Tag Archives: Sengekontacket Pond

FINISH LINE, part 3: happy ending!

August 24, 2017

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

It’s my final day on Martha’s Vineyard, so I get up early, say my good-byes to the Murtha’s, and head out for another day’s work.   Hoping to get better (i.e. closer) looks at some of the shorebirds I had seen at Felix Neck, I drive to the Joseph Silvia State Beach, which lies just across Sengekontacket Pond from the sanctuary.   This is a popular tourist spot, but I arrive early and find a place to park near “The Jaws Bridge”.

The JAWS Bridge

This bridge connects the north and south sections of the State Beach, and spans a breach that allows the ocean waters to flow in and out of Sengekontacket Pond.  Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary is just across the pond, and Sarson’s Island is closer from this vantage.

I scope the Island and see the same enticing selection of birds I had seen from Felix Neck, but they are still abit too far away for meaningful drawing.  Luckily, there are also shorebirds on the near shore, and with binoculars I pick out oystercatchers, turnstones, dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, yellowlegs, willets and one stilt sandpiper.

Ruddy Turnstone

To get closer to these birds, I hike north up the shore of the Pond.   It’s nearly high tide, and the sun is at my back – favorable conditions for field sketching!

The oystercatchers are wary.  Although I got a close look at the crippled bird two days ago at Felix Neck, these healthy birds are keeping me at a distance.   (Later I learned that wariness is a widely recognized attribute of this species.)  Realizing that I’m as close as they will allow, I set up my scope and work from afar – make some smaller drawings in my sketchbook.

The elusiveness of the oystercatchers, while frustrating, will not prevent me from painting them later.  My time observing these birds has left me with some strong impression and firm mental images that I can carry with me back to the studio…

Here’s a large watercolor painted in my studio after my return from the island.

American Oystercatchers on Martha’s Vineyard, watercolor on Arches coldpress, 14″ x 22.5″

Oystercatchers really are ODD birds, and I wanted to capture their strangeness in this portrait.  The strong legs and feet of these birds are especially expressive – there’s nothing delicate about them.   In color and in form, they remind me of bubble gum fresh out of the wrapper!

And here’s another odd feature of these birds:  when I have had opportunities to observe them at close range, I have noticed that some of the birds have a lop-sided or irregularly shaped pupil.

detail showing eye fleck

Checking on-line, I found references to “eye flecks” in American Oystercatchers, caused by areas of black pigmentation on the bird’s iris.  Even more interesting was a recent study that indicates a link between eye flecks and sex.  Birds with eye flecks are usually females!   Male and female oystercatchers are difficult to tell apart, and this feature may be useful for determining the sex of these birds in the field.  Presumably, my painting shows a male on the left, and a female – with an eye fleck – on the right.

Thankfully, some of the other shorebirds at the state beach are more cooperative for field sketching.  A turnstone and a willet allow close approach, but more alluring to me is a small, tight flock of sanderlings, settling down to wait out the high tide at the water’s edge.   The seven or eight birds are all adults, in various stages of molt.

Sketchbook studies of sanderlings, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

Some have nearly completed their transition into winter plumage and their upperparts sport the overall pearly gray tones of winter.   Others show dark patches of summer plumage mixed in with the newly emerging winter feathers, giving them a rather motley, unkempt aspect.  On the heads and breasts of some birds are patches of rust– also a remnant of their breeding dress.   In winter, sanderlings are the palest of our shorebirds, and some of these birds have gleaming white heads and snowy white breasts and undersides.  I revel in these variations and get to work recording them in my sketchbook.

Sketchbook studies of sanderlings, pencil, 9″ x 12″

This sketchbook page of the sanderling flock is deceiving – the birds look serene and settled.  In fact, the birds were continually in motion – standing up or sitting down, or shifting positions in an intricate game of musical chairs. Drawing the group required a good deal of patience and improvisation, the arrangement owing more to serendipity than to calculation and planning.

Late Summer Sanderlings, watercolor on Winsor & Newton coldpress, 12.5″ x 22.5″

My studio painting of the scene is more deliberately conceived and composed, but you can easily pick out all the poses I had recorded in my sketchbook.   I’ve tried to show the variations in plumage I observed at the State Beach.  Can you find the two birds that have molted completely into their winter plumage?


This is what I would characterize as a “high key” painting.  Most of the painting is composed of values in the lighter end of the value range, with just a sprinkling of the darkest values.  I wanted to convey the light-filled environment of a sandy beach in summer.   The darkest accents are the bird’s bills and eyes, which form a repeated rhythm across the middle of the composition.

With such good models to work with at the State Beach, the morning passes quickly and it’s soon time for lunch, which I enjoy on the breakwater next to the Jaws Bridge – my feet dangling in the clear ocean water while jellyfish float by on the tide.

Driving through Tisbury on my way to the ferry, I stop to use a restroom at the town library.  As I walk through the butterfly gardens around the front entrance, I am distracted by a flurry of motion.

Sketchbook page of Monarchs, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

On one liatris plant, I count eight Monarch butterflies – a phenomenal concentration of these handsome migratory insects, whose populations have been down in recent years.  There’s just time enough to do some sketches before I leave to catch the ferry at Vineyard Haven.

From the upper deck of the Woods Hole boat, I watch Martha’s Vineyard receding on the horizon.  I sit back and reflect on my travels over the past two and a half years, visiting all 57 of Mass Audubon’s public properties.  In that time, I’ve accumulated a wealth of experiences and impressions – some recorded in my watercolors, sketchbooks and blog journal, and others preserved as indelible memories.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following my travels around Massachusetts, and to YOU READERS – my sincere THANKS for your attention and words of encouragement!  With the completion of my sanctuary visits, the purpose of this blog has been realized, and my postings will become less regular and less frequent in the months ahead, but I will, from time to time, post updates when they relate to the residency project.  PLEASE STAY TUNED!

With the project completed, I will NOT stop visiting Mass Audubon sanctuaries – there is still so much more to observe and enjoy!   Maybe I’ll meet you on a sanctuary trail someday soon…

FINISH LINE, part 1: first day on the Vineyard

August 22, 2017

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

During the record-breaking winter of 2014/15, Amy Montague and I hatched a plan for a special kind of Artist Residency, during which I would travel around Massachusetts to visit and work at Mass Audubon’s wildlife sanctuaries.  The contract we agreed upon specified that I visit at least 45 sanctuaries, but in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to visit all 57 public properties.  What I didn’t know was how long it would take.  We settled on a two-year timeframe, wrapping up with an exhibition at the Museum of American Bird Art in Spring/Summer 2017. By the time my show opened in May 2017, I had worked at 52 sanctuaries, leaving five properties yet to visit.  There was no reason to stop, now!

Flash forward to the morning of August 22, 2017.  I’ve been  stuck in traffic for over an hour on the Bourne Rotary, waiting to make my way across the Bourne Bridge and then on to the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry at Woods Hole.  I thought I had left myself plenty of time to make the ferry, but unbeknownst to me, an accident on the Sagamore Bridge earlier that morning had redirected all traffic over the Bourne – resulting in this horrendous traffic snarl on a Tuesday morning!

As it happens, I did make the ferry that morning – arriving last in line and just in time to get on the boat.

My final sanctuary visit, to Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, was underway!

The first thing that caught my eye as I arrived at the Felix Neck parking area, was a large, strangely proportioned birdhouse mounted on poles.

Barn Owl nest box

The structure had been used by Barn Owls for many seasons, but has had no owls in residence for the past three years.  Barns Owls are at the northern edge of their range in Massachusetts, and in recent decades, Martha’s Vineyard has been the most reliable breeding locality for these birds (nine pairs nested on the Island in 1985).  Unfortunately, they are vulnerable to severe winters with heavy snow cover (such as the winter of 2014/15).  One can only hope that they will re-colonize the island in the near future.

The Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary is a roughly 200 acre neck of land surrounded on three sides by the protected waters of Sengekontacket Pond.  The Pond itself is separated from the ocean by a narrow barrier beach comprising the Joseph Sylvia State Beach (more on that to come).   Ocean waters pass in and out of Sengekontacket Pond beneath a bridge on the state beach known locally as “The Jaws Bridge”, since it figured prominently in some scenes from the movie JAWS!

sketchbook studies of Great Egrets, pencil, 9″ x 12″

Sharks were far from my mind, however, when I set out on the Marsh Trail to explore the sanctuary.   A green heron skulked along the edge of the waterfowl pond, but flushed when I took out my sketchbook.  Further out on the marsh, some Great Egrets were more cooperative, and I spent some time mapping out the odd angles formed by those impossibly long necks.

Along the Marsh Trail, pitch pine forests border the marsh, with an understory of huckleberry.  Where the forest gives way to the open marsh , “high tide bush” (marsh elder) forms tall, billowy shrubs.  I like the way the waters of the marsh form a bright, level ribbon beyond the pine trunks and branches, and get to work on a watercolor.

I use a small sheet of Arches 300 lb cold-press that is just right for painting the roughly textured pitch pines.  There’s a gracefulness to the curving sweep of some of the branches, but there’s awkwardness, too, in the chaotic angles and weird undulations of the trunks.  I find this intriguing – the graceful and the ungainly mixed together.

Pitch Pines at Felix Neck, watercolor on Arches rough, 9″ x 10″

From a spur trail that leads out to the shore, I have a view of Sarson’s Island across the water.  It’s labeled as a “bird nesting colony” on my trail map, so I scan it slowly with my scope.  I see mostly cormorants and gulls, but mixed in are oystercatchers, plovers, turnstones, dowitchers, willets and peeps.   A small flock of Black Skimmers flies past the island and I follow them out over the waters of Sengekontacket Pond.

I try some sketching of the Oystercatchers on Sarson’s Island, but they are too far away for meaningful drawing, so I instead take a landscape approach.  Four cormorants are perched on a rather odd structure consisting of a cable hanging between two sturdy posts.  Later, I learn from director Suzan Bellincampi that the posts and cable were originally erected to encourage egrets to nest, though we couldn’t quite figure out how this rig might have worked!

Here’s the watercolor after the first layer of washes:

Sarson’s Island, stage one

Working at a distance through a telescope has the effect of reducing contrast and softening colors, due to the intervening atmosphere.  I hope to retain this effect in my painting, and keep the tones close and subdued.

Sarson’s Island, watercolor on Fabriano cold-press, 9″ x 11″

Note that there are three species depicted in this watercolor: double-crested cormorant, black-bellied plover and great black-backed gull.  One of my champions, John Busby of Scotland, often did scenes like this with multiple species, and I was thinking of him as I worked on this painting.  One tricky aspect here is keeping the various species in proper scale to one another.

I continue along the shore on the Marsh Trail, pausing to draw some bayberry twigs heavy with those waxy, silvery gray berries.   The thick, shiny leaves curl at the edges, and have other slight undulations that catch the light – making them challenging to draw and paint.

Bayberry Studies, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.25″ x 13.75″

Further along the shore, I finally get a close look at an Oystercatcher – a single bird with a crippled (right) leg, which dangles uselessly as it hops along the shore.  The bird is well-known to sanctuary staff, who have been observing it for weeks.  Its plumage is unkempt, probably due to the difficulty of preening while balancing on one leg, but otherwise the bird seems to be getting along.

The views along the shore are alluring, with their lush green tufts of marsh grass interspersed with bright little sand beaches – all surrounded by the sparkling waters of Sengekontacket Pond.  I start a watercolor near the terminus of the Shad Trail, looking up into the protected waters of Majors Cove (I’m now on the westernmost shore of Felix Neck).

Majors Cove, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

I paint until the light starts to fade, then head back to the car.

note: my visit to Martha’s Vineyard has been broken into three  parts – one for each day I spent on the inland.  Please stay tuned for parts 2 and 3…