Tag Archives: Snowy Owl

Summits and Snowies, part 2: Creature Feature

March 2/3, 2017

Blue Hills Trailside Museum, Milton

My second day at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum is colder, with temperatures remaining in the 30s all day.  It’s sunny, however, so I do some more drawing at the snowy owl enclosure.  The two birds are again huddled on the ground in the rear corner of the pen.

Snowy Owl sketchbook studies, pencil, 9″ x 12″

drawing at the snowy owl enclosure

It’s early in the day, and I’m the only one in the little zoo behind the visitor center.   Suddenly, I hear a great flap of wings and turn to see a wild turkey vulture alighting on the nearby turkey vulture enclosure.    It hops around atop the cage and peers down at the “prisoner” within.  I wonder what has attracted the wild bird: curiosity? food? sex?   It’s a handsome specimen – much more colorful and sleek than the captive bird – and I turn my attention to it.  I take some photos and start a drawing, but another (human) visitor arrives and scares off the wild bird.

Turkey Vulture Head Study, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

We go inside to warm up, and meet director Norm Smith.  He is busy getting ready to host an important international meeting of scientist and researchers focused on snowy owls.  Norm has been conducting his own research on these birds for nearly twenty years.  He was the first to put satellite transmitters on wintering snowy owls in an attempt to better understand their seasonal movements in New England.    His research has called into question many long-held assumptions about the owls that move south into Massachusetts in winter.  Needless to say, the snowy owl is a bird of special significance at the Trailside Museum!

Norm introduces us to staff members in charge of the live animals at Trailside, and we get a tour of the lower level.  Some of the animals are recovering from injuries and will eventually be released, while others are permanent residents who, for various reasons cannot be returned to the wild.

A raven and a box turtle have the run of the place, and follow us around as we take our tour.  The box turtle develops a special fondness for my shoe!

The staff generously offers to set up any of the animals for us to work with, so I select a gray phase screech-owl, which is taken from its cage and placed on a padded perch in the center of a low table.

Sean and I get to work, and the owl proves a good model, sitting quietly and studying US!  The owl seems especially fascinated when I take out my paints and brushes!  (Thanks, Sean, for your photos in this post!)

Gray Phase Screech-Owl, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 11″ x 9″

Upstairs in the museum, a variety of live animals are on display.  One enclosure holds two timber rattlesnakes: one very dark and the other predominantly golden brown.

Timber rattlesnakes are endangered in Massachusetts and persist at only a handful of widely scattered sites in the state – mostly in mountainous areas.  There is a small population in the Blue Hills Reservation, but they are reclusive animals and seldom encountered.  They pose virtually no danger to the public, in fact, only one person has ever died of snakebite in Massachusetts, and that was over 200 years ago!

I have not yet painted a snake for this residency, so this is a good opportunity, and the snake is a very cooperative model – I don’t believe it moved once during the time I worked on my picture!  I decide to indicate a natural setting for the snake and substitute a suggestion of leaves, rocks and twigs in place of the wood shavings in its enclosure.

Timber Rattlesnake, wartercolor on Arches cold-press, 14.25″ x 10.25″

Before leaving Trailside, I go back outside and check the snowy owls one more time.  To my delight, the paler bird is sitting atop a natural perch in the center of the enclosure.

Snowy Owl sketchbook study, pencil, 9″ x 12″

It’s a much more dynamic pose than the birds made on the ground, so I make a careful drawing that I use later to develop this watercolor.

Snowy Owl at Trailside, watercolor on Arches rough, 16.25″ x 12.25″


Summits and Snowies, part 1: Great Blue Hill

March 2/3, 2017

Blue Hills Trailside Museum, Milton

It’s cold and very windy on the morning I arrive at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton.   Mass Audubon runs and manages the Trailside Museum, the visitor/interpretive center for the Blue Hills Reservation.   This 7,000 acres public reserve is the largest open space within 35 miles of Boston, and is owned by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

I figured winter would be a good time to visit the Trailside Museum, since it would offer opportunities for both outdoor and indoor work.  The Trailside Museum is only minutes from the Museum of American Bird Art in Canton – the sponsor of my residency.  I’ll stay overnight in MABA’s guest suite and spend two days at Trailside.  Sean Kent, the education director at MABA joins me both days (thanks, Sean for your photos in this blog entry!).

Boston Skyline from Great Blue Hill summit

Today, March 2, Sean and I hike to the top of Great Blue Hill (elev. 635 ft.) and take in the view of Boston and the Harbor Islands.  While at the summit, we visit the Blue Hill Weather Observatory – the oldest continuously operated weather observatory in the United States.

Blue Hill Weather Observatory

We crawl up onto the observation deck at the top of the observatory and hang onto the railings with the wind gusts nearing 60 mph (the anemometer is a spinning blur!)

Descending from the Observation Deck

Below, in the control room, a technician points out a glass case of antique mercury barometers – still working and very accurate!

Antique mercury barometers

Down off the summit, and out of the wind, we set up to do some landscape work featuring the rocky outcrops along the Summit Trail.

The temperatures have been dropping throughout the day, and it’s in the low 40s when I begin drawing. I’ve brought along a few of those chemical hand-warmers, and slip one into the glove of my drawing hand.  I can’t draw with the glove on, but I slip it on and warm up my fingers periodically.

The completed drawing done on location

I complete the drawing on watercolor paper, but am getting seriously chilled by the time I finish, and can’t summon the courage to take out my paints.  I’ll finish this one in the studio…

the work in progress…

Here’s the painting about half finished.   You can see that I laid in the tones of the distant background first – I’ll want them to recede in the finished painting, so deliberately make the colors pale and subdued.  Next, I paint the areas of ground between the rocks with a rusty brown tone, which at the same time organizes the shapes of the rocks.  Then, I paint the shadow pattern of the rocks and lay in the darker tone of the three dominant tree trunks.  The shadows on the foreground rocks are among the darkest notes in the painting, so I’ve now established the full range of values.

Summit Trail, Great Blue Hill, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12.25″

Now, it’s just a matter of laying in the middle value grays of the rocks.  I try to add some interest and variety here, by varying the complements used to mix the grays.   Most of them are mixed from ultramarine blue and cadmium orange, but I also throw in some burnt sienna and cobalt violet here and there.

Back at the Trailside Museum that afternoon, Sean and I make some drawings of the snowy owls in one of the outdoor pens.  The birds are sitting on the ground in the rear corner of the enclosure, but with my telescope, I have “in-your-face” views of the bird’s heads and do several pages of studies.

sketchbook page, pencil, 9″ x 12″

sketchbook page, pencil, 9″ x 12″

There are two owls: one almost completely white with only a few scattered markings on the wings and tail, and the other heavily spotted and barred all-over.

stay tuned for Blue Hills Part 2: Creature Feature…