Category Archives: Wildlife Sanctuary

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″

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:

Wet Feet in Bear Country, Part 2

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

West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, Plainfield on July 19, 2015

After finishing up with the orchids, I head back to the car and dry out my feet as best I can before heading over to the West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary trail head on Prospect Street. As I’m assembling my gear to hike the trails, I hear a commotion in the woods across the street, and a young bear pokes its head out of the thick roadside vegetation and looks straight at me! I must look threatening because the animal makes a hasty retreat back into the woods, only to circle around and do the same routine again! The bear clearly wants to cross the road, but after its second retreat it must have decided to cross elsewhere. The bear was not a cub, but about the size of a German shepherd, and I paused to consider whether its mother might still be attending it. The fact that it made so much noise in the woods was re-assuring, since it would be unlikely to take me by surprise if I encounter it again.
Hiking the East Slope Loop Trail I notice that many of the beech trees are suffering from beech bark disease, and I later read on the orientation panel that this disease is contributing to the decline of beeches in the area.

Beech Bark Disease - West Mountain (small)

Attractive lady ferns line the trail, and in some places the forest floor is covered with a thick growth of hobblebush shoots. I stop to make a watercolor study of the hobblebush, since I love the soft orangey-tan buds, which rise like candle flames from the tip of each twig.  I’m also intrigued by the way the color of the new wood is distinctly different from the old.

Hobblebush, West Mountain - at 72 dpi

Hobblebush Study, watercolor on Lanaquarelle hot-press, 9″ x 11.25″

The trail follows alongside two lovely, tumbling brooks and through a hemlock forest – where I’m serenaded by black-throated green warblers and hermit thrushes.

Mountain Brook at West Mountain (small)

BTG Warbler study - at 72 dpi

sketchbook study, pencil and watercolor, 4″ x 5″


Pastels: A Step-by-Step demonstration by Cindy House

Creating landscape scenes with pastels is a wonderful way to create art. In the summer, the landscape is rich with brilliant and vibrant colors along with many subtle shades. A few years ago, pastel artist Cindy House created a slideshow with captions, explaining each step in the process of creating a pastel landscape, from the initial scene selection to putting on the final touches. Check out here video here and please share in the comments what ways you like to use pastels to create art. Check out here website as well for amazing works of art.

Connecting with art and nature: Top moments from the Natural Connections week at the Wild at Art Camp

We had an amazing first week at our Wild at Art Camp. Our theme was Natural Connections and the campers learned and created art focused on the web that connects plants and animals.

Moment #1: The Caterpillar Lab

DSC_2271 UpCloseWithACatpillar

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Moment #2: Creating marbled paper (sumagashi) and birch tree paintings




Moment #3: Using found materials to build an eight foot wide eagles nest

Cam Eagles Nest

Moment #4: Collecting natural materials for art

Bethany's Group Field

Collecting natural materials for art projects

Nature Quests

Collecting natural materials for art projects

Moment #5: Warming up with charcoal before some awesome art projects

Katie Buchanan Charcoal

Our teaching artist, Katie Buchanan, and camper Cora warming up for the art activity with charcoal


Camper David and Liam having fun drawing with charcoal


Moment #6: Getting up close with dragonflies and other critters in the meadow

Sean with Net

Sean Kent, the Wild at Art Camp director, shows camper Janek, Handel, Cooper, and Thomas, a dragonfly from the meadow.

Happy Thomas

Camper Janek, Cooper, and Thomas catching critters in the meadow

Moment #7: Creating art everywhere, even on the sidewalk

Chalk Butterflies


Moment #8: Watercolors using water from our pond full of tadpoles

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Moment #9: Going behind the scenes in the art museum and creating Charlie Harper Inspired art based on their up close tour


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Warbler Wave

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

Mid-May, 2015
By the middle of May in Massachusetts, large numbers of migrant wood warblers are streaming through the state on their way to breeding grounds here or further north.  It all happens so quickly, and I experience a manic urge to try and get it all down while it lasts. So many birds, so little time!  Instead of trying to do a finished watercolor with a full background of each of the species I encounter, I take a different approach.

Stillman and Birn Sketchbooks

I purchase several 9”x12” sketchbooks loaded with heavy watercolor paper made by Stillman and Birn.  My logic is that I can use these in field or studio to do quicker bird portraits with minimal background elements or no background at all. The heavy, archival stock will give me the option to remove and frame some of the pages later. Here is a selection from the Mass Audubon properties I visited through May.

Nashville Warbler, Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Nashville Warbler, Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, 9″ x 12″

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, 9″ x 12″

Blackburnian Warbler study, High Ledges - large at 72 dpi

Blackburnian Warbler, High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, 5.5″ x 8″

Yellow-rump Study, Wampanoag - at 72 dpi

Myrtle Warbler, Lake Wampanoag Wildlife Sanctuary, 8.5″ x 12″

Canada Warbler in Witch-hazel, High Ledges - at 72 dpi

Canada Warbler, High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, 9″ x12″

Black-throated Blue in Birch, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

Black-throated Blue Warbler, Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, 9″ x 12″




Birds in Blue and Gray

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

Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, Holden, MA on May 11, 2015

It’s a warm, humid morning at Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary in Holden.  From the trailhead (as I’m applying bug repellent and sunscreen), I can hear black-throated blue, black-throated green and pine warblers, ovenbirds, a scarlet tanager and a red-eyed vireo.

Black-throated Blue in Birch, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

Black-throated Blue in Birch, in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

As I hike in along the Appleton Loop Trail, it becomes obvious that black-throated blues are the most abundant warblers at this site. Every quarter mile or so, I encounter another BTB singing from the sweet birches that arch above the mountain laurel thickets.

Black-throated Blue in Birch 2, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

Black-throated Blue in Song, watercolor on Arches Fidelis (en tout cas), 9″ x 8.5″

Pausing along the trail, a female Black-throated Blue circles and scolds me – I must be near a nest, so I move on…

Black-throated Blue female, study, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

sketchbook study, 3″ x 5″

Crossing over Asnebumskit brook on the pipeline right-of-way, I notice that the streambed is looking quite dry for early May. It’s been an exceptionally dry spring so far.
The Asnebumskit Loop Trail skirts down along the stream, and as I near the area where the brook flows into Eagle Lake, I hear the distinctive notes of a blue-gray gnatcatcher (Peterson used the word “peevish” – the perfect adjective to describe their voice!)

Gnatcatcher studies, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

field sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

The small plot of forest here has the feeling of a wet bottomland – just the right habitat for these birds.  Sure enough, the pair is building a nest high in a red maple branch directly over the water!  I watch as one member of the pair gathers the sticky webbing from a caterpillar nest and takes it to the nest site.

Gnatcatcher in Red Maple 2, Eagle Lake - at 72 dpi

Gnatcatcher in red Maple, in Stillman & Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

On my way out of the Sanctuary, I park my car and stroll out onto the causeway between Stump Pond and Eagle Lake.  It’s a pleasant spot, and I admire the soft colors of the early spring foliage across the water.  Looking down, I see sunfish guarding nests in the shallow water along the shoreline.  The red spot on their gill covers identifies them as pumpkinseeds.  The males are in bright, breeding colors – their fin margins (which they wave like fan dancers) are a striking aqua blue!

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″