Tag Archives: Saltmarsh

Outermost Nature, Part 1


August 19, 2016

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, South Wellfleet

I’ve been told that Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary hosts more visitors each year than any other Mass Audubon property.  Located on the outer Cape, surrounded by portions of the Cape Cod National Seashore, and in an area which is a prime tourist destination, it’s not surprising that so many people visit this 1200 acre reserve each year.  And, it’s well worth the visit, with five miles of trails that traverse an amazing variety of natural habitats!

Arriving early, I head for the bird blind on the east side of Goose Pond.  I had not checked any tide charts before my visit, so am relieved to find that the tides are favorable, and the pond is alive with birds.


Shorebird Studies at Wellfleet Bay, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Least and semi-palmated sandpipers, both species of yellowlegs, and semi-palmated plovers are abundant, and a careful search turns up a pretty stilt sandpiper in juvenal plumage.   The star of the show, however, is a handsome female belted kingfisher which favors a perch directly in front of the blind.  With my scope I get point blank views that bring out every detail.


Kingfisher at Goose Pond, watercolor on Arches rough, 12.25″ x 16.25″

I walk the loop of the Try Island Trail, admiring the vista back over the marsh.


Where the trail meets the boardwalk to the beach, I meet a group of volunteers who are monitoring diamondback terrapin nests.   Each nest is protected by a wire enclosure, with a warning flag and a numbered metal tag, and I’ve encountered many of them as I walk the trails.


The nest monitors watch for hatching activity, then assist the hatchlings in their first hours out of the nest.   These first hours are the most precarious for the young turtles, and many are lost to predators (gulls, skunks, raccoons, foxes, etc).  The volunteers place the hatchlings in Tupperware containers, taking care to keep them moist with a spray bottle, then relocate them to safer areas on the upper marsh.  The first years of a diamondback terrapin’s life is poorly understood, and conflicting information abounds, but most studies indicate that the hatchlings spend their first years on DRY LAND, and they DO NOT head for water after leaving the nest.  The nest monitors: Theresa Hultin, Steve Monroe and Nancy Munger, kindly allow me to watch as they assist at a hatching nest.


The number of hatchlings and eggshells are carefully counted and recorded in a log, along with location of nest, time of hatching, and the depth of the nest.  Theresa, the team leader, tells me that 85 terrapin nests have been located on the sanctuary this year.  Each nest, if it is not disturbed by predators, will produce between 12 and 22 young turtles.   The nest we are currently attending is 14 centimeters deep, and produces 16 hatchlings.


Diamondback Terrapin Hatchlings, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

While I could not draw the hatchlings from life (doing so would expose them to too much heat and dryness), I made these drawings from digital photos taken at the nest site.   The hatchlings are about 1.5” long, and perfect in every miniature detail!


The Great Marsh

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

Barnstable Great Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, Barnstable on August 16, 2015

I had hoped to get down to Cape Cod last week, but car troubles put my Toyota in the garage for a few days, and by the time I finally get underway a heat wave has settled over New England, with high humidity and temperatures in the 90s. To try and beat the heat, I get an early start and arrive at Barnstable Great Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary by 7:30 am.
A short hike through a forest of oak, cedar, cherries and pines brings me to a small clearing next to an abandoned cabin. A break in the foliage here supplies an elevated view of the marsh, with a backdrop of Sandy Neck in the distance. The Barnstable Great Marsh is the largest salt marsh on Cape Cod, covering more than 3,000 acres.
The clearing is a nice shady spot at this time of the morning, so I set up my scope and pack chair. I spot an osprey, egrets, herons, laughing gulls and shorebirds out on the marsh, but they’re too distant to draw or paint, so I decide to do a landscape. With my 25x scope I can “project myself” out onto the marsh, bringing the dunes of Sandy Neck much closer, and this makes for an appealing composition.

Work in Progress at Barnstable Great Marsh (small)

…the first washes set out to dry in the sun

As I start to lay down the first washes of color I realize that the very high humidity is going to have an effect on my painting. High humidity can be both a blessing and a curse to the watercolorist. The washes of color dry very slowly, so there’s more time to develop the wet passages. I can take my time developing smooth color gradations and soft edges – things which I usually have to hurry with before the paper dries. At some point, however, I need those first washes to dry, so I can paint additional layers over them (what watercolorists refer to as glazing.) Today, it’s taking FOREVER for those first washes to dry! I lay my half-finished painting on a bush in the sun, and wander down the path to the edge of the marsh.  By the time I return to the clearing the washes have finally dried and I can get on with my work. As I’m painting with the scope, small birds zip back and forth through my field of view – swallows – and as a final touch, I add them to my painting.

Swallows Over Barnstable Great Marsh 2 - at 72 dpi

Swallows Over Barnstable Great Marsh, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

Next, I move down to the edge of the marsh to do some studies of some of the plants I’d noticed there. Growing out on the marsh is an attractive flowering plant that I later identify as saltmarsh fleabane.

Salt-marsh Fleabane at Barnstable Gr Marsh (small)

I’m also intrigued by the bulrushes growing where the woods give way to the marsh grasses. These are robust, 4-foot tall grasses with long curving blades and heavy clusters of cone-shaped seed heads.

Softstem Bulrush - at 72 dpi

Softstem Bulrush, watercolor on Lanaquarelle hot-press, 11.25″ x 9″

It’s getting pretty hot, now, especially in the sun, so I do some exploring along the the shady trails of the sanctuary. I flush a green heron at Otter Pond, and then find a superb stand of cardinal flowers at the outflow of spring-fed Cooper Pond. I had not expected to find cardinal flowers growing wild on Cape Cod, since I most often encounter them far from the coast along cool, tumbling streams in upland forests. But they seem quite happy here, with a second handsome cluster of plants growing further west along the shore. Unfortunately the flower stalks are surrounded on all sides by a thick growth of poison ivy, so I content myself to do some drawing from a distance thru my telescope, and complete this watercolor later in my studio.

Cardinal Flower at Barnstable Gr Marsh 4 - at 72 dpi

Cardinal Flower, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 14″ x 10″

On my way back to the car, I stop to marvel at a wildly contorted cherry tree growing along the trail. In one place the limbs of the tree seem to have tied themselves into a big knot! It deserves, and gets, a study in my sketchbook.

Contorted Cherry Tree at Barnstable Gr Marsh - at 72 dpi

Cherry Tree at Barnstable Great Marsh, pencil study, 8.5″ x8.5″