Tag Archives: Birds

Misses and Near Misses

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

Burncoat Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, Spencer on June 24, 2015
Everything was wet on the Flat Rock Trail when I started out this morning. Heavy thunderstorms the previous evening had supplied the area with some much needed moisture. The dampness brought out frogs and salamanders, and I found several lovely red efts along the trail, one of which I decided to paint. Note the winged maple seed (or samara), which gives a sense of scale.

Red Eft, Burncoat Pond - at 72 dpi

Red Eft, watercolor on Lanaquarelle hot-press, 8″ x 9″

Views of Burncoat Pond proved challenging, with only a few points along the shore allowing any access, but I started a watercolor nonetheless. My view was looking down into a marshy bay of the lake, through a screen of dead timber. It was a complicated scene. Too complicated, as it turned out! I couldn’t manage to resolve the special relationships, and about halfway into the painting realized that it was going nowhere. I put it away, deciding not to waste any more time on it. Not all field paintings work out, and sometimes the trick is knowing when to quit!
I headed back to the parking area for lunch. I had noticed on my way to the pond that the large meadows around the parking area were rich in birds, and I wanted to spend more time there. While eating lunch under a big sugar maple near the parking area, a bird flew into the branches over my head. Something about the bird looked interesting, but I couldn’t locate it among the sugar maple leaves. Finally, it flew to an oak across the road and I quickly got my scope on it – a black-billed cuckoo!

Blk-billed Cuckoo, Burncoat Pond - at 72 dpi

Black-billed Cuckoo, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14″

Good looks at cuckoos never seem to last very long, and this one was no different- giving me just one good look before it disappeared. I rarely try to develop a painting from such a brief look, but the impression I’d had was a strong one, so I scribbled some lines in my sketchbook to get down as much as possible of what I remembered. Then I took out a sheet of watercolor paper and sketched the oak branches where the bird had been sitting (the branches were still in my scope view). Later, back in the studio, I refined my drawing and finished the piece. I’ve learned that it’s sometimes good to force myself to work from memory – it has a way of distilling and intensifying a field experience!
Hiking up the section of mid-state trail a short ways, I got much longer looks at an indigo bunting. I must have been near a nest, because the male circled and scolded me from low perches along the trail. I did a page of studies, and later, a small watercolor in my studio.

Indigo Bunting sketchbook page, Burncoat Pond - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

Indigo Bunting, Burncoat Pond - at 72 dpi

Indigo Bunting, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12″

In good light, the blue of an indigo bunting is unearthly! I found that the best mixture was Thalo blue (a very strong, staining blue) softened with just a touch of ultramarine. The darker blue on the bird’s head and shoulder is pure ultramarine.  A background wash mixed from raw sienna and ivory black intensifies the bird’s color.

High Rocky Ground

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

Flat Rock Wildlife Sanctuary, Fitchburg, MA on June 17, 2015
The mountain laurel is in full bloom as I hike up the Loop Trail at Flat Rock Wildlife Sanctuary in Fitchburg. I admire the many stately beech trees in the forest here, their smooth gray bark dappled with sunlight. Ovenbirds and towhees sing from the understory.

Mountain Laurel Blossoms, Flat Rock

As I near the power lines on the Link Path, I hear the unmistakable song of a prairie warbler (certainly one of the easiest of the warbler songs to learn and remember). With gentle pishing sounds I lure the bird closer until it’s singing from the top of a white pine right above my head. I sketch furiously as it moves to nearby oaks, singing all the while.

Prairie Warbler studies, Flat Rock - at 72 dpi

sketchbook studies, 6.5″ x11.5″

Studies of a Prairie Warbler in Song, Flat Rock - at 72 dpi

Prairie Warbler in Song, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14″

Up on Flat Rock Road Trail the forest is drier and more spare, dominated by oaks and pines of moderate height, none very tall. The trail itself is bare bedrock. With every step my feet are in contact with the bones of the earth. Arriving at “The Bald”, I expect to get a view (as advertised on my trail map), but the trees have evidently grown up since the map was published, and no view is to be had, at least at this time of year.
Looping back on the powerlines I pass several boggy depressions and notice a calico pennant perched on a short stalk.  Dragonflies are good models for the field artist, since they choose a favorite perch from which to hunt, and return to it again and again. With my telescope, I can focus on that perch and be assured that the odonate will soon return. Back at the meadow next to the parking area I discover many more calico pennants, and decide to do a series of studies on a piece of hot-press watercolor paper.

Calico Pennants, Flat Rock - at 72 dpi

Calico Pennant Studies, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 12″

Curiously, none of the pennants are the bright red adult males. All the individuals I observe are yellow – identifying them as either young males or females.

 

A Matter of Proportion

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

Nashoba Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Westford May 29, 2015
The first thing I hear after getting out of my car at the Nashoba Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Westford is the plaintive call of the eastern wood-pewee. These birds are more often seen that heard, but I track this one down and start sketching. It’s a humid, overcast morning, and the mosquitoes are a challenge!

Wood Pewee studies, Nashoba Brook - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

The differences between some species of birds are so subtle that the little things can make a big difference. Things like tail length, head size and wing-tip length – in other words proportions.

Wood Pewee in Oaks, Nashoba Brook - at 72 dpi

Eastern Wood-pewee, watercolor on Strathmore Gemini cold-press, 11″ x 8″

Although there are a few “field marks” here to help identify this bird as an eastern wood-pewee (note the orange lower mandible, long wing tips and upright posture), a lot of the story is told with subtle adjustments of proportion and shape.  Compare my pewee with a study done earlier this spring of an olive-sided flycatcher (observed at Quabbin Park on May 13).

Olive-sided Flycatcher study, Quabbin Park - at 72 dpi

Olive-sided Flycatcher, watercolor in Stillman and Birn beta sketchbook, 9″ x 8″

Both birds belong to the same genus (Contopus), but the differences in proportions are striking. The olive-sided has an oversized head and bill, very long wingtips and a dinky, undersized tail!

Technical note:  The wood-pewee watercolor you see here is what I call a “re-painting”.  I started a watercolor of the bird on location, but I made some poor compositional decisions and then tried to correct them, which led to a confused and overworked mess!   However, even a “failed” field painting contains a great deal of information that can be re-used later in the studio.  Back home I re-painted the scene, refining the drawing and correcting the compositional errors I made in the field.  This “second time around”, I painted with confidence and purpose, and avoided all the mistakes from my first attempt!

 

A Nest of Possibilities

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

Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary, Falmouth  on May 26, 2015 (part 1)

Drawing birds, as opposed to “birding” or photographing them, entails observing and studying individual birds for relatively long periods of time. Perhaps because of this, I often find bird nests during my fieldwork. I’ll notice that a bird I’m observing is hanging around one particular spot, or I’ll see a bird carrying nest material – both clues that a nest is close-by. Today, at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary, I found the nests of a yellow warbler, a northern oriole and an orchard oriole!

Yellow Warbler studies, Ashumet - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

The nest of the yellow warbler is well hidden in a honeysuckle vine growing up a locust tree. The nest is about 25 feet up, and I can focus on it with my telescope by backing up along the trail.

Yellow Warbler and Nest, Ashumet - at 72 dpi

Yellow Warbler at Nest, watercolor on Fabriano soft-press, 9″ x11″

The female is never far away, and returns frequently but I never see her actually enter the nest. She may not have eggs yet, or may not want to enter the nest with me nearby. I draw as quickly as possible, and then move away.

Osprey Overlook

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

Great Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Wareham on May 24, 2015

I find my way to one of Mass Audubon’s newest properties in Wareham this afternoon. The signage, trail maps and interpretive panels are top-notch!

I’m aiming for a water view today, so I head out to the Osprey Overlook off the Heron Point Loop Trail. The path takes me through an attractive coastal forest dotted with majestic white pines. Brown creepers and pine warblers sing from the trees overhead , while towhees sound off from the huckleberries below.

Osprey Overlook, Great Neck - at 72 dpi

Osprey Overlook, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 13″ x 9″

Osprey Overlook lives up to its name – within minutes an osprey floats overhead, and I can see the nest on a platform across the marsh. I set up a field easel in preparation for some landscape painting, but keep my sketchbook nearby to record the shapes of the osprey during its numerous fly-overs.  I’m planning to add the bird to my painting.

Foliage on the Cape is at least a week behind inland areas, and here the landscape still has the soft tonalities and subtle colors of early spring, which are set-off nicely by the ultramarine blue waters of Bass Cove. As I paint, a willet makes a noisy visit to the nearby shoreline.

Painting Set-up at Great Neck

Technical note: when I started this landscape painting, I was in full shade from the trees behind me, but as I worked the sun began to dapple my watercolor pad. It’s always best to have the watercolor paper in shade while painting on location (and some artists carry an umbrella just for this purpose), but that’s not always possible. You can paint with the paper in full sun if you take care to compensate for the brightness of the sheet, but the worst scenario is to have your paper partly in the sun and partly in the shade. Here, I finished the landscape by blocking the direct sunlight with my body, so the page remained in full shade.

 

On the Flats

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

Joppa Flats Education Center, Newburyport on May 15, 2015

After a good day of birding on Plum Island, I stop by Joppa Flats around 5 pm. The tide is low, and many birds are scattered across the flats of Newburyport Harbor. I admire a group of bonaparte’s gulls, some of which have fully developed black hoods for the breeding season! Also on the flats are common terns, black-bellied plovers, short-billed dowitchers, assorted peeps and quite a few brant.

Brant studies 2, Joppa Flats - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

I’m intrigued by the shapes of the brant as they waddle across the flats and peck at morsels here and there. Being birds of the coast, I don’t see them nearly as often as Canada Geese, and only a few times before have I had good opportunities to observe them out of water.

Brant studies 1, Joppa Flats - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

These studies would be fun to work with in a larger composition – maybe a project for this winter in the studio!

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!

A Taste of the North

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

Lake Wampanoag Wildlife Sanctuary, Gardner, MA on May 4th, 2015

Yellow-rump and Red Maple Flowers, Wampanoag - at 72 dpi

Yellow-rumped Warbler and Red Maple Flowers, watercolor on Arches 140 lb cold-press paper, 10.25″ x 14″

If I had to pick out two iconic species to represent early spring in Central Massachusetts, I’d be hard pressed to do better than yellow-rumped warbler and red maple.  Today the “butterbutts” were murmuring all along the trails at Lake Wampanoag Wildlife Sanctuary in Gardner.  The red maple was in full bloom, adding gauzy golden and carmine washes to the landscape.  I’m told that the smaller deep red flowers are male, and the larger orangey or yellowish blossoms are females, with both sexes often occurring on the same tree.

Yellow-rump Study, Wampanoag - at 72 dpi

Myrtle Warbler Study, watercolor and pencil in Stillman & Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

The woods along the Moosewood Trail at Wampanoag have a distinctly Northern feel, with patches of balsam fir and spruce mixed in with the red maples and hemlocks. It’s an unusual forest community for Central Massachusetts. I paused along the trail to draw a red spruce trunk heavily worked over by a pileated woodpecker.

Spruce w Pileated WP Holes, Lake Wampanoag - at 72 dpi

The square-sided excavations were recently made, with fresh wood chips littering the forest floor beneath the tree.  Black-throated Green warblers buzzed overhead, and the staccato song of a Northern Waterthrush drifted up from the pond shore.

 

A Day at Rocky Hill: Field Sparrow

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

Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, Groton on April 15, 2015

A breezy, sunny day as I found my way to the new trailhead at Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Groton.  I had read about the heron colony there, and knew the birds would be sitting on eggs about now.

As I neared the power line crossing on the way to the heronry, I heard the clear, plaintive notes of a field sparrow.  I located the bird singing from a shrub under the power lines and got a scope on it quickly to do some drawings.

Field Sparrow Studies, Rocky Hill - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

In Ken Kaufman’s bird guide he uses the term “baby-faced” to describe the facial expression of this species.  It’s an apt description, and I strove to get that sweet, innocent expression in my drawings.  Field sparrow habitat is shrinking in New England and I encounter them much less frequently these days.  Power line cuts, with their predominance of shrubs and other early successional growth, seem to be one of the most reliable places to find them.  This bird was singing from a withe-rod, so I detailed the distinctly shaped pinkish-tan flower buds and “Y” shaped twig configuration.   In this watercolor (done back in my studio), I also wanted to convey the soft, high-key colors of early spring in New England.

Field Sparrow in Withe-rod, Rocky Hill, Groton - at 72 dpi

Field Sparrow in Withe-rod, watercolor on Lana hot-press, 14″ x 10.25″

To learn more about their natural history, check out this post by Sean Kent

 

Field Sparrow Natural History

Barry just posted about a wonderful day he spent sketching and observing Field Sparrows at the Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Groton, Massachusetts. Here is some background about their biology and natural history. Field sparrows are part of the New World Sparrows, in the order Passeriformes and in the family Emberizidae, which consists of about 320 species in 72 genera.

Field Sparrow. Copyright Mass Audubon

Field Sparrow. Copyright Mass Audubon

Feeding:

  • Field sparrows typically eat both seeds and insects, relying on seeds in the winter and both insects and seeds in the Spring, Summer, and Fall.

Migration:

  • Field sparrows return in April from their over wintering habitat in Southern United States and Northern Mexico. Check out their range map. Males are territorial and will set territories at farmlands, old fields, and other open habitats.

Behavior:

Nesting Ecology:

  • Field sparrows typically lay eggs once or twice in a season, but may lay a third if their first brood fails. Nests will have anywhere between 1 and 6 eggs.
  • Field sparrow nests are usually made out of grass and twigs, either on the ground or just above the ground and have been found in Goldenrod, Multiflora Rose, and in other shrubs. Early season nests are typically on the ground or close to the ground, while later season nests will be higher in shrubs and trees to better avoid ground predators.
  • Field sparrows nest in habitat that is associated with old fields, farmlands, and prairies. Because of their close association with farmlands, the field sparrow population in Massachusetts is experiencing declines due to the decline in farmlands and old field habitat coupled with an increase in housing development in the suburbs. Decline in grassland birds has been well documented by Mass Audubon’s breeding bird atlas.

To Learn More: