Tag Archives: Great Blue Heron

Of Time and the River

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

Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Hampden on August 28, 2015

Thirty years ago, I had my first solo show of nature art at a wildlife sanctuary near Springfield, Massachusetts called Laughing Brook. Back then, Laughing Brook was a fully staffed sanctuary, with a large visitor center and a “zoo” of native animals.
So, it’s understandable that when I pulled into the parking lot this morning, a flood of memories accompanied me, although very little was as I remembered it. The visitor center was gone; as were the animal enclosures, and even the trails and parking area seemed strangely out of place.
Laughing Brook’s history is one of floods and fires that I don’t need to recount here, but in short, the “zoo” was closed down in the 1990s and the visitor center demolished after a fire in 2004, converting the location to an unstaffed property. As recently as 2005, another major flood washed away trails and much of the parking lot. No wonder I didn’t recognize the place!

East Brook at Laughing Brook
But as much as things have changed, some things remain the same. East Brook, that so inspired the writings of Thornton Burgess, still tumbles clear over golden gravel bars and threads in and out of mysterious tangled roots along the banks. Kingfishers still flash along the stream corridor and dragonflies still dance in the shafts of light sifting down through the forest canopy. It’s a reminder that buildings, trails, parking lots, meadows and ponds may come and go, but rivers are as old as the mountains.

At the pond off the Mort and Helen Bates Trail, I tried to approach some blooming arrowhead along the shore. Most of the arrowhead plants were past blooming, and I never did find a blossoming specimen close enough to paint, but in the process I flushed a bird from the undergrowth that flew up into the lower branches of a weeping willow.

Northern Waterthrush Studies - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study of Northern Waterthrush, pencil, 10″ x 6″

It was a handsome northern waterthrush, and with my binoculars I got good enough looks to make some quick sketches in my sketchbook. Later in my studio, I used these sketches to develop this watercolor.

Northern Waterthrush in Willow - at 72 dpi

Northern Waterthrush in Willow, watercolor on Arches rough, 14.25″ x 10.25″

There are many spots along the East Brook Trail where one can take little spur paths down to the edge of the brook, and in these low-water conditions, it was even possible to walk right into the streambed (and still keep your feet dry) by picking along the gravel bars or hopping from rock to rock. I settled down in one such location and made an exploration of the gentle pools and riffles.
Blacknose dace are abundant in the stream, ranging in size from 5/8” to 2” long, and water striders patrol the water’s surface, casting those strange geometric shadows on the streambed. I make studies of both in my sketchbooks, and combined the two species later in this studio watercolor.

Water Striders and Dace - at 72 dpi

Water Striders and Dace, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

Caddisflies of various species are also in abundance. The soft-bodied larvae of caddisflies construct little shelters or “cases” that they live in, and each species makes a distinctive type of case using sand, pebbles or twigs. Some of the smaller species build cases that look like little clusters of pebbles attached to the underwater rocks – and these could be easily overlooked. Other species build elaborate twigs cases up to 2 inches long that are easy to spot in the stream bed. Held in the hand, the larvae will sometimes emerge from one end and wave their legs around.

Caddisfly Larvae, etc - at 72 dpi Grayscale

Sketchbook studies at East Brook, pencil, 9″ x 6″

A big glacial erratic called “Split Rock” is worth a quick detour off the upper stretches of the East Brook Trail. From one angle the boulder looks just like a sperm whale, with open mouth, rising up out of the deep!

Split Rock at Laughing Brrok - at 72 dpi
Heading back to the car, I stop once more at the pond and notice a young heron perched in the big dead tree on the far shore. With a scope, it’s an excellent view of the bird, and I can’t help but try making some studies. It looks like the bird will stay put for a while, and indeed it does – giving me time to make some detailed studies of the birds expressive face and head.

Young Heron at Laughing Brook - at 72 dpi

Young Heron head studies, pencil and watercolor on Canson drawing paper, 8.5″ x 9.5″

 

Unsettled Weather

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

Conway Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, Conway on July 19, 2015
I experience some difficulty finding the trailhead at Conway Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, and drive back and forth several times along Rte. 116. It’s a busy road on this Sunday afternoon, with lots of motorcycles and day-trippers. Finally, with the help of a local woman that I meet at a convenience store, I find the Mass Audubon sign and the trailhead (which is nearly hidden from the road by the thick summer foliage). The day is hot and VERY humid, now, and I’m listening to storm warnings on the car radio.
There’s a beaver swamp just west of the trailhead, and I walk back along the edge of Rte. 116 to get a better look.

Young Herons, Conway Hills - at 72 dpi

Young Herons, Conway Hills, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

There are two great blue heron nests visible from the road and one of them holds two young birds, panting in the heat and waiting for mom or dad to return. I retrieve my scope to do some sketching. They’re at an awkward age – all weird angles and odd proportions. From the look of them, it won’t be long before they’re off on their own!

Wolf Tree at Conway Hills (small)
I walk the Wolf Tree Trail, stopping to admire the big sugar maple for which the trail is named. That’s my one-foot-tall sketchbook leaning against the base of the tree for scale!

There’s also many interesting mushrooms and fungi along the trail, today – all shapes, sizes and colors.  Here’s a sampling:

Mushroom at Conway Hills 1 (small)

Indian Pipes at Conway Hills (small)

Mushroom at Conway Hills 2 (small)
Late in the afternoon, I start a landscape of the rolling hills south of 116. But gathering storm clouds and thunder cut my painting short.  I’m forced to abandon the effort and hurry back to the car, but later, in the studio, I repaint the scene, adding those dark storm clouds from memory.

 72 dpi

Storm Clouds over Conway Hills, watercolor on Arches rough, 7″ x 10″

 

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:

A Day at Rocky Hill: Great Blue Heron and Heron Colony

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

Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, Groton on April 15, 2015 (Part 2: focus on the heron colony)

Most heron colonies that I have visited are viewed from a low angle, with many of the nests seen against the sky, but the colony at Rocky Hill is unique in that it can be viewed from a high viewpoint.  From a high rocky bluff, you can watch about eight active heron nests at eye-level.  Here is what my painting set-up looked like:

Set-up at Rocky Hill

You can see a few of the heron nests in the top left corner of this photo.  On this breezy afternoon, the birds were hunkered down low on the nests to stay out of the wind.  In fact, many of the nests appeared empty until a bird would stand up – then the wind would toss their crown and crest plumes in all directions!

Heronry Studies, Rocky Hill - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

Sitting Tight - GB Heron on Nest, Rocky Hill, Groton - at 72 dpi

Sitting Tight, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″