The Vernal Pool – Part 1 by Maris Van Vlack (MABA Intern and RISD Student)

This summer the Museum of American Bird Art is thrilled that Maris Van Vlack, a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, will be interning at MABA. She will be sketching and painting in the wildlife sanctuary. She will be blogging about her experience. Enjoy her post about a week spent at the vernal pool. –Sean Kent

MABA’s vernal pool is a gathering place for lots of wildlife, and is a great place to watch the comings and goings of woodland wildlife. The pool is located very close to the trailhead, and is easy to find on your trail map. The word “vernal” means spring, so a vernal pool is a body of water that forms when snow is melting in the late winter, and it slowly disappears when the weather gets hot in the summer. Even though it isn’t there all year round, the vernal pool is the home to a variety of animals and is a great place to sit and sketch! Here is a list of wildlife I observed when sitting by the pool for only about 15 minutes:

Green Frog
Baltimore Oriole
American Robin
Mourning Dove

The marker sketch above was drawn from the vernal pool overlook right on the trail. Natural bodies of water don’t have a clear outline, so they can be tricky to sketch. I find that it is best to first draw the things around the water that define its boundaries (like trees or patches of grass) and then draw the reflections you can see on the water’s surface. The vernal pool has a lot of big branches resting in it which create reflections, as well as the sun, sky, and surrounding trees.

An interesting branch and reflection

a sketch of a tree on the bank of the vernal pool, split open and full of shelf fungi

The light by the vernal pool is very captivating because it comes through the leaves overhead and then bounces off of the water’s surface. One day, when I was beginning to sketch, I noticed an interesting pattern of shadows on my paper:

As a drawing experiment, I tried to trace the shapes of the shadows on the paper. This was difficult because the wind kept blowing the leaves back and forth. This was the result:

I find the lines of the drawing interesting, and I think they capture the feeling of the wind blowing leaves back and forth.

The sketch above is drawn from the vernal pool overlook on the main loop path. This view is not as close up as the other place directly on the bank of the pool, but you won’t scare away the wildlife and can watch all the birds fly about! There are often common grackles that hop around the edge of the pool, making quite a racket. I have also seen cardinals, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, and orioles from this view.

Remember, the vernal pool is quickly shrinking! Even just a week later, I noticed that the water level had gone down about a foot. Go visit! It is a great place to sit, draw, and observe nature.

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: Callahan State Park, Framingham, June 12, 2020 by Deborah Stone

This post is by Deborah Stone, a good friend of MABA.

Just as I came down a trail to the edge of Beebe Pond, a Great Blue Heron landed about 20 feet ahead of me. It froze in classic heron statue pose—until I spooked it by lifting my binoculars. Then it alighted for safer territory. Perfect timing. Whenever I see a heron, I can’t resist stopping to watch it catch dinner, and I was beyond ready for a break and lunch. I leaned my butt on a rock with an indent that felt custom made and found the heron farther out in the pond

Holding half a PB&J in my right hand and binocs in my left, I watched the heron stalk— slowly, deliberately, intently. I didn’t have its patience and took a large bite of my sandwich. It felt rude to eat before everyone had their dinner, so I willed my chewing to reach the heron as a kind of telepathic aid to success. Karma didn’t take long to work. The heron thrust its head down and came up with a large fish. Quite the morsel but how to get it down the gullet? The fish was crosswise in the heron’s beak, flapping its tail wildly, trying to escape. 

Five times the heron lowered its head behind some grasses, presumably to maneuver the fish into a better position. After the second, third and fourth time, when the heron lifted its head again, the fish was still crosswise, but after the fourth time, I could see that it was lifeless. After the fifth time, the beak came up with the fish still crosswise. The heron gave a little head toss and Bingo! Straight on, down the hatch. I thought I saw a bulge in the heron’s neck, something like the snake that swallowed a mouse in Le Petit Prince. I estimated it took a full minute from the time of capture to the time dinner was ready. 

I couldn’t see what culinary tricks the heron performed while it had its head down, but I can guess. At Hall’s Pond Sanctuary in Brookline, I once saw a heron make a catch far too large to fit down its throat. It flew to the pond’s edge and dropped the fish on the ground. There, it pecked at the fish to subdue it, then picked it up and carried it to another spot where there was a large flat rock. I watched the heron stab away at the fish, ripping a bite here and there. Eventually, the remaining piece of fish was down to a manageable size. 

Here at Beebe Pond, the water was shallow. I couldn’t see whether there was a hummock or a rock to serve as a butcher block, but I’m guessing the heron found a way to disable the fish without letting it loose in the water. Perhaps the heron held part of the fish on the pond bottom with one foot while using its beak as a pincers. I could try to find answers in a book or on YouTube, but I prefer trying to solve nature’s mysteries with wonder instead of science. 

I was only part way through my half sandwich when the heron caught its next fish. This one was somewhat smaller. This time, too, the heron had caught the fish crosswise in its beak. This time, though, the heron flipped the fish parallel to its beak and swallowed, all in about three seconds. Dessert always goes down easier, doesn’t it?

Note: Photos were not taken during these observations, but are illustrative of the events.

Celebration of Finding Sanctuary with author and artist Barry Van Dusen: Virtual Book Launch

Join internationally recognized nature artist Barry Van Dusen and Amy Montague, Director of the Museum of American Bird Art, for a virtual gathering to celebrate Barry’s new book:  Finding Sanctuary: An Artist Explores the Nature of Mass Audubon.  This lively online celebration will feature an interview of Barry by author and artist Julie Zickefoose, live discussion and viewing of Barry’s work, and time for audience participation. The book launch will be on June 24 at 7 pm.

Sign up for the virtual book launch by clicking here.

Finding Sanctuary: An Artist Explores the Nature of Mass Audubon 

Over four and a half years, internationally recognized nature artist Barry Van Dusen visited all of Mass Audubon’s 61 wildlife sanctuaries, nature centers and museums, creating drawings and paintings at each location.  This beautiful book celebrates the richness, beauty and ecological diversity of Massachusetts and the Mass Audubon sanctuary system and provides fascinating insights into his artistic process. 

After you register you’ll receive an email invitation with a link and information on how to join the gathering.

Barry Van Dusen – Finding Sanctuary

Join Barry Van Dusen for a virtual live book launch of his new book Finding Sanctuary on June 24, 2020 at 7 pm. This is a free event.

MOOD is an elusive quality in a painting, and I never know if I’ve expressed a strong mood until after a piece is finished.   Even then, I’m not always sure just how I did it!  One thing I love about watercolor is the wide range of effects and moods that can be achieved.  Watercolors can be soft and ethereal or bold and crisp.  I urge my workshop students to think about their intentions before lifting a brush – consider what you love about the subject, how it makes you feel, and what you want to express about it. 

One way to refine your intentions is to consider the key that will best suit what you wish to convey about the subject.  Key is a term artists use to describe the predominant value scheme of a painting, i.e. the overall lightness or darkness.  You may decide on deep, jewel-like tones that will add a sense of mystery, or, you may prefer to use a predominance of light tones that will supply a bright, airy feeling.  The mood I get on a sun-drenched beach at noon is very different from how I feel in a shadowy hemlock grove at dusk.

high-key painting is one that has a predominance of light values, with a lesser amount of darks.  A low-key painting may have some lights, but will feature mostly dark values.  Note that each type of painting can have a full range of light and dark tones, but the proportions are what matter. 

Let me show you some paintings that explore this aspect of painting.  These are all watercolors from my new book FINDING SANCTUARY.

Piping Plover and Shore Flies

Sub-adult Iceland Gull

These are both high-key paintings and they are both coastal subjects.  There’s usually lots of light at the seashore, and if the surroundings are light colored (e.g. beach sand), the overall effect can be very bright.  In the plover painting notice that the seaside goldenrod leaves are quite dark.  By supplying contrast, they enhance the overall well-lit effect.  In the Iceland Gull painting, the dark notes are minimal – confined to the bird’s eye and the tip of its bill. 

Here are some low-key examples from the book:

Rutland Brook

Rutland Brook – now I’m in that hemlock forest I mentioned earlier.  It’s cool and dark and shadowy, and the only light notes are highlights in the running water.   Dark tones are more challenging to handle in watercolor than light tones.  Watercolor passages always dry considerably lighter than when they are wet, so the artist must compensate and paint boldly with a brush carrying lots of pigment.  

Barn Swallow on Nest

Barn Swallow on Nest – these birds always nest in shadowy places: on interior barn rafters or under overhangs.  The brightest notes here are the areas of whitewash below the bird’s nest.  The majority of tones are dark to convey the shadowy environs of the nest.  

Contrast can play a related role in creating mood.  Foggy, humid or snowy conditions reduce the contrast in a scene, while dry, clear days accentuate contrasts and call for crisp, clearly defined shapes.  You can choose to enhance contrasts in your painting or suppress them.

Summer on the Concord River

Summer on the Concord River – this was a warm, humid day in summer, and the moisture-laden air over the river suppressed contrasts and supplied an inviting softness. 

The Horse Barn in a Spring Snowsquall

The Horse Barn in a Spring Snowsquall – likewise, the moist, dense air on this snowy day created soft edges and close tonalities.  

Rough Meadows

Rough Meadows – a clear, dry day in autumn makes for strong shadows and crisp edges. On a day like this, even the distant tree line is quite dark, and stands out in relief.

In all of these examples I have deliberately used artistic concepts to help me arrive at a specific mood or feeling, or to express a particular hour, season or weather condition.  As an artist, YOU are in command of your picture, and you should take full advantage of these tools to get your message across.  By thinking ahead about what type of mood you wish to convey, and using these artistic concepts to support your intentions, you may find the mood of a painting not so elusive! 

Nature in a Minute: Royal Fern

Royal Ferns (Osmunda regalis) are the largest ferns, growing to a height of 4-6 feet. The leaves are erect and branch-like. Because of its imposing size it’s Latin species name is regalis, royal.

These ferns love to have their roots wet. They grow along streams and in boggy areas all over New England.  This Royal Fern is growing right in Pequit Brook on the MABA sanctuary trail.

The fertile leaves of Royal Ferns are clustered in a dense bunch, taller than the other leaves. Millions of microscopic spores are released from these fertile leaves. The spores are green when they first appear and turn brown as they ripen. 

Nature in a Minute: Sensitive Fern

Sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) are medium to large size. The leaves are broad, almost triangular in shape. They are not as lacy as other ferns. When the first frost occurs in late fall, the Sensitive fern turns brown and withers quickly. That’s the reason for its sensitive name.

Sensitive ferns form a unique fertile fronds. In late summer a stalk appears with bead-like spore cases. These turn brown and persist all winter, long after the leaves are gone. In the spring millions of spores are released.

You can find Sensitive ferns on the MABA loop trail and in the wet meadow near the gallery.

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.

Ginnie Hibbard on Barry Van Dusen’s New Book: Finding Sanctuary

Join Barry Van Dusen for a virtual live book launch of his new book Finding Sanctuary on June 24, 2020 at 7 pm. This is a free event.

Finding Sanctuary: An Artist Explores the Nature of Mass Audubon, written and illustrated by Barry Van Dusen, is a true treasure. It is the second book published by MABA. Amy Montague, the museum’s director, knew she was embarking on a very special project when she invited Barry Van Dusen to be an Artist in Residence at MABA for a period of two years. Amy was well aware of Barry’s great artistic talent, having seen his work for many years in Mass Audubon’s  renowned Sanctuary magazine. What she did not know was his gift for writing. This is the first book Barry has both written and illustrated, and it is a gem. The text is as remarkable as the artwork.

Barry’s two year residency eventually stretched into a four and a half year endeavor, as he visited all sixty of Mass Audubon’s sites: wildlife sanctuaries, nature centers,  museums  and nature camps. He worked under a wide variety of weather conditions, observing, sketching, taking notes and in some cases painting watercolors. Other works he painted in his studio in Central Massachusetts, utilizing his field notes, sketches and, perhaps most importantly, relying on his extraordinary visual memory.  While working as MABA’s resident artist, Barry submitted frequent blog entries which eventually were incorporated into his book. 

The result is more than a record of his visits to Mass Audubon sites. It is a delightful experience for the reader to sense Barry’s excitement as he contemplates what he might discover on an individual site visit, his appreciation for the beauty of nature and his ability to convey what he sees and feels in such an authentic, genuine way. Barry also explains in detail his artistic process which is of interest to the artist and non-artist alike. It shows his thorough preparation, years of study and practice and his openness to unexpected surprises. Barry’s unique, impressionistic painting style captures his subject matter in a refreshing and engaging way.

Finding Sanctuary is a celebration of both Barry’s writing and artistic talents as well as the diversity and natural beauty of Mass Audubon’s properties.  The book is available online through the Audubon Shop in Lincoln.

Our guest blogger, Ginnie Hibbard, is a longtime friend of MABA, a member of the Mass Audubon Council and MABA’s Executive Advisory Committee.

Trail Camera Scavenger Hunt #3

We’re back with some more trail cam videos for some scavenger hunting fun! This time, the action is all in the meadows. Look closely, because there’s one or two animals hiding in the darkness! If you want to go back and check out the old videos or find the scavenger hunt list, here’s Post #1 (with the list) and Post #2.  

I’m ready for my close up!!!

Look who’s found a home!

Searching for a meal!

Look for the Glowing Eyes

Who’s that walking by???

Nature in a Minute: The Cinnamon Fern

Ferns are an ancient family of plants. They were growing on Earth 360 million years ago. They are older than land animals and even dinosaurs. You can find ferns growing on the trails at MABA and in damp woods near where you live. Ferns do not have flowers like other plants. They reproduce in a unique way, by tiny spores that are blown by the wind and carried by water. Ferns are at their peak in early summer when the part of the plant that produces the spores is most easy to see. This is the first in a series on recognizing ferns in the woods. 

Cinnamon Fern  (Osmunda cinnamomea)

Cinnamon ferns grow in a circular vase-like form. The leaves grow to three feet or taller. The fertile leaves that hold the spores are green at first, soon turning to cinnamon- brown. The brown fertile leaf resembles a stick of cinnamon, thus the name Cinnamon fern.

Julianne Mehegan at Arches NP

Our guest blogger, Julianne Mehegan, is a wonderful friend of MABA, a birder and a naturalist.

Nature Notes for Orchard Cove: June 4, 2020

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This is a photograph of the recently emerged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail from the nature walk at Orchard Cove on June 3, 2020. The butterfly would have overwintered in a chrysalis at Orchard Cove. This butterfly will lay eggs on Magnolia trees – like the tulip popular – and Cherry Trees, like the Chokecherry and Black Cherry trees we saw on our walk.

Swallowtail Caterpillars from Sam Jaffe of the Caterpillar Lab

Sam Jaffe’s photograph of a Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Top), Black Swallowtail (Middle), and Spicebush Swallowtail (Bottom). Learn more at:

Spicebush Swallowtail Chrysalis (similar to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail)

Spicebush Swallowtail chrysalis

Painted Turtles

Turtle Yoga by Barry Van Dusen

Hi everybody, each week I (Sean Kent – MABA’s education and camp director) deliver a live online illustrated lecture called Nature Notes for the residents of Orchard Cove in Canton. I love nature and am infinitely curious with what is going on natural world. I am an educator, naturalist, accomplished landscape and wildlife photographer, and field biologist with expertise in native bee biology, species interactions, and ecology in general.

This post contains additional resources that correspond with the lecture, but might also be of interest to readers of Taking Flight in addition to the residents of Orchard Cove. Please contact me ( if you or your organization/residence might be interested in live online illustrated lectures, including lectures on The Secret Life of Backyard Birds and Native Bees and other Pollinators. Be well and safe.