Tag Archives: Natural History

Spring Has Sprung: Notes from the Field

Over the past few weeks, the sanctuary has been bursting with life as spring is “just around the corner”, even though we woke up to snow on April 5th. Join us at 8am on our weekly Friday bird and natural history hikes to see all the amazing creatures, plants, and views on the Morse Wildlife Sanctuary. Even better is the terrific company and being out in nature. 

Snoozing Raccoon

While I was investigating life in a vernal pool, some peaceful fur way way up in the crook of a tree caught my attention. A raccoon was snoozing the day away. Check out the ears on one side and the foot on the other.

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Mystery Tree Damage

Near one of our smaller vernal pools, the damage to this tree puzzled me. Based on it’s teeth marks, it is clearly a rodent, but the damage is one inch deep at some points and is about 8 ft long. I’m are not sure what caused this damage, but could it be a porcupine? Let us know what you think.

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Deer Traffic Jam

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Birding Highlights

Here are a few of the birds that have been seen over the past few weeks.

  • Red-tailed hawk hunting pine voles

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  • Brown creepers
  • Eastern phoebes
  • Wood ducks
  • Hermit thrush
  • Hairy and downy woodpeckers
  • Flocks of dark-eyed juncos, chickadees, tufted titmouse, and American robins
  • Pair of nesting red-shouldered hawks
  • Red-bellied woodpeckers
  • Calling red-winged blackbirds in the red maple swamp (birding hotspot)
  • American woodcock
  • Our digital photography homeschool class observed a cooper’s hawk preying on a mallard.
  • Check out our bird blind by the gallery, our feeders are always stocked and there are usually lots of birds to photograph

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Flora Highlights

Stunk cabbage is one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. It is found near soggy or submerged soil and is usually pollinated by flies. This was taken near the Pequit Brook.

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Rattlesnake Plantain

Check out this amazing little orchid hiding under the pine needles. These pictures are from early March.

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One of the tiniest and earliest spring flowers

We have had over 10,000 of these flowers blooming in bare patches of soil and on our lawns. They are so easy to miss until you start looking for them.

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Vernal Pools in the Wildlife Sanctuary

In early March, when the weather cracked 60 degrees, the spring peepers and wood frogs started calling. Wood frogs sound more like ducks than frogs. Check out these two videos to hear them.

Wood frogs are abundant at our wildlife sanctuary and are always one of the first frogs to emerge from hibernation. This year, wood frogs were first observed on March 10 congregrating in large numbers at our main vernal pool and where I counted well over 60 wood frogs on March 11. Listen to their chorus from March 11, 2016.

Spotted salamanders have also been laying eggs and fairy shrimp are abundant.

Fairy Shrimp. Photo Credit: B. L. Dicks and D. J. Patterson

On April 3rd, Owen Cunningham and a volunteer spent the afternoon searching for life in our pools and were able to identify wood frog and spotted salamander eggs. This data will be submitted to the state and we expect that our vernal pools will be certified by the Mass Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

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Blue Skies of Autumn, Part 2

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

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick on October 15, 2015

After finishing my landscape painting (see Blue Skies of Autumn, part 1), I pack up and head further down the trail. Yellow-rumped warblers are moving thru the Old Orchard in good numbers, and I fill a page with them in my sketchbook. Though they are often the most common warbler in Spring and Fall migration, I never get tired of watching and drawing these birds!

Yellow-rump Studies, Broadmoor - at 72 dpi

Yellow-rump Studies, sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

Palm warblers are moving through also, in slightly smaller numbers. They have a special fondness for ripe goldenrod, and I find more than a half dozen of them foraging in the unmowed field near South Street. I get good, close looks at these birds with my scope, and have a chance to study the variations in plumage.

Palm Warbler studies, Broadmoor - at 72 dpi

Palm Warbler studies, sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

Most birds have rich mustard-yellow overtones, but a few are quite plain and gray, and some are bright below but dull above. All of them, however, dip their tails nervously, and when flushed, flash bright white spots in the outer tail feathers.

Palm Warbler in Goldenrod - at 72 dpi

Palm Warbler in Goldenrod, watercolor on Arches rough, 10.25″ x 14.25″

I get so involved with the palm warblers that I lose track of time. I had hoped to get out to see the Charles River on the Charles River Loop Trail, but I get only halfway there before I realize I’m seriously running out of light, and decide I don’t want to find myself on an unfamiliar trail in the dark.

Fall Reflections at Broadmoor - at 72 dpi
On the way back across the marsh boardwalk, the autumn colors, made even more intense by the setting sun, are reflected in the water and make a nice contrast with the cool blue-green of the lily pads. So much to paint, so little time…
That evening, I enjoy a fine presentation at Broadmoor by Nils Navarro, who has recently written and illustrated a handsome book on Cuban birds. It’s always a treat to meet and share thoughts with a fellow bird painter!

Blue Skies of Autumn, Part 1

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

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick on October 15, 2015

Yellow-rump Studies, Broadmoor - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page of yellow-rumped warblers, 9″ x 12″

Autumn is coming on strong and touches of fall color are everywhere on this large reserve in Natick. The shortening of the days is ushering in the fall migrants: white-throated and swamp sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, palm and yellow-rumped warblers. Yellow-rumps are everywhere today, announcing their presence with soft “check” notes. I watch them forage high and low in oaks, maples, birches, cedars, and even poking around in the cattails near the All-persons Trail.

Fall Color at Broadmoor - at 72 dpi

along the boardwalk at Broadmoor…

Along the boardwalk, I meet Director Elissa Landre and she suggests the Old Orchard Trail as a good place for my artistic explorations. And, it proves to be a good tip. The open fields here are not only scenic, but attractive to a variety of birds. I set up my painting kit as overhead a Cooper’s hawk makes lazy circles in a deep blue sky before peeling off to the South.
A nearly unbroken swath of little bluestem grass carpets the gentle knoll of the Old Orchard, suffusing the landscape with a strange orange-pink hue. A rounded rock outcrop emerges from the grass, and scattered pines and cedars lend some dark accents. A few bright maples flare with crimson amid the softer greens of the field edge. The sky is so blue you could reach out and touch it. The scene is begging to be painted, so I get to work.

Old Orchard at Broadmoor - SKETCH - at 72 dpi

preliminary sketch at the Old Orchard, 4″ x 6″

Before starting on my sheet of watercolor paper, I do a simple pencil drawing in my sketchbook. This helps me figure out how to “crop” the landscape spread out before me, and to organize the elements into a satisfying composition. I almost always make changes to a scene that I’m painting – who says you can’t improve on Nature?

Old Orchard at Broadmoor 3 - at 72 dpi

The Old Orchard at Broadmoor, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 13″

Once I get into the painting, I don’t hold back on the colors. I make the sky extra blue and the little bluestem a strong orange-pink. However, I’m also careful to provide neutral colors where the eye gets a rest – the muted greens of the tree line, and the cool grays of the boulder out-crop.
As luck would have it, Elissa comes by with Nils Navarro and Lisa Sorenson, and Lisa offers to take some photos of me at work. Thanks, Lisa!

Artist Barry Van Dusen at Broadmoor - cropped and retouched 3

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:

A Nest of Possibilities

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

Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary, Falmouth  on May 26, 2015 (part 1)

Drawing birds, as opposed to “birding” or photographing them, entails observing and studying individual birds for relatively long periods of time. Perhaps because of this, I often find bird nests during my fieldwork. I’ll notice that a bird I’m observing is hanging around one particular spot, or I’ll see a bird carrying nest material – both clues that a nest is close-by. Today, at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary, I found the nests of a yellow warbler, a northern oriole and an orchard oriole!

Yellow Warbler studies, Ashumet - at 72 dpi

sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″

The nest of the yellow warbler is well hidden in a honeysuckle vine growing up a locust tree. The nest is about 25 feet up, and I can focus on it with my telescope by backing up along the trail.

Yellow Warbler and Nest, Ashumet - at 72 dpi

Yellow Warbler at Nest, watercolor on Fabriano soft-press, 9″ x11″

The female is never far away, and returns frequently but I never see her actually enter the nest. She may not have eggs yet, or may not want to enter the nest with me nearby. I draw as quickly as possible, and then move away.

A Taste of the North

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

Lake Wampanoag Wildlife Sanctuary, Gardner, MA on May 4th, 2015

Yellow-rump and Red Maple Flowers, Wampanoag - at 72 dpi

Yellow-rumped Warbler and Red Maple Flowers, watercolor on Arches 140 lb cold-press paper, 10.25″ x 14″

If I had to pick out two iconic species to represent early spring in Central Massachusetts, I’d be hard pressed to do better than yellow-rumped warbler and red maple.  Today the “butterbutts” were murmuring all along the trails at Lake Wampanoag Wildlife Sanctuary in Gardner.  The red maple was in full bloom, adding gauzy golden and carmine washes to the landscape.  I’m told that the smaller deep red flowers are male, and the larger orangey or yellowish blossoms are females, with both sexes often occurring on the same tree.

Yellow-rump Study, Wampanoag - at 72 dpi

Myrtle Warbler Study, watercolor and pencil in Stillman & Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″

The woods along the Moosewood Trail at Wampanoag have a distinctly Northern feel, with patches of balsam fir and spruce mixed in with the red maples and hemlocks. It’s an unusual forest community for Central Massachusetts. I paused along the trail to draw a red spruce trunk heavily worked over by a pileated woodpecker.

Spruce w Pileated WP Holes, Lake Wampanoag - at 72 dpi

The square-sided excavations were recently made, with fresh wood chips littering the forest floor beneath the tree.  Black-throated Green warblers buzzed overhead, and the staccato song of a Northern Waterthrush drifted up from the pond shore.

 

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:

Sweet Spot at Brown Hill

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

Wachusett  Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Princeton on April 28, 2015

There’s a sweet spot in the Hickory/Hornbeam woods on the back side of Brown Hill at Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary.  Joe Choiniere tipped me off to this rocky slope where Hepatica, Dutchman’s Breeches, Early Saxifrage and Small-flowered Crowfoot can be found. Today, with the help of some marker flags placed by Joe, I found the lovely Hepaticas in full bloom.

Hepatica, Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Hepaticas at Brown Hill, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 12.25″

The blossoms varied from white to pale pink to a lovely sky blue. I set up my field kit and made a painting showing the three color variations. You can see a few trout lily leaves in the upper left of my watercolor – these handsome, mottled leaves were poking up all over the forest floor.

Set-up at Hepatica, Wachusett Meadow - 72 dpi

In this photo of my painting set-up you can just see a few of the Hepatica blossoms in the upper left corner.  They are truly small flowers.

While I worked, yellow-rumped warblers murmured from the trees overhead and a sapsucker sounded off periodically. By about 4:30 pm the blossoms started to nod and close up for the night. I did another drawing of the nodding blossoms, and added color back in the studio.

Hepatica (Blue), Wachusett Meadow - at 72 dpi

Nodding Hepaticas, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.5″ x 8″

 

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″