Tag Archives: red-winged blackbird

ADVENTURES IN LIMESTONE COUNTRY: part 2: Bunnies and Yellow-bellies

July  5/6, 2017

Lime Kiln Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Sheffield

 

I return to Lime Kiln Farm the next morning – I want to experience the reserve during the early hours when wildlife activity is at its peak.

I get better views of the Alder Flycatcher today and make some sketches and color studies.  All of the empidonax flycatchers are subtle in plumage – the morphological differences between the species very slight.

Alder Flycatcher Study, watercolor on Fabriano cold-press, 8″ x 8″

The only reason I can be sure I’m looking at an Alder Flycatcher is the distinctive call.  Sibley describes it as “rreeBEEa”, but to me it sounds more like “zwee-BEEP”.  Either way, the accent is on the second syllable.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker flies in and lands on a nearby snag and I train my scope on it.  It’s a handsome adult male with a red throat and cap.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, watercolor in Stillman & Birn DELTA sketchbook, 12″ x 8.5″

Sapsuckers are common birds in the Berkshires, but become scarcer as you move east.  We see them often enough where I live in central Massachusetts, but they are largely absent east of Worcester County.

Suddenly, things are happening fast: a Cooper’s Hawk streaks in and alights, but is immediately driven off by a red-winged blackbird and a kingbird.  Then, I nearly step on a large northern watersnake sunning itself in the path!

Slowing my pace, (and watching my feet more carefully, now), I notice a cottontail in the meadow path ahead.  The rabbit allows me to approach quite closely , so I set up my scope to draw.  The bunny is a good model – moving occasionally, but sitting quietly for long stretches while I draw.

Sketchbook studies of a cottontail and a goldfinch, pencil, 6″ x 9.5″

A lot of the drama here will be in that bright bunny EYE, so I pay it close attention!

Clover and vetch enliven the scene with bits of color, and in the surrounding grasses, I avoid dark accents, hoping to achieve the soft, flickering quality of a summer meadow.

Cottontail at Lime Kiln Farm, watercolor on Arches rough, 12.25″ x 16.25″

 

Springtime in the Valley, Part 1

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

Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Easthampton on March 22, 2016

Bald Eagle Nest, detail - at 72 dpi

I know that spring arrives a bit earlier in the Connecticut River Valley, so I head out to Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton this morning.   I drive first to the seasonal bridge on Old Springfield Road.  This is where the Mill River (which runs through the Sanctuary) empties into The Oxbow.  It’s a classic river floodplain landscape.

Floodplain Forest - at 72 dpi

At the bridge (which is closed to vehicular traffic at the moment), I meet John Such of Chicopee, a retired high school science teacher.   He knows the area and offers to lead me to a Bald Eagle’s nest on the Sanctuary!  John notes that this is the only Bald Eagle nest on a Mass Audubon property.

The expansive grasslands to the north of the bridge attract a variety of grassland birds, and these fields are carefully managed by the Society to provide for the needs of open country birds, many of which are declining in Massachusetts.  As an artist, I appreciate the wide open vistas and distant views – quite unlike the landscapes near my home in central Massachusetts.   Looking to the southeast across The Oxbow, the handsome hills of the Mt. Tom Range rise above the western bank of the Connecticut River.

We follow a track up along Ned’s Ditch – a large wooded swale between the fields that supports a marsh and floodplain forest.  We hear the creaking calls of wood-ducks and the “conk-a-rees” of Red-winged Blackbirds.

Eagle Nest - at 72 dpi

The Eagle nest, by its sheer size, is easy to locate, but to get the best views requires careful positioning of my scope and field stool on the hillside about the “Ditch”. I settle down to watch…

The nest is placed in a main crotch near the top of a large, live tree (oak?), and is truly MASSIVE in size – so much so that the bird’s head, protruding above the mass of sticks and twigs, looks ridiculously tiny!  I later learned that Bald Eagles make the largest nest of any single pair of birds!

Bald Eagle Head Studies - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook studies, 4″ x 9″

The bird sits on the nest throughout the hour and a half that I watch.  This could be either the male or the female, since both take turns incubating the eggs.  The other member of the pair comes to the nest at one point, and appears to pass an article of food to the sitting bird, (though I couldn’t make out what), then quickly departs.   Except for an episode where the sitting bird rises up and works diligently at something in the nest, all is quiet.  I took this to be a round of egg-turning, which happens every 1 to 2 hours.

I decide to do a painting, but find that the largest paper in my pack is 9″ x 12″.  A larger sheet would have been more suitable for the subject, but I start a watercolor, anyway.  For the sake of my picture, I make the birds head a little larger, and raise it up a little higher than it typically appeared from my vantage.

Bald Eagle Nest - at 72 dpi

Bald Eagle Nest at Arcadia, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

From my location on the edge of the “Ditch”, I can look to the west and see the nests of a great blue heron colony about a quarter mile away.   I scan the nests with my scope, and spot a Great Horned Owl sitting on one of the nests!  It’s a distant view, and my photo is rather fuzzy, but you can just make out the bulky, rounded shape of the owl.

GH Owl on Nest - at 72 dpi

I wondered how the owl and the eagle might interact as nesting neighbors.  Great Horned Owls have been known to commandeer eagle nests and drive off the eagles – apparently the only native bird capable of doing so.

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.

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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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Urban Oasis

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

Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Worcester on July 2, 2015
I meet Deb Cary in the parking lot off Massasoit Road when I arrived at the sanctuary around opening time. She suggests that my first destination should be the Wilson Meadow at the southeast corner of the property. Broad Meadow Brook is the largest urban wildlife sanctuary in New England, and both of these attributes – LARGE and URBAN – will be evident at various times during my visit.
The education center is bustling with day campers and visiting families, but the trails at this early hour are quiet. The Wilson Meadow Link Trail follows a raised berm alongside a red maple swamp, affording nice, open views of standing dead timber in the swamp. It’s a good place for drawing birds with a scope, and I do a page of red-winged blackbird studies in my field sketchbook. Waxwings, robins, tree swallows and both green and great blue herons are also in attendance.

Redwing studies, Broad Meadow Brook - at 72 dpi

Red-winged Blackbird Studies, sketchbook page, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Rounding the backside of the Wilson Meadow, I’m struck by the view of the handsome old barn at the Wilson-Rice Homestead, and decide to do a watercolor. Two majestic white pines frame the scene on the left. Sunlight dapples the roof and sidewall of the barn, while the backside is bathed in shadow. It’s an unexpectedly pastoral scene, right here in the heart of New England’s second largest city!

Wilson-Rice Homestead, Broad Meadown Brook - at 72 dpi

Wilson-Rice Barn at Broad Meadow Brook, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9.5″ x 10″

After lunch, I hike out along the Cardinal Trail to the powerlines – a hotspot for butterflies (Broad Meadow Brook boasts the largest butterfly list of any of the Mass Audubon properties!) The open meadows below the transmission lines are managed for wildlife through a cooperative partnership with the power company, and I notice (by sight or sound), all of the avian powerline “regulars” here: towhee, field sparrow, prairie warbler and indigo bunting.
Setting up near the decorated bench dedicated to Barbara Walker, I find coral hairstreaks, great spangled fritillaries, a monarch, an American lady and a snowberry clearwing moth flitting among the milkweed and goldenrod.

American Ladies, Broad Meadow Brook - at 72 dpi

American Ladies, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 12″

Heading back along the Blue Well Trail, where it becomes a short section of boardwalk, I find a single ebony jewelwing.  It perches briefly on the lush vegetation growing along the brook, and I admire its paddle shaped all-black wings and jewel-like body with turquoise and ultramarine highlights.

Ebony Jewelwing - Broad Meadow Brook - at 72 dpi

Ebony Jewelwings, watercolor on Whatman paper, 6.5″ x 10.5″

Along many of the woodland trails, thick growths of sassafras seedlings carpet the forest floor. The leaf shapes of the seedlings are quite variable, but they all have a cartoonish aspect. All those in-and-out curves look like something drawn by a child, or maybe a Disney animator!

Sassafras Seedlings at Broad Meadow Brook

On the Sprague Trail, I hear the “chick-burr” notes of a scarlet tanager and soon thereafter notice two birds moving through the mid-story of the forest. It’s an adult scarlet tanager being shadowed by one of its offspring – full grown, but in juvenile plumage.  The adult appears abit annoyed and harried by the youngster, who follows the parent closely, fluttering its wings and begging loudly! I take some notes on this seldom-seen juvenile plumage, and make some quick studies of the adult.

Scarlet Tanager studies 2, Broad Meadow Brook - at 72 dpi

Scarlet Tanager Studies, watercolor and pencil sketchbook page, 9″ x12″

Embracing the Greens

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

Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Lincoln on June 10, 2015
This is certainly the busiest sanctuary I’ve visited so far on my residency. At 9:30 a.m. the parking lots are nearly full and the place is hopping, with buses full of school children arriving for the morning programs and tours. I soon find, however, that most of the visitors are headed for the Farm Yard with all its animal exhibits, working farm, wildlife sanctuary and more. The trails up onto the drumlin are quiet and peaceful!

From the drumlin’s summit (270 ft.), I’m captivated by the wonderful view down into the fields that dominate the southern end of the sanctuary. This is where the produce for the Drumlin Farm CSA is grown, and where other fields are set aside for wildlife. I get right to work on a watercolor, and as I’m painting I watch several groups of visitors touring the CSA operation. You can see one of these groups in the center right of my watercolor.

CSA Fields, Drumlin Farm - at 72 dpi

The CSA Fields, Drumlin Farm, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 7.5″ x 12.25″

A watercolor like this is a study in greens – I think I’ve used nearly every green that it is possible to mix from the yellows and blues on my palette – which intentionally does not include any green pigments!  I’ve found most commercially available green pigments to be too artificial and raw, and I much prefer to mix all of my greens. Note the shift in temperature of these various greens – some very cool and bluish and others very warm and yellowish. These contrasts in color temperature are what make the painting come alive!

Set-up at Drumlin Farm - at 72 dpi
After lunch I’m back out on the trails, this time in search of birds. I linger by the big dead trees that stand in the middle of the WHIP Field. They are a magnet for birds, so I set up my scope and watch the parade. A kingbird, an oriole, tree swallows and a bluebird come and go, but the best models are a pair of red-winged blackbirds. They linger long enough for me to sketch and paint them.

Redwing studies, Drumlin Farm - at 72 dpi
Back near the overflow parking area I notice movement in an unmowed area near the split rail fence, and find two females, and one male bobolink. The meadow here is a verdant tangle of vetch, milkweed, and a yellow-blossomed flower I can’t identify. This mix of vegetation adds color and variety, and I take some digital photos of the plants to supplement my drawings of the birds. Back in the studio, I put together this larger watercolor using my field references.

Bobolink Pair, Drumlin Farm - at 72 dpi

Bobolink Pair at Drumlin Farm, watercolor on Arches rough, 16.25″ x 12.25″