Sean Kent

“Sailor of the atmosphere;
Swimmer through the waves of air;”

Emerson: The Humble-bee

As spring slowly turns into summer, the fragrant flowering trees and their gently falling flowers wash winter away and signal an end to our hibernation from 7 feet of snow. As the streets buzz with activity and people eagerly greet the sun’s warm rays, my daughter eagerly points out, the

Bloom apple flowers at the Museum of American Bird Art. Photo Credit: Sean Kent

Bloom apple flowers at the Museum of American Bird Art. Photo Credit: Sean Kent

streets buzz not only with people, but with one of the first and most important native wild pollinators to emerge. The furry, booming bumble bees.

Bumble bees are in the genus, Bombus, which means “booming”, and captures the cacophonous and frenzied pace of a bumble bee racing from flower to flower. It’s called flight of the bumble bee for a reason.

In the spring, you’ll probably notice that the bumble bees are much larger than you would see in the summer because the bumble bees flying around, searching for a nest site, and collecting nectar and pollen at cherry, apple, or holly flowers – to name a few – are queen bees, beginning their epic quest to start their own colony.

Once queens emerge from hibernation (dormancy), they need to stock up on nectar and pollen and find a suitable nesting site to form a colony. However, it can be really cold in the spring and life is very precious for newly emerged queens. Bumble bees can warm themselves up and get moving on cool spring days.  Check out this fantastic BBC video narrated by Sir David Attenborough and watch the thermal images of a bumble bee on a cold spring morning:

To Learn More: