Category Archives: Nature in a minute

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. 

Source: USDA.gov

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

Whooos woods are these…Nature, Awe, and Wonder in a Minute

Rarely does the moment arrive when everything seems to fit together perfectly and converges at just the right moment, but that’s probably why transcendent moments are so rare and special and our vacation campers had this type of moment this morning.

Over the past few weeks, we have been keeping tabs on a pair of Great Horned Owls and a single Barred Owl that have been very active in our wildlife sanctuary. For one week, a Barred Owl has been roosting during the day in the same tree in our pine grove, but was not there today. Alas, I thought our vacation campers wouldn’t get to see this amazing owl.

Barred Owl from February 7, 2019

BUT the reason it wasn’t in it’s daytime roost was because it had taken up residence in a nest that was in perfect view of the trail in our pine grove. This is the first Barred Owl nest we have ever found on the sanctuary.

So with the snow sparkling in the mid morning sun, an owl resplendent in it’s nest, the first people to see it were our vacation program campers and the look on their faces just tells it all, so much more than words could.

“ Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”


― Mary Oliver

Nature in a Minute: Whose woods these are…

On January 1, 2019, Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening entered into the public domain and I have been pondering the lines from that poem, especially

Whose woods these are…

Robert Frost, 1923

as I take people on programs through the wildlife sanctuary – like high school photography students, develop STEAM curriculum inspired by our natural world, and continue to learn about our amazing natural world right here in Canton. Whose woods are these…

A Great-horned Owl has taken up residence in our pine grove.

As I quietly walked through our wildlife sanctuary, through a grove of tall, spindly white pines and oaks looking for the aforementioned great-horned owl, a white-tail flashed and a “herd” of deer bounded away my foot steps. My attention was draw to a quieter, subtle sound of faintly rustling leaves and breaking twigs gave away the location of a no longer resting coyote.

Coyote, January 8, 2019

Here is a video from our trail camera of four white-tailed deer bounding across the pine grove late one afternoon this new year.

Four deer bounding through the pine grove

Here is a trail camera video from the past week of a single coyote a little past dawn moving through the pine grove.

Coyote in the pine groove

Since the New Year, our wildlife sanctuary has been bursting with activity fueled by an eruption of pine cones. Each day there is a cacophony of squirrels, both red and grey, and seed eating birds, like red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, tufted titmouse, black-capped chickadees, and more. The ground is covered with pine cones, including this pile near a vernal pool on the property.

A cache of pine cones. January 8, 2019.

A red squirrel moved frenetically – both eating pine seeds and remaining vigilant for predators – like the coyote and great horned owl that have both taken up residence in the pine grove.

A red squirrel frenetically collects and eats pine seeds

As a raptor hunted near by and blue jay’s mobbed the bird, a grey squirrel hung tightly to the trunk of a tree and tried to blend in until the danger passed. Whose woods are these…

Robert Frost reading Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Art, Nature, and Photography

Sticks cracked, boots splashed in the stream, and the sanctuary burst with life as students from Canton High got into position to take the perfect photograph of our natural world. On December 11, Patricia Palmer’s photography class from Canton High School visited the wildlife sanctuary to take nature photographs. We spent time exploring near our vernal pool, pine, maple, and oak forest, and Pequit Brook.

Along the photography hike, we encountered lots of birds, including red-breasted nuthatches, a fisher (Martes pennanti), an extremely rare sighting, and a raccoon all curled up in a tree hole along the vernal pool trail. Special thanks to the Marilyn Rodman Council for the Arts for supporting these wonderful programs. 

A fisher ambled up a large white pine while we hiked to the brook. It spent most of the afternoon in the late fall sun high up in the tree.

The light and reflections of the ice were wonderful. Enjoy these photos of the trip.

Student photographing reflections on the ice
A raccoon all curled up in a tree by the vernal pool. It spent over 7 hours curled up in this spot right along the trail
Students photographing ice, water, and nature at the Pequit Brook

Nature in a Minute: Cedar Waxwings

As the leaves have dropped to the meadow and forest floor, the beautiful fall color has not migrated from the wildlife sanctuary, but has transformed with color radiating from the birds and fruit that are ever-present in the fall and winter. The bright red berries, from cherries, crabapples, and dogwoods, have been attracting hundreds of birds each day, including cedar waxwings. We have been fortunate to photograph large flocks of waxwings on the sanctuary.

We hope you enjoy these photographs of the Cedar Waxwings from the past two weeks.