Category Archives: Wildlife Sanctuary

Landscape Sketches at MABA by Maris Van Vlack – RISD Student and MABA Intern

Over the last few weeks, I have been captivated by working on these landscape sketches of various locations at MABA. I like to draw them with a ballpoint pen because it can be used very delicately and lightly, while also being able to achieve darker values.

View while sitting at one of the picnic tables by the parking lot

It is important to show perspective when drawing large spaces. The drawing above implies distance because the far away areas use darker values than the close areas. In the foreground, the picnic table uses only a few lines, while the trees in the background are more dense. This use of value makes sense for this setting because the space farther away from me was more shaded, while the spot where I was sitting was in the sun. 

Education building, from the garden

This drawing also uses value to show perspective, but is a good example of linear perspective, too. The lines of the architecture and path all converge to a point in the background, showing space. 

Sketch of the Pequit Brook and the overhanging tree branches

Abstracted drawing of where the Main Loop Trail intersects with a stone wall

The two drawings above show a less literal method of sketching a landscape. When I am abstracting my subject like this, I don’t look down at what I am drawing as often. These drawings produce looser lines that have more character. 

View of the education building from the meadow

The sketch above is one of my favorites from this summer. The reason I like it is because it makes use of a lot of blank space, but is still exciting to look at. I think this works because the blank space is shaped in interesting ways, so that it works with the subject of the drawing instead of just becoming a flat background for it. 

Main Loop Path

When drawing in nature, I often struggle with filling up large areas of foliage; there aren’t clear forms or shadows that can be drawn. In the drawing above, I approached this problem by leaving the area of leaves and ferns on the bottom right mostly blank. I shaped this blank area by drawing the things that surround it, like the path and the trees.

There is no step-by-step method to drawing a landscape. I hope these different drawings gave you some insight into what my thought process is when I am drawing. To make a drawing that truly captures a unique location, the artist has to respond to what they are seeing in a thoughtful way, using line, shape, and value to represent what they see and how they see it. 

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!

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.

Where’s Milly? At the Vernal Pool

Milly at the Vernal Pool

Milly is super excited to get out on the sanctuary to see how spring is springing. Owen and Milly have seen dozens of spotted salamanders in our vernal pool. They have also seen wood ducks, mallards, and wood frogs too!

Wood Duck Trail Camera Video from the Vernal Pool on March 25, 2020

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