Category Archives: Natural History

Spring Has Sprung: Notes from the Field

Over the past few weeks, the sanctuary has been bursting with life as spring is “just around the corner”, even though we woke up to snow on April 5th. Join us at 8am on our weekly Friday bird and natural history hikes to see all the amazing creatures, plants, and views on the Morse Wildlife Sanctuary. Even better is the terrific company and being out in nature. 

Snoozing Raccoon

While I was investigating life in a vernal pool, some peaceful fur way way up in the crook of a tree caught my attention. A raccoon was snoozing the day away. Check out the ears on one side and the foot on the other.

DSC_7963

Mystery Tree Damage

Near one of our smaller vernal pools, the damage to this tree puzzled me. Based on it’s teeth marks, it is clearly a rodent, but the damage is one inch deep at some points and is about 8 ft long. I’m are not sure what caused this damage, but could it be a porcupine? Let us know what you think.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Deer Traffic Jam

DSC_8009

Birding Highlights

Here are a few of the birds that have been seen over the past few weeks.

  • Red-tailed hawk hunting pine voles

    This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  • Brown creepers
  • Eastern phoebes
  • Wood ducks
  • Hermit thrush
  • Hairy and downy woodpeckers
  • Flocks of dark-eyed juncos, chickadees, tufted titmouse, and American robins
  • Pair of nesting red-shouldered hawks
  • Red-bellied woodpeckers
  • Calling red-winged blackbirds in the red maple swamp (birding hotspot)
  • American woodcock
  • Our digital photography homeschool class observed a cooper’s hawk preying on a mallard.
  • Check out our bird blind by the gallery, our feeders are always stocked and there are usually lots of birds to photograph

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Flora Highlights

Stunk cabbage is one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. It is found near soggy or submerged soil and is usually pollinated by flies. This was taken near the Pequit Brook.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rattlesnake Plantain

Check out this amazing little orchid hiding under the pine needles. These pictures are from early March.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of the tiniest and earliest spring flowers

We have had over 10,000 of these flowers blooming in bare patches of soil and on our lawns. They are so easy to miss until you start looking for them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Vernal Pools in the Wildlife Sanctuary

In early March, when the weather cracked 60 degrees, the spring peepers and wood frogs started calling. Wood frogs sound more like ducks than frogs. Check out these two videos to hear them.

Wood frogs are abundant at our wildlife sanctuary and are always one of the first frogs to emerge from hibernation. This year, wood frogs were first observed on March 10 congregrating in large numbers at our main vernal pool and where I counted well over 60 wood frogs on March 11. Listen to their chorus from March 11, 2016.

Spotted salamanders have also been laying eggs and fairy shrimp are abundant.

Fairy Shrimp. Photo Credit: B. L. Dicks and D. J. Patterson

On April 3rd, Owen Cunningham and a volunteer spent the afternoon searching for life in our pools and were able to identify wood frog and spotted salamander eggs. This data will be submitted to the state and we expect that our vernal pools will be certified by the Mass Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Inquiry, Intentional Curiosity, Discovery, and Art!

Homeschool classes at MABA

In an environment rich with nature, science, and art, our homeschool classes are full of excitement, laughter, focused awareness, and curiosity. This blog post highlights some of the activities and programs we have done over the past few months at MABA. To learn or sign up for our spring courses, click here.

Animal Behavior Homeschool Class: Monarch Butterfly Natural History and Flight
The Biomechanics of Gliding

In one of our Animal Behavior sessions, we focused on the Monarch Butterfly migration to learn about animal migration and the biomechanics of flight.

Monarch butterflies via ASU.edu

Students created model monarch butterflies and conducted a test flight experiment in our museum.IMG_5032

To learn more about the incredible monarch butterfly migration, check out this fantastic BBC documentary

Monarch Butterfly amazing migration – BBC Life HD

Want to do more at home? Journey North is a great resource and citizen science project that tracks the migration of Monarch Butterflies and lets you contribute data that improves our understanding and conservation of these fantastic butterflies. We have tracked Monarch egg laying on the wildlife sanctuary and submitted data to journey north. Here is a publication that has used citizen science data from journey north to help us better understand migration and monarch population dynamics.

Learning about bird behavior and biology by making clay birds

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Learning about animal behavior and ethology by studying betta fish behavior & responding with art

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Field Biology, Pollinator Ecology, and Art Homeschool Class:
Exploring watercolor techniques and color theory

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To reinforce what we have learned about the biology and ecology of native bees and butterflies, each student cut out bee and butterfly silhouettes. They used these silhouettes to learned color theory and watercolor techniques, including wet on wet and wet on dry, by creating bold, fun, and colorful pollinators that they took home.

We have also learned about nesting habitats of native bees and created mason bee houses.

masonbeehouse

Studied the phenology of spring flowering plants through focused awareness and intentional curiosity

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Creating pollinators out of paper marbled with dye using the art of suminigashi

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Digital Photography Homeschool Class
Looking closely and creating nature’s treasure maps

In our digital photography class, students built a digital camera, learned about the technology in the camera, and the art of photography. We focused on composition, such as the rule of thirds, looking for geometry in nature, and taught students to be keen observers of the natural world by looking closely. We explored our expansive wildlife sanctuary and created nature treasure maps, thanks to the incredible naturalist and artist Jack (John Muir) Laws for this idea, both with sketchbooks and through photography.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Taking opportunities when they arise: A coopers hawk had a mallard for lunch

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Exploring the technology behind the camera lens

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Exploring the end of winter and start of spring behind the camera lens

DigitalPhotography

A Skunky Place for Eels

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

Skunknett River Wildlife Sanctuary, Barnstable on October 11, 2015

When I mentioned to a friend that I was heading to Skunknett River Wildlife Sanctuary, he reasonably asked if I expected to see any skunks!  Actually “Skunknett” probably comes from an Algonquin Indian word meaning “a place to fish for eels” – which I’m sure it was in pre-colonial times.

West Pond, Skunknett - at 72 dpi

West Pond

As I ready my gear for the trail, I’m serenaded by red-bellied woodpeckers and Carolina wrens. The Bog Cart Path is bordered by oaks and pitch pines draped with old man’s beard lichen. Near the end of the trail, and adjacent to the outflow of West Pond, is one small spot where you can step out onto the shoreline and get an unobstructed view of the pond. I quietly set-up my scope and train it on a dazzling drake wood duck floating among the stumps and lily pads. The bird is in perfect light that brings out the purples and greens of its iridescent head. I take a few quick photos thru the scope then adjust it to start drawing, but in the process, my tripod makes a squeak. Instantly, the bird’s head snaps in my direction, and it flushes and flies off. DARN! I notice that the nearby mallards remain undisturbed. Wild wood ducks are WARY! Later in the studio, I work from my rather poor photos to construct this composition.

Wood Duck Drake (color correc) - at 72 dpi

Wood Duck Drake, watercolor on Arches rough, 9.5″ x 14″

Working in the studio, removed from the actual subject in the field, can be liberating in many ways. I am often more imaginative and inventive in my studio work, and this painting is a case in point. I’ve deliberately pushed the colors and shapes to bring out the graphic patterns suggested by this subject.

Closer to my end of the pond are at least three solitary sandpipers foraging in the grassy margins and on some exposed bars of mud. I enjoy sketching them for a time before proceeding down the West Circuit Trail and around the pond.

Solitary Sandpiper sketchbook studies - at 300 dpi

Solitary Sandpiper sketchbook studies, 9″ x 12″

At the far end of the pond, the trail passes by a modest stand of Atlantic White Cedars. Cedar forests once covered huge tracts in the sandy coastal plains of Massachusetts, but these days only scattered remnants survive. Their desirability as lumber and the rich, peaty soils beneath them (ideal for conversion to commercial cranberry growing operations) led to widespread draining and clearing of these forests starting in the mid eighteenth century.

Set-up at Skunknett River - at 72 dpi

painting in progress at Skunknett

Because of the small size of this grove, it lacks the gloomy aspect of larger cedar stands, and through the tightly packed trunks I can glimpse the brightness of the pond opening beyond. I set up my pack chair and settle in for some landscape work.

Atlantic White Cedar Grove - at 72 dpi

Atlantic White Cedar Grove, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 13.5″ x 10″

With my watercolors, I strive to capture the blue-green lichens coating the lower trunks and flaring roots of the cedars, and the dappled light on the trunks. Bright green moss growing over the roots adds a nice pattern in the foreground.

Chipmunk Season

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

Lincoln Woods Wildlife Sanctuary, Leominster on October 6, 2015

Wherever I happened to be along the trails at Lincoln Woods Wildlife Sanctuary today, I was never out of earshot of the persistent “chuck-chuck-chuck” of Eastern Chipmunks. At no other time of the year are these attractive little rodents more vocal. I’ve been told that the “chuck” call is given by males defending a territory, so I tracked one down (by ear) and put a scope on the animal. It occupied an inconspicuous perch on the forest floor and delivered it’s “chucks” at regular intervals, otherwise remaining quite still – a good model for drawing!

Chipmunk, Lincoln Woods - at 72 dpi

Eastern Chipmunk, watercolor on Arches cold-press , 8″ x 12″

My dad often used an expression to describe us kids when we got up early in the morning – “BRIGHT-EYED AND BUSHY-TAILED”. It’s a pretty good description of this little guy!

The woods around the parking area in this urban neighborhood are a nearly unbroken stand of Norway maples. The ability of this tree to grow quickly and seed-in heavily allows it to out-compete native trees and form dense monocultures.  As I head deeper into the woods, however, the Norway maples thin out and give way to native species. Heading out along the western side of the Elizabeth Lincoln Loop Trail, I pass through a stand of majestic white pines before the trail joins with Vernal Pool Loop.

Vernal Pool at Lincoln Woods - DRY (small)

A series of vernal pools can be seen on either side of this elevated trail, which runs along a glacial esker ridge. Most of the vernal pools are bone dry at this time of year, but two of the largest pools have some water in them. I wander down to the largest pool to get a closer look. Around the pool, I notice some interesting plants – marsh fern, swamp oak, sassafras, winterberry and dogwood.

Vernal Pool at Lincoln Woods - WET (small)

As I’m about to depart, a movement along the opposite shore catches my eye, and I focus my binoculars on two blackpoll warblers that have come to bath in the pool.

Blackpoll Warblers in Vernal Pool sketch - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study of young blackpoll warblers, pencil, 5″ x 9″

The bright olive hue of the birds makes an unexpected contrast with the somber colors of the shoreline, and the bird’s reflections seem to glow on the dark waters. Within minutes the birds have moved on, and the pool is once again quiet and still. I make some quick sketches to fix the scene in my mind, and take some digital photos of the shoreline shapes and colors.  I use these references to help me work up this studio watercolor the next day.

Blackpoll Warbler Bathing in Vernal Pool - at 72 dpi

Blackpoll Warbler Bathing in Vernal Pool, watercolor on Arches rough, 10″ x 14.25″

Of Time and the River

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

Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Hampden on August 28, 2015

Thirty years ago, I had my first solo show of nature art at a wildlife sanctuary near Springfield, Massachusetts called Laughing Brook. Back then, Laughing Brook was a fully staffed sanctuary, with a large visitor center and a “zoo” of native animals.
So, it’s understandable that when I pulled into the parking lot this morning, a flood of memories accompanied me, although very little was as I remembered it. The visitor center was gone; as were the animal enclosures, and even the trails and parking area seemed strangely out of place.
Laughing Brook’s history is one of floods and fires that I don’t need to recount here, but in short, the “zoo” was closed down in the 1990s and the visitor center demolished after a fire in 2004, converting the location to an unstaffed property. As recently as 2005, another major flood washed away trails and much of the parking lot. No wonder I didn’t recognize the place!

East Brook at Laughing Brook
But as much as things have changed, some things remain the same. East Brook, that so inspired the writings of Thornton Burgess, still tumbles clear over golden gravel bars and threads in and out of mysterious tangled roots along the banks. Kingfishers still flash along the stream corridor and dragonflies still dance in the shafts of light sifting down through the forest canopy. It’s a reminder that buildings, trails, parking lots, meadows and ponds may come and go, but rivers are as old as the mountains.

At the pond off the Mort and Helen Bates Trail, I tried to approach some blooming arrowhead along the shore. Most of the arrowhead plants were past blooming, and I never did find a blossoming specimen close enough to paint, but in the process I flushed a bird from the undergrowth that flew up into the lower branches of a weeping willow.

Northern Waterthrush Studies - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study of Northern Waterthrush, pencil, 10″ x 6″

It was a handsome northern waterthrush, and with my binoculars I got good enough looks to make some quick sketches in my sketchbook. Later in my studio, I used these sketches to develop this watercolor.

Northern Waterthrush in Willow - at 72 dpi

Northern Waterthrush in Willow, watercolor on Arches rough, 14.25″ x 10.25″

There are many spots along the East Brook Trail where one can take little spur paths down to the edge of the brook, and in these low-water conditions, it was even possible to walk right into the streambed (and still keep your feet dry) by picking along the gravel bars or hopping from rock to rock. I settled down in one such location and made an exploration of the gentle pools and riffles.
Blacknose dace are abundant in the stream, ranging in size from 5/8” to 2” long, and water striders patrol the water’s surface, casting those strange geometric shadows on the streambed. I make studies of both in my sketchbooks, and combined the two species later in this studio watercolor.

Water Striders and Dace - at 72 dpi

Water Striders and Dace, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

Caddisflies of various species are also in abundance. The soft-bodied larvae of caddisflies construct little shelters or “cases” that they live in, and each species makes a distinctive type of case using sand, pebbles or twigs. Some of the smaller species build cases that look like little clusters of pebbles attached to the underwater rocks – and these could be easily overlooked. Other species build elaborate twigs cases up to 2 inches long that are easy to spot in the stream bed. Held in the hand, the larvae will sometimes emerge from one end and wave their legs around.

Caddisfly Larvae, etc - at 72 dpi Grayscale

Sketchbook studies at East Brook, pencil, 9″ x 6″

A big glacial erratic called “Split Rock” is worth a quick detour off the upper stretches of the East Brook Trail. From one angle the boulder looks just like a sperm whale, with open mouth, rising up out of the deep!

Split Rock at Laughing Brrok - at 72 dpi
Heading back to the car, I stop once more at the pond and notice a young heron perched in the big dead tree on the far shore. With a scope, it’s an excellent view of the bird, and I can’t help but try making some studies. It looks like the bird will stay put for a while, and indeed it does – giving me time to make some detailed studies of the birds expressive face and head.

Young Heron at Laughing Brook - at 72 dpi

Young Heron head studies, pencil and watercolor on Canson drawing paper, 8.5″ x 9.5″

 

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

RedKnot_ChristopheBuidin

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 MonarchWatch.org 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, skent@massaudubon.org, 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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: