Tag Archives: Red-tailed hawk

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

Buds and Bubos

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

HABITAT Wildlife Sanctuary, Belmont on February 29, 2016

Robin and Sumac at Habitat - at 72 dpi

Robin and Sumac at Highland Farm Meadow

An ice storm in recent days has left the ground littered with broken branches, some piled along the sanctuary trails for removal.  I realize it’s a good opportunity to get a close looks at twigs and terminal buds that are normally high overhead.  A big sassafras as the edge of the meadow has lost a number of good sized branches, so I comb over them, looking for particularly interesting twigs and buds.  The thick, curved twigs are a rich mustard color and the large buds are suffused with pink and olive.   I break off a few twigs, and put them in my pack.

Sassafras Twigs 2 at HABITAT - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study of Sassafras Twigs, watercolor and pencil, 9″ x 5″

I had learned from staff members that great horned owls have been frequenting a grove of pines near the intersection of the Fern and Red Maple Trails, and may have a nest there.  I find the grove of big pines (which looks like a perfect place for a great horned nest) and give the area a thorough search.  I find one suspicious clump of twigs and branches halfway up a pine trunk, but it doesn’t look big enough to support a Great Horned Owl nest.  Perhaps it’s the beginning of a nest?   I set up my pack chair at a distance, then settle down and take out my sassafras twigs and sketchbook.  I’m hoping I might see or hear an owl while I’m quietly drawing and painting the twigs.  Great Horned Owls are the earliest native birds to nest in our region, laying eggs as early as mid-February, and incubating them through late February and into March.  If a pair is in the area, they should be well into the nesting cycle.

Great Horned Owl on Nest - at 72 dpi (cropped)

Great Horned Owl on Nest, Northboro, MA, April 2011

I have had only one opportunity to observe and draw a Great Horned Owl on a nest, and that was in Northboro, Massachusetts in April 2011.  That nest was also in a big white pine, and if I positioned my scope just right, I got clear views of the adult on the nest.  I was hoping for a similar opportunity at Habitat, but it was not to be.  I saw or heard no owls today.  I include my painting of the Northboro owl here, since a nest in the pine grove at Habitat would have looked very similar.

Songbirds at Weeks Pond - at 72 dpi

Songbird Studies at Weeks Pond, pencil, 5″ x 9.5″

After lunch, I explore more of the sanctuary.  On the trail to Weeks Pond, a brown creeper calls from the trees along Atkins Brook.  At the pond itself, I notice several signs of spring.  A single red-winged blackbird calls from the treetops, and in a wet swale next to the pond, skunk cabbage is poking up.  Its rich colors and patterns stand out in the winter landscape, a portent of things to come…

Skunk Cabbage at Habitat - at 72 dpi

Skunk Cabbage

Piles of red maple branches around the pond again allow me close looks at the terminal buds, and I collect more twigs.  Back in my studio, I put them in a vase of water, and a week later the buds started to open, so I painted them from life at my drawing board.

Red Maple Twigs - at 72 dpi

Red Maple Twigs, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9.5″ x 13.5″

Are there more red-tailed hawks around these days, or is it just me?   I’m watching a hairy woodpecker at Weeks Meadow when a big bird swoops in to land in the lower branches of a nearby tree.  It’s a handsome young red-tail, attracted to a noisy mob of house sparrows in the thicket below.   The bird is MUCH closer than the one I observed at Pierpont Meadow (see Beavertowns, Feb 1, 2016).  With my scope, I can see every detail of its plumage and anatomy with startling clarity.  On a raptor, the two points of high drama are the face and the feet.  For a while this bird’s head is obscured by a branch, but I’ve got great views of its feet and lower body, and decide to start a drawing.

Young Redtail Feet Study - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook page, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Later, the bird shifts and I have a view of the whole bird – that’s when I start this watercolor on a separate sheet.

Young Redtail at HABITAT - at 72 dpi

Young Redtail, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 12″ x 9″

Young birds, being rather clueless, can be excellent models.  I’m in full view of the bird, and though I move myself and the scope several times to get better views, the bird seemed totally oblivious to my presence!


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.


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


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

February 1, 2016
Pierpont Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Dudley

Beaver Pond at Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi
From the parking area for Pierpont Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, there’s a fine view of a beavertown. You’re looking down onto a small pond tucked between rolling open fields. Most of the pond is covered with ice this morning, but there are two open patches – one along the beaver dam at the south end, and another around the lodge near the opposite shore.

Redtail studies, Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook study of an adult Red-tailed Hawk, pencil, 8.5″ x 9″

A handsome adult red-tailed hawk is perched on a dead snag near the dam, so I move cautiously to set up my scope and draw.  You never know how long you’ve got with a bird like this, so I work quickly. But I’m a good distance away and the hawk does not seem bothered by my presence. It grants me the time I need to finish my drawings, then takes off and starts making wide circles over the pond. Red-tails are quite variable in plumage, so painting one often feels less like painting a species of bird and more like painting an individual. This adult has a rather pale head, strongly checkered scapulars, and no real belly-band like you see in the field guides. This isn’t just any Red-tail, it’s THE Pierpont Meadow Red-tail!

Redtail at Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi

Red-tail at Pierpont Meadow, watercolor on Winsor & Newton cold-press, 15.5″ x 12″

There’s less than a mile of trails at Pierpont Meadow, so I’ll have ample time to explore the entire property. I linger along the Meadow Loop Trail, looking at birds’ nests and sorting out the various species of shrubs and trees. Some pussy willows are just emerging, which seems quite early in the year. I admire the carmine twigs and tar-black buds, and examine the cone-shaped galls that form at the tips of some of the branches. Starting some drawings, I discover a new use for my telescope: I use it to temporarily hold down some twigs that would otherwise be too high-up to work with.

Pussy Willows and Scope - at 72 dpi

Pussy Willow Twigs - at 72 dpi

Pussy Willow Twigs and Galls, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x12″

Along the George Marsh Trail, I’m puzzled by some tall seed heads rising up out of the leaf litter on the forest floor. I gently clear some leaves from around the base of one of the stalks and am surprised to find the beautifully patterned leaves of rattlesnake plantain, fresh and green!

Rattlesnake Plantain - at 72 dpi

Rattlesnake Plantain

Along the shore of Pierpont Meadow Pond, another beavertown is much in evidence. Drifts of pond lily roots (a favorite food of beavers) float along the shore and a well-worn trough leads up into the forest. Trees (some of them very large) are being felled well back into the woods. Obviously a busy lumbering operation must be taking place here every night!

Beaver Cuttings 1 - at 72 dpi

Beaver Cuttings 2A - at 72 dpi

The lodge for this beavertown is built into the bank of the pond, and is plastered with a thick coating of mud. I’ve read that beavers use mud to “seal” their lodges, covering all but the air vent. When winter cold freezes the mud, it forms a cement-hard barrier that deters predators like coyotes and bobcats.

Beaver Lodge at Pierpont Meadow Pond - at 72 dpi

Back at the parking area, the sun has moved across the sky, and the light on beavertown #1 is better than it was this morning, so I set up my field easel.

Set-up at Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi

Painting in progress at Pierpont Meadow

Thanks to today’s mild temperatures, my watercolor paints flow freely and my hands stay warm. I’ve nearly finished by the time the skies start to darken and a cold wind kicks up. It’s not often in Massachusetts that I’ve painted watercolors outdoors in early February!

Beaver Pond at Pierpont Meadow - at 72 dpi

Beaver Pond at Pierpont Meadow, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9.5″ x13″