Tag Archives: Magnolia warbler

Of Valleys and Summits

September 29, 2016

Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox

AHHHH – the Berkshires in autumn: cold nights, crisp dawns, and warm afternoons!  The landscape is still predominantly summer-green, but the swamp maples are flush with color and the hills, too, are painted with strokes of carmine, orange, gold and violet.

At Pike’s Pond, I hear some harsh croaks and look up to see two ravens frolicking in the air currents over Lenox Mountain, while beyond them a parade of Turkey vultures drifts southward.  Nearby, a common yellowthroat engages me in a game of hide-and-seek from a stand of cattails.

Sketchbook studies of a common yellowthroat, pencil, 6″ x 5.5″

Yellowthroat in Cattails, watercolor on Fluid 100 cold-press, 12″ x 9″

I see many yellowthroats around the sanctuary today, but only one with the black mask of an adult male.

Yokun Brook

Along the Beaver Lodge Trail

I make a circuit of the Yokun Brook, Old Wood Road and Beaver Lodge Trails, and encounter a few waves of migrant warblers, among them a magnolia and palm warbler.  Their fall plumages are a ghostly version of their springtime finery.  Compare the male magnolia warbler I painted last May at Marblehead Neck with this non-breeding male at Pleasant Valley.

Magnolia Warbler in fall plumage at Pleasant Valley, watercolor, 8.5″ x 12″

Magnolia Warbler in spring plumage at Marblehead Neck

I knew that the Trail of the Ledges would be steep and challenging (the trail map instructs NOT to attempt DESCENDING this trail!), so I leave my scope and binoculars in the car, carrying only my pack-stool loaded with art supplies, a drink and some snacks.  The lower portion of the trail is steepest, with hand-over-hand climbing in many spots – more like crawling than hiking!

Trail of the Ledges

As I climb, the plant communities reflect the change in elevation.  I pass through dark stands of hemlock and copses of hobblebush.


Down among the rocks at my feet are clumps of common polypody, stunted by the thin, nutrient poor soils.  I’m fascinated by these miniature ferns – most fronds only about an inch wide.  In normal situations, the polypodys would tower over the partridgeberry, but here they are in pleasing scale.

Polypody and Partridgeberry, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 11.75″

There are two scenic overlooks on the way up the Ledges Trail.  The first is a narrow window through the trees looking south.  The second is more open; with a view east back towards the Sanctuary.  I decide to set up and paint this view.

View East from Lenox Mountain, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10″ x 13.25″

The Sanctuary is on the slopes below me, wrapped around the base of the mountain, so you cannot see it from this high viewpoint.  What you DO see is the town of Lenox spread out below, and beyond that the hills that roll eastward into the Pioneer Valley.

The view from the summit of Lenox Mountain is more dramatic, and well worth the extra hike.  This view is to the north and west – Greylock to the north and the Taconic Range in the west.

View West from Lenox Mountain summit

The eastern side of Lenox Mountain falls into afternoon shadow early at this date, and I have to watch my footing carefully as I descend the Overbrook Trail.  The hemlock gorge is especially dark and gloomy, but the footing becomes easy again as the trail flattens out at the base of the mountain.

Sketchbook studies of a winter wren, pencil, 10″ x 6″

On the Bluebird Trail, a fleeting brown blur darts under the boardwalk as I approach.  I pause and make some soft squeaks and “pishes” – enough to coax a winter wren out into the open.   It makes some quiet notes that remind me of a song sparrow, and hops around some decaying birch logs on the forest floor.  I make some sketches – noting that impossibly short (and jauntily cocked) tail.  What a charming imp!

Winter Wren at Pleasant Valley, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″



Peak Migration

May 19, 2016

Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Marblehead

Magnolia Warbler - at 72 dpi

Magnolia Warbler, male, watercolor on Fluid 100 cold-press, 7″ x 10″

In New England, May is the busiest month for Spring songbird migration, and most birders agree that the 2nd and 3rd weeks of May are prime time.   This is when the greatest numbers and variety of migrating passerines move through Massachusetts.

Two Mass Audubon properties are of particular note at this time of year.  Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and Nahant Thicket Wildlife Sanctuary are well known “migrant traps” – small plots of woodland on heavily developed peninsulas surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.

As with most types of birding, hitting a place like this on just the right day is largely a matter of luck, but visiting during the prime weeks aforementioned gives one a pretty good chance of having a good day.  The days I visited did not coincide with any spectacular “fall-outs”, but neither did they disappoint.  I saw 16 species of warblers in the course of my two visits, plus a smattering of vireos, thrushes, tanagers, orioles and gnatcatchers.

Traveling to these heavily developed areas from other parts of the state, one must anticipate traffic – HEAVY traffic at certain times of the day.   I realized I would need to:  a.) start out pre-dawn and try to arrive at the destination before the morning traffic rush begins or b.) travel later in the morning when rush hour is tapering off.  I chose the second option for Marblehead Neck, and the first for Nahant Thicket. 

Arriving at the Marblehead Neck parking area at 10:15am, I claimed the last parking spot.  It had been a busy morning, and some birders were just returning to their cars.  They had the usual report, which was basically: “You should have been here yesterday.”  However, I could hear a Blackpoll Warbler, a Magnolia Warbler and a Black-throated Green from the parking lot, so how bad could it be?

Wood Anemones, Marblehead Neck - at 72 dpi

Wood Anemones

Wood Anemones are in full bloom along the Warbler Trail, and as I near the small pond at the end of the Vireo Loop, I hear the “burt-burt” calls of a Northern Rough-winged Swallow.  A pair is using a snag above the pond – periodically perching and preening between bouts of aerial foraging.  I seldom see Rough-wings perched, so take the time to make a quick sketch, noting that the wingtips are often held below the tail.

Rough-winged Swallow sketch - at 72 dpi

While a brilliant tanager, grosbeak or oriole can steal the show momentarily, it’s the wood warblers that are the star attraction here.  On the way to Audubon Pond I begin to get a sense for which warbler species are most abundant today.  Northern Parulas and Magnolia Warblers are everywhere, and Black-and-whites and Redstarts are nearly as common.

Redstart Studies - at 72 dpi

Redstart Studies, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10″ x 13″

Bay-breasted Pair - sketch - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study, pencil, 5″ x 5″

At the pond, I spy a handsome male Bay-breasted Warbler foraging in a flowering oak, and a short time later spot the female.  The pair keeps in close proximity to one another, and at one point I have both of them in my binocular field at once, perched only inches apart.  I refine my sketches later to make careful studies of both the male and female.

Bay-breasted Warbler, female - at 72 dpi

Female Bay-breasted Warbler, watercolor in Stillman and Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

Bay-breasted Warbler, male - at 72 dpi

Male Bay-breasted Warbler, watercolor in Stillman and Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

With so many birds to sketch and all of them moving about, I content myself with pencil studies, observing with binoculars.  It’s a challenging way to draw, and demands all the visual memory I can muster.   With species I haven’t drawn recently, I have to re-learn the field marks – struggling to get all those stripes, spots and bars in just the right places.

Blackbunian female - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study, 3.5″ x 5″

A female Blackburnian Warbler is a nice surprise on the Warbler Trail.  No male “fire-throat” today, but the female’s throat has a lovely bright apricot color.

Soloman Seal at Marblehead Neck - at 72 dpi

Up ‘til now, the morning has been gray and overcast, but at 2 pm the sun breaks out and the day warms quickly.  Birdsong tapers off and the action slows.   On my way back to the parking area, I give my “warbler’s neck” a rest, and admire a patch of Solomon ’s Seal that forms an attractive pattern on the forest floor.


Blooming slippers, climbing fishers, swooping swallows, and more

Natural History Notes for May & June

Although we are tucked right into the heart of suburban Canton, amazing natural history moments, capable of inspiring awe and wonder, pop up everyday on our wildlife sanctuary. The sanctuary has been bursting with life and activity over the past two month and here are a few of the highlights.

First ever sighting of a fisher (Martes pennanti)

During our spring Ecology and Art homeschool class, our students were lucky enough to witness three fishers sauntering through the forest and then bounding up several trees. It was a spectacular sighting.

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A wave of migrating birds

This spring Owen Cunningham, our property manager, and Sean Kent started a series of Friday morning natural history hikes that coincided with a fantastic wave of migrants, including many warblers.

Magnolia Warbler

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo


Wilson’s Warbler

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Birds have been busy building nests and caring for their fledglings

We have several pairs of nesting orioles, including one pair that has nested in the trees behind our bird blind, and their babies have recently fledged. During the last week of June, the Mulberry tree by our offices has produced copious amounts of ripe fruits that have been fattening up many species of birds on the sanctuary.

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Nesting Tree Swallows

This spring we have been lucky to host several pairs of nesting tree swallows. It’s been marvelous to witness the tree swallows raise their young, defend their nests against house wren intrusion, and grace the meadow with their majestic flight.

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Pink Lady’s Slipper

Every spring, starting in the middle of May and extending to early June, pink lady’s slippers, a majestic orchid, that thrives in acidic soils of our pine forest, emerge and bloom throughout the sanctuary.

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Hunting Hawks

The populations of chipmunks, red squirrels, and lots of other little critters have exploded thanks to a super abundant crop of acorns this past fall.


Red-tailed Hawk

Flowering plants in our meadow, bird garden,
and new native pollinator garden

Pollinators, including many native bees, have been taking advantage of all the species of flowering plants that have been blooming on our sanctuary. False indigo (Baptista australis) bloomed in early June and had many species of butterflies, bumblebees, leaf cutting bees, and mining bees collecting pollen and nectar from the flowers. Check out two videos of a bumblebee collecting pollen and nectar from a few flowers.


False indigo from the bird garden at the Museum of American Bird Art


Skipper gathering nectar from a False Indigo flower

Skipper gathering nectar from a False Indigo flower


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″