Tag Archives: joppa flats

Just Offshore

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

Kettle Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Manchester-by-the-Sea on November 4, 2015

Snow Buntings (detail) - at 72 dpi

I dismantled my exhibition at Joppa Flats this morning, and afterwards decided to head south across Cape Ann to visit Kettle Island – one of Mass Audubon’s newer properties.
Kettle Island is a small, uninhabited island just offshore of the attractive and poetically named town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. The island can be approached by boat, but there are no trails, and you cannot land on the island. However, the adjacent shoreline is owned by the Trustees of Reservations, and offers close looks at the island from the mainland.

Kettle Island - at 72 dpi

Kettle Island, as seen from the Coolidge Reservation

I knew there would be none of the breeding bird specialties of Kettle Island present at this time of year, but I wanted to see the island anyway. In summer its breeding colony includes two species of egrets, little blue herons, black-crowned night herons, glossy ibis and sometimes even tri-colored herons.
From the Ocean Lawn of the Coolidge Reservation, Kettle Island is the most conspicuous feature offshore. With my scope I can pan across the expanse of the island, observing the gulls, cormorants and ducks on and around it. I walk across the broad expanse of the lawn, observing and photographing the island from several vantages, and I’m about to start a drawing of the island, when a flurry of birds erupts from the ground between myself and the ocean.

Snow Buntings - sketchbook page - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook studies of Snow Buntings, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

The little blizzard swirls and resettles even closer to me – a flock of about thirty-five snow buntings!
From my position, I’m looking west and into the glare of the afternoon sun, which is already low in the sky at mid-afternoon. The birds are strongly back-lit, making bold silhouettes and outlining their upper edges with glowing halos. In sketching the birds with the scope, I pretty much ignore this effect, being more intent on capturing the shapes and gestures. But later, I realized that this aspect could be the basis for an interesting painting. I’ve painted snow buntings before, but never in this kind of light. Nothing like a good challenge to get the juices flowing!
Back in the studio I re-work my sketches and organize them into a pleasing composition. In laying out the group of birds, I realize I can overlap or “stack” them one in front of the other and by so doing I can make the most of those glowing halos. I do some very simple color and tone experiments to help plan my painting strategy, and then start on a larger sheet of watercolor paper.

Snow Buntings STAGE 1 - at 72 dpi

Stage one: the shadow pattern in a neutral wash

First, I paint the shadow pattern in a neutral mid-tone with a strong violet cast.
These first washes on the bright white paper appear much darker than they will in the finished painting, so I anguish: are they dark enough? Or, have I over-compensated and made them too dark? These are the kinds of things that keep water-colorists awake at night!

Snow Buntings STAGE 2 - at 72 dpi

Stage two: adding the background tones and colors

The next washes establish the background tone. It needs to be light enough so that the bird’s silhouettes really stand out. I also try to leave many little bits of white paper showing, to the give the grasses some sparkle, as they, too, pick up glare from the sun.
With the background tone in place, the shadow shapes of the birds look much paler – in fact, it’s possible now to imagine them as predominantly WHITE birds (which snow buntings are!).

Snow Buntings (dark, cool version) - at 72 dpi

The finished painting: Snow Buntings, watercolor on Arches rough, 12.25″ x 16.25″

The final phase of the painting is pretty straight-forward. I simply add the local colors of the bird’s plumage (breast bands, wing-stripes, etc) right on top of the shadow silhouettes.

I hope you can see from this demonstration how much thought goes into the planning of a watercolor. As the British water-colorist Steve Hall once said: “A good watercolor is 90% preparation and 10% execution.”


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


Joppa Flats Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary, Newburyport on September 20, 2015

Shorebirds at the Boatramp, Joppa - at 72 dpi
If you’ve been following this blog, you may remember that I made a brief post about Joppa Flats back in Mid-May, but I knew I wanted to spend more time at this exciting location. Most Massachusetts birders would agree that Plum Island, in Newburyport, is the No. 1 birding destination in the Commonwealth.  Joppa Flats Education Center on Newburyport Harbor is nearly unique among Mass Audubon properties in having NO trail system. Instead, Joppa serves as an education center and visitor support facility for this premier birding location. All visitors to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and other hotspots on Plum Island pass right by, (and usually make a stop) at the Joppa center. For the purposes of my residency, therefore, I am considering any work I do on Plum Island and Newburyport Harbor, a part of my visit to Joppa.

Shorebird Studies at the Boatramp, Newburyport - at 72 dpi

Shorebird Studies at the Boatramp, sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

If you hit the tides right, the boatramp just down the shore from Joppa can be a good spot to watch shorebirds. The exposed flats in the harbor can teem with birds, and many come in close to forage along the edge of the marsh grass.

Dowitcher Flock - at 72 dpi

Dowitcher Flock, pencil and watercolor on Canson drawing paper, 8.5″ x 8.25″

Greater yellowlegs are abundant during my visit, as are short-billed dowitchers. Lesser yellowlegs are mixed in, along with some smaller peeps and plovers.   As the tide floods, the yellowlegs and dowitchers wade belly-deep in the strong current, leaving wakes behind them.

Greater Yellowlegs - at 72 dpi

Greater Yellowlegs, watercolor on Arches rough, 16.25″ x 12.25″

Perhaps the long stretch of warm, dry weather had something to do with the scarcity of birds out on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, today. Passerines were few and far between, although rarities like western tanager and Connecticut warbler were reportedly being seen by some lucky individuals. I DID encountered one modest wave of birds along the Marsh Loop Trial at Hellcat – two yellow warblers, a redstart and a magnolia warbler – duly noted in my sketchbook…

Fall Warblers at PRNWR - at 72 dpi

Fall Warblers at PRNWR, sketchbook page, 12″ x 8.25″

The Great, GREAT Marsh

Rough Meadows, Rowley on September 19, 2015

Back in August, I visited the Barnstable Great Marsh – the largest salt marsh on Cape Cod. At 3,000 acres, it’s an impressive wetland. But the largest contiguous salt marsh north of Long Island lies along the North Shore of Massachusetts. At 25,000 acres, this system, also known as “the Great Marsh”, sprawls from Gloucester thru Essex, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, and Newburyport before ending in Salisbury on the New Hampshire line. It’s a massive complex of marshes, barrier beaches, tidal rivers, estuaries and mudflats – much of it protected land owned by the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, the Trustees of Reservations, the Essex County Greenbelt and Mass Audubon.

Haying on Rough Meadows - at 72 dpi
Heading down Rte 1A from Newburyport this morning, I pass a haying operation on the upper reaches of the Great Marsh in Rowley. Men and tractors are piling bales into picturesque heaps, as the gathering dawn light creeps across the landscape.
I have nearly arrived at my destination: Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary in Rowley. When I asked Bill Gette, the director at Joppa Flats, about the “rough meadows” name, he explained that the early settlers called this area “rough meadow” to distinguish it from inland meadows with finer, softer grasses. The predominant grasses at Rough Meadows are the two spartinas – saltmarsh cordgrass and saltmarsh hay, growing in various parts of the marsh. These spartinas are much coarser than the grasses in inland meadows. The settlers DID use the spartinas for hay, however, and it is still prized by gardeners for mulch, since the seeds in the saltmarsh grasses will not germinate in garden situations. Thus, the haying operation in progress…

NEW ENGLAND ASTER - Tower Hill - Sept 2013 - at 72 dpi

New England Aster painted at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA, 2013

As I arrive at the parking area for Rough Meadows, a fresh Black Swallowtail butterfly drifts past, and I later see it nectaring on New England Aster. Indeed, mid-September is “aster season” in Massachusetts, and the trails at Rough Meadows are lined with a variety of species, ranging from the large, colorful New England aster to the tiny, delicate calico aster.

Calico Aster at Rough Meadows - at 72 dpi

Calico Aster

In central Massachusetts, where I live, mosquito season has passed, and days outdoors are thankfully bug-free by this time of year. NOT SO in the North Shore marshes! Whenever I stopped along the trails, I was plagued by the small dark saltmarsh mosquitos. I concluded that they must be attracted to movement, however, because once I settled down to paint in one spot, the mosquitos left me alone!

Set-up at Rough Meadows - at 72 dpi

painting in progress at Rough Meadows (rubber ducky mascot courtesy of Woodson Museum, Wausau, WI!)

Professor Chandler’s Long Walk traverses several wooded hills that rise like islands out of the surrounding marsh, and at various overlooks you can take in the sweep of the marsh and admire the variety of colors and textures. Patches of glasswort create bold swatches of crimson, and seaside goldenrod adds touches of buttery yellow.

Marsh Pickles or Glasswort - at 72 dpi

Glasswort or Marsh Pickles

Out at the end of Appy’s Way, I set-up my painting outfit and start a landscape looking back towards Rte 1A. My finished painting does indeed look like a “rough meadow”, don’t you think?

Rough Meadows, Rowley - at 72 dpi

Rough Meadows, watercolor on Arches rough, 9″ x 12.25″

Back at the parking area, I notice an interesting view of the marsh – looking down between the trees along the Kestrel Trail. In the foreground is a thick patch of Queen Anne’s lace, now gone to seed and forming those ball-like clusters atop each stalk. I make a quick pencil sketch to record the scene.

Rough Meadows from Patmos Road - at 72 dpi

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!