Tag Archives: great horned owl

Springtime in the Valley, Part 1

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

Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Easthampton on March 22, 2016

Bald Eagle Nest, detail - at 72 dpi

I know that spring arrives a bit earlier in the Connecticut River Valley, so I head out to Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton this morning.   I drive first to the seasonal bridge on Old Springfield Road.  This is where the Mill River (which runs through the Sanctuary) empties into The Oxbow.  It’s a classic river floodplain landscape.

Floodplain Forest - at 72 dpi

At the bridge (which is closed to vehicular traffic at the moment), I meet John Such of Chicopee, a retired high school science teacher.   He knows the area and offers to lead me to a Bald Eagle’s nest on the Sanctuary!  John notes that this is the only Bald Eagle nest on a Mass Audubon property.

The expansive grasslands to the north of the bridge attract a variety of grassland birds, and these fields are carefully managed by the Society to provide for the needs of open country birds, many of which are declining in Massachusetts.  As an artist, I appreciate the wide open vistas and distant views – quite unlike the landscapes near my home in central Massachusetts.   Looking to the southeast across The Oxbow, the handsome hills of the Mt. Tom Range rise above the western bank of the Connecticut River.

We follow a track up along Ned’s Ditch – a large wooded swale between the fields that supports a marsh and floodplain forest.  We hear the creaking calls of wood-ducks and the “conk-a-rees” of Red-winged Blackbirds.

Eagle Nest - at 72 dpi

The Eagle nest, by its sheer size, is easy to locate, but to get the best views requires careful positioning of my scope and field stool on the hillside about the “Ditch”. I settle down to watch…

The nest is placed in a main crotch near the top of a large, live tree (oak?), and is truly MASSIVE in size – so much so that the bird’s head, protruding above the mass of sticks and twigs, looks ridiculously tiny!  I later learned that Bald Eagles make the largest nest of any single pair of birds!

Bald Eagle Head Studies - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook studies, 4″ x 9″

The bird sits on the nest throughout the hour and a half that I watch.  This could be either the male or the female, since both take turns incubating the eggs.  The other member of the pair comes to the nest at one point, and appears to pass an article of food to the sitting bird, (though I couldn’t make out what), then quickly departs.   Except for an episode where the sitting bird rises up and works diligently at something in the nest, all is quiet.  I took this to be a round of egg-turning, which happens every 1 to 2 hours.

I decide to do a painting, but find that the largest paper in my pack is 9″ x 12″.  A larger sheet would have been more suitable for the subject, but I start a watercolor, anyway.  For the sake of my picture, I make the birds head a little larger, and raise it up a little higher than it typically appeared from my vantage.

Bald Eagle Nest - at 72 dpi

Bald Eagle Nest at Arcadia, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

From my location on the edge of the “Ditch”, I can look to the west and see the nests of a great blue heron colony about a quarter mile away.   I scan the nests with my scope, and spot a Great Horned Owl sitting on one of the nests!  It’s a distant view, and my photo is rather fuzzy, but you can just make out the bulky, rounded shape of the owl.

GH Owl on Nest - at 72 dpi

I wondered how the owl and the eagle might interact as nesting neighbors.  Great Horned Owls have been known to commandeer eagle nests and drive off the eagles – apparently the only native bird capable of doing so.

Buds and Bubos

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

HABITAT Wildlife Sanctuary, Belmont on February 29, 2016

Robin and Sumac at Habitat - at 72 dpi

Robin and Sumac at Highland Farm Meadow

An ice storm in recent days has left the ground littered with broken branches, some piled along the sanctuary trails for removal.  I realize it’s a good opportunity to get a close looks at twigs and terminal buds that are normally high overhead.  A big sassafras as the edge of the meadow has lost a number of good sized branches, so I comb over them, looking for particularly interesting twigs and buds.  The thick, curved twigs are a rich mustard color and the large buds are suffused with pink and olive.   I break off a few twigs, and put them in my pack.

Sassafras Twigs 2 at HABITAT - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study of Sassafras Twigs, watercolor and pencil, 9″ x 5″

I had learned from staff members that great horned owls have been frequenting a grove of pines near the intersection of the Fern and Red Maple Trails, and may have a nest there.  I find the grove of big pines (which looks like a perfect place for a great horned nest) and give the area a thorough search.  I find one suspicious clump of twigs and branches halfway up a pine trunk, but it doesn’t look big enough to support a Great Horned Owl nest.  Perhaps it’s the beginning of a nest?   I set up my pack chair at a distance, then settle down and take out my sassafras twigs and sketchbook.  I’m hoping I might see or hear an owl while I’m quietly drawing and painting the twigs.  Great Horned Owls are the earliest native birds to nest in our region, laying eggs as early as mid-February, and incubating them through late February and into March.  If a pair is in the area, they should be well into the nesting cycle.

Great Horned Owl on Nest - at 72 dpi (cropped)

Great Horned Owl on Nest, Northboro, MA, April 2011

I have had only one opportunity to observe and draw a Great Horned Owl on a nest, and that was in Northboro, Massachusetts in April 2011.  That nest was also in a big white pine, and if I positioned my scope just right, I got clear views of the adult on the nest.  I was hoping for a similar opportunity at Habitat, but it was not to be.  I saw or heard no owls today.  I include my painting of the Northboro owl here, since a nest in the pine grove at Habitat would have looked very similar.

Songbirds at Weeks Pond - at 72 dpi

Songbird Studies at Weeks Pond, pencil, 5″ x 9.5″

After lunch, I explore more of the sanctuary.  On the trail to Weeks Pond, a brown creeper calls from the trees along Atkins Brook.  At the pond itself, I notice several signs of spring.  A single red-winged blackbird calls from the treetops, and in a wet swale next to the pond, skunk cabbage is poking up.  Its rich colors and patterns stand out in the winter landscape, a portent of things to come…

Skunk Cabbage at Habitat - at 72 dpi

Skunk Cabbage

Piles of red maple branches around the pond again allow me close looks at the terminal buds, and I collect more twigs.  Back in my studio, I put them in a vase of water, and a week later the buds started to open, so I painted them from life at my drawing board.

Red Maple Twigs - at 72 dpi

Red Maple Twigs, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9.5″ x 13.5″

Are there more red-tailed hawks around these days, or is it just me?   I’m watching a hairy woodpecker at Weeks Meadow when a big bird swoops in to land in the lower branches of a nearby tree.  It’s a handsome young red-tail, attracted to a noisy mob of house sparrows in the thicket below.   The bird is MUCH closer than the one I observed at Pierpont Meadow (see Beavertowns, Feb 1, 2016).  With my scope, I can see every detail of its plumage and anatomy with startling clarity.  On a raptor, the two points of high drama are the face and the feet.  For a while this bird’s head is obscured by a branch, but I’ve got great views of its feet and lower body, and decide to start a drawing.

Young Redtail Feet Study - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook page, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Later, the bird shifts and I have a view of the whole bird – that’s when I start this watercolor on a separate sheet.

Young Redtail at HABITAT - at 72 dpi

Young Redtail, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 12″ x 9″

Young birds, being rather clueless, can be excellent models.  I’m in full view of the bird, and though I move myself and the scope several times to get better views, the bird seemed totally oblivious to my presence!