Tag Archives: monarch butterfly

FINISH LINE, part 3: happy ending!

August 24, 2017

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

It’s my final day on Martha’s Vineyard, so I get up early, say my good-byes to the Murtha’s, and head out for another day’s work.   Hoping to get better (i.e. closer) looks at some of the shorebirds I had seen at Felix Neck, I drive to the Joseph Silvia State Beach, which lies just across Sengekontacket Pond from the sanctuary.   This is a popular tourist spot, but I arrive early and find a place to park near “The Jaws Bridge”.

The JAWS Bridge

This bridge connects the north and south sections of the State Beach, and spans a breach that allows the ocean waters to flow in and out of Sengekontacket Pond.  Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary is just across the pond, and Sarson’s Island is closer from this vantage.

I scope the Island and see the same enticing selection of birds I had seen from Felix Neck, but they are still abit too far away for meaningful drawing.  Luckily, there are also shorebirds on the near shore, and with binoculars I pick out oystercatchers, turnstones, dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, yellowlegs, willets and one stilt sandpiper.

Ruddy Turnstone

To get closer to these birds, I hike north up the shore of the Pond.   It’s nearly high tide, and the sun is at my back – favorable conditions for field sketching!

The oystercatchers are wary.  Although I got a close look at the crippled bird two days ago at Felix Neck, these healthy birds are keeping me at a distance.   (Later I learned that wariness is a widely recognized attribute of this species.)  Realizing that I’m as close as they will allow, I set up my scope and work from afar – make some smaller drawings in my sketchbook.

The elusiveness of the oystercatchers, while frustrating, will not prevent me from painting them later.  My time observing these birds has left me with some strong impression and firm mental images that I can carry with me back to the studio…

Here’s a large watercolor painted in my studio after my return from the island.

American Oystercatchers on Martha’s Vineyard, watercolor on Arches coldpress, 14″ x 22.5″

Oystercatchers really are ODD birds, and I wanted to capture their strangeness in this portrait.  The strong legs and feet of these birds are especially expressive – there’s nothing delicate about them.   In color and in form, they remind me of bubble gum fresh out of the wrapper!

And here’s another odd feature of these birds:  when I have had opportunities to observe them at close range, I have noticed that some of the birds have a lop-sided or irregularly shaped pupil.

detail showing eye fleck

Checking on-line, I found references to “eye flecks” in American Oystercatchers, caused by areas of black pigmentation on the bird’s iris.  Even more interesting was a recent study that indicates a link between eye flecks and sex.  Birds with eye flecks are usually females!   Male and female oystercatchers are difficult to tell apart, and this feature may be useful for determining the sex of these birds in the field.  Presumably, my painting shows a male on the left, and a female – with an eye fleck – on the right.

Thankfully, some of the other shorebirds at the state beach are more cooperative for field sketching.  A turnstone and a willet allow close approach, but more alluring to me is a small, tight flock of sanderlings, settling down to wait out the high tide at the water’s edge.   The seven or eight birds are all adults, in various stages of molt.

Sketchbook studies of sanderlings, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

Some have nearly completed their transition into winter plumage and their upperparts sport the overall pearly gray tones of winter.   Others show dark patches of summer plumage mixed in with the newly emerging winter feathers, giving them a rather motley, unkempt aspect.  On the heads and breasts of some birds are patches of rust– also a remnant of their breeding dress.   In winter, sanderlings are the palest of our shorebirds, and some of these birds have gleaming white heads and snowy white breasts and undersides.  I revel in these variations and get to work recording them in my sketchbook.

Sketchbook studies of sanderlings, pencil, 9″ x 12″

This sketchbook page of the sanderling flock is deceiving – the birds look serene and settled.  In fact, the birds were continually in motion – standing up or sitting down, or shifting positions in an intricate game of musical chairs. Drawing the group required a good deal of patience and improvisation, the arrangement owing more to serendipity than to calculation and planning.

Late Summer Sanderlings, watercolor on Winsor & Newton coldpress, 12.5″ x 22.5″

My studio painting of the scene is more deliberately conceived and composed, but you can easily pick out all the poses I had recorded in my sketchbook.   I’ve tried to show the variations in plumage I observed at the State Beach.  Can you find the two birds that have molted completely into their winter plumage?

detail

This is what I would characterize as a “high key” painting.  Most of the painting is composed of values in the lighter end of the value range, with just a sprinkling of the darkest values.  I wanted to convey the light-filled environment of a sandy beach in summer.   The darkest accents are the bird’s bills and eyes, which form a repeated rhythm across the middle of the composition.

With such good models to work with at the State Beach, the morning passes quickly and it’s soon time for lunch, which I enjoy on the breakwater next to the Jaws Bridge – my feet dangling in the clear ocean water while jellyfish float by on the tide.

Driving through Tisbury on my way to the ferry, I stop to use a restroom at the town library.  As I walk through the butterfly gardens around the front entrance, I am distracted by a flurry of motion.

Sketchbook page of Monarchs, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

On one liatris plant, I count eight Monarch butterflies – a phenomenal concentration of these handsome migratory insects, whose populations have been down in recent years.  There’s just time enough to do some sketches before I leave to catch the ferry at Vineyard Haven.

From the upper deck of the Woods Hole boat, I watch Martha’s Vineyard receding on the horizon.  I sit back and reflect on my travels over the past two and a half years, visiting all 57 of Mass Audubon’s public properties.  In that time, I’ve accumulated a wealth of experiences and impressions – some recorded in my watercolors, sketchbooks and blog journal, and others preserved as indelible memories.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following my travels around Massachusetts, and to YOU READERS – my sincere THANKS for your attention and words of encouragement!  With the completion of my sanctuary visits, the purpose of this blog has been realized, and my postings will become less regular and less frequent in the months ahead, but I will, from time to time, post updates when they relate to the residency project.  PLEASE STAY TUNED!

With the project completed, I will NOT stop visiting Mass Audubon sanctuaries – there is still so much more to observe and enjoy!   Maybe I’ll meet you on a sanctuary trail someday soon…

Inquiry, Intentional Curiosity, Discovery, and Art!

Homeschool classes at MABA

In an environment rich with nature, science, and art, our homeschool classes are full of excitement, laughter, focused awareness, and curiosity. This blog post highlights some of the activities and programs we have done over the past few months at MABA. To learn or sign up for our spring courses, click here.

Animal Behavior Homeschool Class: Monarch Butterfly Natural History and Flight
The Biomechanics of Gliding

In one of our Animal Behavior sessions, we focused on the Monarch Butterfly migration to learn about animal migration and the biomechanics of flight.

Monarch butterflies via ASU.edu

Students created model monarch butterflies and conducted a test flight experiment in our museum.IMG_5032

To learn more about the incredible monarch butterfly migration, check out this fantastic BBC documentary

Monarch Butterfly amazing migration – BBC Life HD

Want to do more at home? Journey North is a great resource and citizen science project that tracks the migration of Monarch Butterflies and lets you contribute data that improves our understanding and conservation of these fantastic butterflies. We have tracked Monarch egg laying on the wildlife sanctuary and submitted data to journey north. Here is a publication that has used citizen science data from journey north to help us better understand migration and monarch population dynamics.

Learning about bird behavior and biology by making clay birds

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Learning about animal behavior and ethology by studying betta fish behavior & responding with art

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Field Biology, Pollinator Ecology, and Art Homeschool Class:
Exploring watercolor techniques and color theory

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To reinforce what we have learned about the biology and ecology of native bees and butterflies, each student cut out bee and butterfly silhouettes. They used these silhouettes to learned color theory and watercolor techniques, including wet on wet and wet on dry, by creating bold, fun, and colorful pollinators that they took home.

We have also learned about nesting habitats of native bees and created mason bee houses.

masonbeehouse

Studied the phenology of spring flowering plants through focused awareness and intentional curiosity

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Creating pollinators out of paper marbled with dye using the art of suminigashi

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Digital Photography Homeschool Class
Looking closely and creating nature’s treasure maps

In our digital photography class, students built a digital camera, learned about the technology in the camera, and the art of photography. We focused on composition, such as the rule of thirds, looking for geometry in nature, and taught students to be keen observers of the natural world by looking closely. We explored our expansive wildlife sanctuary and created nature treasure maps, thanks to the incredible naturalist and artist Jack (John Muir) Laws for this idea, both with sketchbooks and through photography.

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Taking opportunities when they arise: A coopers hawk had a mallard for lunch

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Exploring the technology behind the camera lens

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Exploring the end of winter and start of spring behind the camera lens

DigitalPhotography

Monarch Butterflies at the Museum of American Bird Art

Monarch butterflies arrived in the middle of July and taken up residence in the meadow at the Museum of American Bird Art. So far, I’ve counted 4 adults in the meadow at once, with one or two butterflies present on most days. They have been laying lots of eggs on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and these have been hatching over the past two weeks. I’ve counted around 20 or so eggs and found 6 caterpillars munching away on milkweed. Monarch caterpillars only eat plants in the milkweed genus (Asclepias) and common milkweed is by far their most important host plant. Approximately 90% of migrating North American monarchs eat common milkweed as caterpillars. I will post updates on monarchs periodically, but wanted to share photos and time lapse videos about the monarchs at MABA. Further, some background information about their migration and conservation can be found at end of this post, including two tremendous Mass Audubon resources.

Monarch Butterfly Eggs

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Look at the beautiful sculpturing that is present on this teeny tiny egg. Once the caterpillars hatch, voracious consumption of milkweed ensures. Check out these time lapse videos.

Adult Monarchs Nectaring At Joe Pye Weed

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Current Status of the North American Monarch Butterfly

In North America, monarch butterfly populations have dramatically declined over the past 20 years, with the population hitting their lowest total ever in the winter 2013-2014. However, Chip Taylor, professor at University of Kansas and founder of Monarch Watch, is guardedly optimistic about this years monarch population.

Where do Monarch Butterflies Spend the Winter?

The majority of North American Monarch Butterflies spend the winter in the pine and oyamel trees located at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve on the border of Michoacan and Mexico State, Mexico. Monarch butterflies in the Pacific Northwest typically overwinter in trees along the California Coast and there is some evidence that Monarch Butterflies in the Northeastern United States also overwinter in Cuba in addition to Mexico. Check out this fantastic video by MonarchWatch.org of the forests in Mexico where monarchs will spend the winter before migrating back North.

 

Citizen Science Opportunities:
Check out this map of 2015 monarch butterfly and caterpillar sightings. Here are MABA, I report our sightings to this organization to be part of this national citizen science project. Email me, skent@massaudubon.org, if you’d like more information.

Resources to learn more about Monarch Butterflies:

Ready to be inspired and amazed? The Caterpillar Lab is coming to the Wild at Art Summer Camp

The Caterpillar Lab is Coming!!!

We have exciting news for this summer’s Wild at Art Camp…The award winning, innovative, engaging, and awe-inspiring Caterpillar Lab is coming to camp during the Natural Connections 1  (July 6 to 10) and Taking Flight (July 13 to 17) week.

By incorporating a visit from the Caterpillar Lab with the Wild at Art Camp experience, campers will have a strong foundation to experience powerful moments of discovery throughout the year in their own backyards and daily life. In addition, this experience should infuse them with the confidence to create and express themselves more confidently through art. Only a few spots remain, so sign up today so that camper in your life won’t miss out!

During each week, the Caterpillar Lab will allow campers to get up close and personal with many different species of native caterpillars and learn about their adaptations.

Mother and daughter at a live caterpillar show seeing a cecropia moth caterpillar for the first time.  © Samuel Jaffe

Mother and daughter at a live caterpillar show seeing a cecropia moth caterpillar for the first time. © Samuel Jaffe.

 

Campers will:

  • Learn more about many fascinating species of native caterpillars
  • Discover native caterpillars at the wildlife sanctuary and at home
  • Create art inspired by these amazing natural creatures
  • Become excited about discovering their natural world and sharing it with others

 

Week 1: Natural Connections (July 6 to July 10)

For the first week, campers will learn about how these caterpillars interact with plants, like how the monarch caterpillar is able to consume milkweed and turn the toxins in the milkweed into a defensive weapon.

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Week 2: Taking Flight (July 13 to July 17)

For the second week, campers will learn how caterpillars are adapted against birds. Because, unless they are “told otherwise”, birds view caterpillars as big, juicy snacks. For example, the caterpillars of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly look likes snakes, which is an adaptation that scares birds and saves the caterpillar from being lunch. We have lots of spicebush in the wildlife sanctuary and are optimistic that campers will be able to find these caterpillars on the property.

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar. Creative Commons License.

Do you know a creative kid or a nature detective…then open up a world of exploration, imagination, and investigation this summer by signing them up for the Wild at Art Summer Camp in Canton.