Catching its breath in between catching gnats this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher catches a few rays from the sun. Migrants are returning to Massachusetts. This Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was photographed in Easton on April 6, 2020.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers spend most of their time in broadleaf and mixed forests with a healthy understory, especially those with streams and wetlands. They eat small insects, arthropods, spiders, and other small invertebrates. Check out their nests in the video below, amazing to see how it is camouflaged with lichens and built so naturally right on the branch.
A nesting Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Barry Van Dusen spends some time with Blue-gray Gnatcatchers
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.
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.
Deer Traffic Jam
Here are a few of the birds that have been seen over the past few weeks.
Red-tailed hawk hunting pine voles
Hairy and downy woodpeckers
Flocks of dark-eyed juncos, chickadees, tufted titmouse, and American robins
Pair of nesting red-shouldered hawks
Calling red-winged blackbirds in the red maple swamp (birding hotspot)
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
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.
Check out this amazing little orchid hiding under the pine needles. These pictures are from early March.
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.
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
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, 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, 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, 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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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!
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 monarchseat 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
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
Current Status of the North American Monarch Butterfly
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!
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 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.
Lake Wampanoag Wildlife Sanctuary, Gardner, MA on May 4th, 2015
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.
Myrtle Warbler Study, watercolor and pencil in Stillman & Birn Delta sketchbook, 9″ x 12″
The woods along theMoosewood 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.
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 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.
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).
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
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.
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.
Nodding Hepaticas, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.5″ x 8″
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:
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!
sketchbook page, 9″ x 12″
Sitting Tight, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″