Tag Archives: Wildlife Sanctuary

The splendor and solace of snow…nature in a minute

Although spring is right around the corner, winter is hanging on with three Nor’easters in the past two weeks. After all the shoveling and arduous cleanup (huge thanks to our property manager Owen Cunningham), we took an hour to snowshoe the wildlife sanctuary and enjoy the quiet and calm that always seems to follow a large storm. The trees were blanketed with a thick snow and everywhere you looked the wildlife sanctuary was painted white.

The meadow was blanketed with nearly two feet of snow and only one set of snow shoe tracks. 

The start of the main loop trail.

This trail leads to our vernal pool. In less than a month, as you walk up the hill you will be treated to an auditory sensation as a loud chorus of wood frogs welcomes spring. It is amazing how quickly nature turns in the spring. In two months, the pine forest floor will be covered with pink lady’s slippers that will be using the snow melt to thrive in May.

This is the spot that the wood ducks frolicked less than two weeks ago.

The vernal pool on our main loop trail.

Snow weighing down the saplings growing in our pine grove.

Who will use this cavity in spring? Maybe a chickadee or hairy woodpecker?

The pine grove. Deer recently walked by this scene.

A snow covered Pequit Brook.

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Wood Ducks…Nature in a minute

As a flock of robins “swarmed” in the pine grove, bright red male cardinals sung from the tallest trees, and fairy shrimp emerged from the vernal pool, a flock six wood ducks flew into the maple, oak, and pine trees above our vernal pool on the morning of February 28. Nature can be so wonderful!

I was fortunate enough to have my camera with me and I was able to capture a few pictures and one short movie of these amazing creatures. Enjoy this brief glimpse into the hidden world of the wildlife in our sanctuary.

Watch and listen to the wood ducks chattering to one another high up in the trees.


The following are more photos of the wood ducks in the wildlife sanctuary. 




Signs of Spring…Nature in a Minute

Over the past weekend, male red-winged blackbirds have returned to set up and defend breeding territories, the evening displays and buzzing songs of the male woodcock have brightened up evening hikes, and flocks of robins have descended in our pine sanctuary “vacuuming” up insects emerging as the world warms and sun shines just a little bit longer each day.


This post is a short video and photo essay of one of our earliest signs of spring, the emergence of eastern skunk cabbage. Since late January, these spring sentinels have been emerging by the Pequit Brook in Canton and next to a wetland near the meadow by the museum.

Pequit Brook

As I’ve looked closer at skunk cabbage, I’ve been amazed at the diversity of color exhibited by skunk cabbage and wanted to share that with you. Enjoy the following photos and videos of skunk cabbage emerging at the Pequit Brook.

Skunk Cabbage and the Babbling Pequit Brook

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Uncommon Looks at Common Birds

September 2, 2016

Boston Nature Center, Mattapan


Mass Audubon operates only a few sanctuaries that can truly be categorized as “urban”, and of these, the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan best fits the description. Only a short distance from Mattapan’s downtown, and on the grounds of the former Boston State Hospital, this small oasis of green (67 acres) is surrounded by urban neighborhoods, highways and businesses.  You’re never quite out of earshot of traffic, sirens, construction noise and other sounds of the city.

The Nature Center is a hive of activity when I arrive at 8 am.  Today is the final day of summer camp, and a steady parade of parents are dropping off their kids.  Counselors are busy preparing for the day’s activities and herding the campers into groups.   I wander through the impressive George Robert White Environmental Education Center – the first “green” municipal building in Boston, and then stroll through the Butterfly Garden outside.   A diverse assortment of trees surrounds the Center, many of them huge, venerable specimens.  I get busy with a painting of a mourning dove basking in the morning sun.


Mourning Dove in Tamarack, watercolor Arches coldpress, 9″ x 11″

The dove is perched in an old tamarack, and the twigs and cones provide an interesting pattern around the bird.   A song sparrow and several goldfinches also make for good models, and as I work, a warbling vireo sings from a big poplar nearby.

I meet program coordinator Adam Leiterman and get a tour of the Nature Center, including the indoor observation hive of honeybees.  Then, Adam offers some advice and helpful tips before I set out to explore the two miles of trails.


Clark-Cooper Community Gardens

My first stop is the Clark-Cooper Community Gardens – one of the oldest and largest community gardens in Boston, providing garden space for more than 260 local families.  With acres of flowers, vegetables and fragrant herbs, it’s a great place to escape the bustle of the city for a few hours.

On the Snail Trail, I pass through a mature forest of oaks and silver maples, interrupted by sunny glades of lush undergrowth.  I watch a flock of young starlings gorging on wild grapes, and make some drawings.


Sketchbook studies of young starlings, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

Young starlings display this unusual plumage for only a short time in late summer.  Their tawny gray heads are set off by black vests densely spangled with bold white spots.  A black “bandit mask” on the face gives them an intense, slightly sinister look.  The combination of the fruiting grapevines and the smartly dressed birds leaves a powerful impression – and one that I re-create later in my studio.


Young Starlings and Wild Grapes, watercolor on Arches rough, 12.25″ x 16.25″

The Fox Trail circles a large cattail marsh.  It’s an unexpected surprise, this expanse of cattails in the midst of the city.  If it weren’t for the roar of traffic coming from the American Legion Highway, I could imagine I’m in a wild and remote place!


It’s been a very dry summer, and there is precious little water in the marsh.  Deer and other animals have trampled down trails through the cattails, and several of these “game trails” can be seen from the overlook.


Game Trail

Back at the Nature Center, the last day of camp is winding down, and a group of kids are playing tag while they await their rides home.   I live in a lightly developed, rural area of the state, where nature is right outside the door.  To me, the city can seem like a place where nature is losing the competition for space.  The Boston Nature Center demonstrates that the natural world can be accessible to all people in all places.



Boat Trip!

July 11, 2016

Sampsons Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Cotuit

Least Tern Incubating - at 72 dpi

Incubating Least Tern, watercolor on Fluid 100 cold-press, 9″ x 12″

 Sampson’s Island is my first sanctuary visit that requires a BOAT.  I meet two coastal waterbird wardens at a rendezvous point in Cotuit, and load my field kit into a small, open runabout.  Brad Bower is the Sampson’s Island “crew leader”, and his associate is Brian Lonabocker.   They are students of biology and environmental science, and this is a summer job for them.  Today, they load signs into the boat, which they’ll be posting in various spots around the island.  During the peak breeding season, boats are not allowed to land on the island, in order to safeguard the birds during this critical period.

Sampsons Island Warning Signs - at 72 dpi

During the ride over to the island, Brad fills me in on the latest news regarding the breeding birds of Sampson’s Island.  He calculates there are between 30 and 40 pairs of least terns nesting on the island, and remarks that some of the tern eggs are just starting to hatch.   This season, seven pairs of piping plovers have also established nests, with six young fledged so far from two nests.  Many nests of both species have failed for various reasons.  Overwash from storm tides has been a factor, as well as predation by crows, a coyote and other unidentified culprits.  So far, less than half of all nests have produced fledglings.  For coastal waterbirds, raising a family is a hit-or-miss proposition.

Incubating Least Terns - sketchbook page - at 72 dpi

Incubating Least Terns – sketchbook page, pencil, 8.25″ x 12″

Once on the island, I position myself for good views of the least tern colonies and get to work.  Incubating birds are wonderful models – very dependable and obliging!  After some warm-up sketching, I take out some watercolor paper…

Least Tern Eggshell detail - at 300 dpi

detail of finished watercolor

As I’m watching one sitting bird, I notice an eggshell near the nest, and suspect that a chick has recently hatched.  The adult bird is abit restless, shifting and resettling on the nest.  Next, I see a tiny bill poke out from beneath the adult’s wing, then a small, fluffy head!

Least Tern Chick detail - at 300 dpi

detail of the finished watercolor

The adult bird’s mate arrives with a tiny minnow, and both adults stand on either side of the nestling, prodding it to take the food, which it finally consumes with a gulp.   I modify the drawing I’ve been making to include both the eggshell and the chick!  A drawing from life, unlike a photograph, can be a composite of many moments.

Least Tern with Chick and Eggshell - at 72 dpi

Least Tern with Chick and Eggshell, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 10.25″ x 14.25″

There were two piping plover nests on this part of the island, but the eggs hatched weeks ago.  Now, the young birds can be seen foraging around a small salt pond behind the beach.   The parent birds are nearby and vigilant.  Several times I watch them chase off an intruding plover.   The pale, plump chicks are in constant motion, and difficult to follow with the scope.   They are nearly as large as the adults, but have puffy white collars around the back of the neck, and none of the crisp, strong markings they will sport as adult birds.  Brad tells me they are 27 days old.

Piping Plover Chicks at 27 days - at 72 dpi

Piping Plover Chicks at 27 days, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 9″ x 12.25″




The Plovers of Little Beach

May 29, 2016

Allens Pond, Dartmouth – Part 2: Field Station/ Little Beach

Piping Plover and Shore Flies - at 72 dpi

The next day, I return to Allens Pond, arriving at the Field Station entrance by 8:30 am.  I’m first to pull into the parking area, but am soon joined by Jocelyn, the coastal waterbird monitor.  Just the right person to ply with questions!   She is very helpful, suggesting areas where I might concentrate my efforts.  Jocelyn explains that six pairs of piping plovers have established territories along Little Beach, and that several are within easy walking distance.  I’m told that further out on the east end of the beach, two large least tern colonies are also doing well.

Willet at Allens Pond - at 72 dpi


As I’m setting out on the Beach Loop, several noisy willets put on a good show – perching up on fence posts and stonewalls.  I pass an active osprey nest on a platform over the marsh, and pause to scope the common tern colony on Timmy’s Rock.  In the dunes, beach plum is in full bloom.

Beach Plum at Allens Pond - at 72 dpi

Beach Plum

I cut over to the outer beach and soon notice the areas that Jocelyn has roped off for the plovers.  I stay well back from the ropes and signs, but the first plover I encounter runs from the roped area and engages in a series of distraction displays.

Piping Plover Distraction Display - at 72 dpi

I must be too close to a nest, so I back off and the bird soon settles down.  But it never stays for long in any one spot and following its course over the sand with my scope is challenging.  Only occasionally does it pause to preen or sit down briefly.

Piping Plovers sketchbook page dropout - at 72 dpi

Bulkier than other plovers, piping plovers are rotund and rather “dumpy”.   I enjoy working out their shapes in my sketchbook.  The pale tones of the upperparts have a “bleached out” look that blends seamlessly into the sandy environment and the few dark accents on the forehead and chest can easily be mistaken for random bits of flotsam.

Piping Plover and Shore Flies - at 72 dpi

Piping Plover and Shore Flies, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 10.25″ x 13″

This bird appears to be feeding primarily on shore flies (family Ephydridae, genus Notiphila ?) which are abundant – crawling over the sand and beach vegetation.

Further along the beach, I’m scoping another plover territory when I locate an incubating bird.  A few times it stands up, and I can see at least three speckled eggs under the bird.  It’s an opportunity made for a bird artist, so I take out a sheet of watercolor paper and set to work…

Piping Plover on Nest - at 72 dpi

Piping Plover on Nest, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12″


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

Gone ta Camp

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

Wildwood Camp, Rindge, NH on April 14, 2016

Palm Warbler sketch - at 72 dpi

Palm Warbler sketchbook study, pencil and watercolor, 6″ x 9″

Wildwood is a quiet, peaceful place in April.  The small, year-round staff is busy preparing for the arrival of campers in June, and things are looking ship-shape.   The floating docks are installed on the waterfront and in the empty cabins, the floors are swept clean and sleeping pads are turned up against the walls.  Almost 700 campers are already enrolled for the 2016 season – Wildwood will be a busy place this summer!

Hubbard Pond - at 72 dpi

The first thing I do is head for the waterfront and beach on Hubbard Pond.  The Wildwood camp is the only development on the entire pond.  Mass Audubon owns 159 acres and a good stretch of waterfront, but the remaining shores are all state owned parkland.  Needless to say, the view from the beach is scenic and unspoiled!

I watch an osprey make lazy circles over the pond before visiting the Nature Center cabin behind the Dining Hall.  Inside are intriguing objects like bird nests and mammal skulls!

Skulls, Wildwood - at 72 dpi

I make a drawing of an attractive little plant growing at the edge of the brook just east of the parking area.  I’m puzzled by its identity, so once again enlist Joe Choiniere for help.  He quickly identifies it as Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus) and explains that some plants can be tricky to identify early in the year before they have put on their full growth.  Later in the year, this plant may be up to 30” high with showy yellow flowers on tall stalks!

Golden Ragwort study - at 72 dpi

sketchbook study, pencil, 3″ x 5″

Along the main entrance road I spy a tiny speck of powder blue flitting along the gravel roadside.  It’s a Spring Azure, my first of the season!  Azures are tiny butterflies (each wing about ½”long), and to draw or paint such a tiny creature with “naked eye” is more than my aging eyes can manage.  After chasing this azure up and down the roadside, it finally settles down and I approach cautiously on my knees, then my belly, to get some shots with my digital camera.  Digital cameras are excellent magnifying tools, granting me the opportunity to study the intricate detail of this tiny butterfly.

Spring Azure 2 - at 72 dpi

Spring Azure, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 8″ x 11″

The Azure group of butterflies continues to puzzle taxonomists, and most agree that what we call Spring Azure is actually a complex of three or more species.  The true “Spring Azure” that emerges in early spring has three distinct forms, and the one I’m watching is the palest and most lightly marked form “violacea”.  Spring Azures have an endearing habit of rubbing their hind wings together, alternately up and down.  In my painting, this action reveals just a glimpse of that azure blue upper surface of the wing, for which the species is named.

On the trail to First Point, I follow a palm warbler along the edge of the water.  It flits just ahead of me all down the shore, then gives up the game and flies up to perch on a hemlock bough.  I get my scope on it right away, and can’t believe my luck when it continues to sit quietly for almost ten minutes while I sketch and take pictures.   It’s not often you get this much “scope time” on a wood warbler!

Palm Warbler in Hemlock - at 72 dpi

Palm Warbler in Hemlock, watercolor on Arches cold-press, 9″ x 12″

While eating lunch out on First Point, I gaze up at a big red spruce heavy with cones against a deep blue sky.   Red Spruce is not a common tree in central and eastern Massachusetts, and this tree carries with it a strong flavor of the Northwoods.  Picking out a section of boughs with my scope, I decide to do a quick and rather crude study that nonetheless captures the impression of the moment.

Spruce Branches and Cones 2 - at 72 dpi

Spruce Branches and Cones, watercolor on Arches hot-press, 11″ x 9″


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″


Just Offshore

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

Kettle Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Manchester-by-the-Sea on November 4, 2015

Snow Buntings (detail) - at 72 dpi

I dismantled my exhibition at Joppa Flats this morning, and afterwards decided to head south across Cape Ann to visit Kettle Island – one of Mass Audubon’s newer properties.
Kettle Island is a small, uninhabited island just offshore of the attractive and poetically named town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. The island can be approached by boat, but there are no trails, and you cannot land on the island. However, the adjacent shoreline is owned by the Trustees of Reservations, and offers close looks at the island from the mainland.

Kettle Island - at 72 dpi

Kettle Island, as seen from the Coolidge Reservation

I knew there would be none of the breeding bird specialties of Kettle Island present at this time of year, but I wanted to see the island anyway. In summer its breeding colony includes two species of egrets, little blue herons, black-crowned night herons, glossy ibis and sometimes even tri-colored herons.
From the Ocean Lawn of the Coolidge Reservation, Kettle Island is the most conspicuous feature offshore. With my scope I can pan across the expanse of the island, observing the gulls, cormorants and ducks on and around it. I walk across the broad expanse of the lawn, observing and photographing the island from several vantages, and I’m about to start a drawing of the island, when a flurry of birds erupts from the ground between myself and the ocean.

Snow Buntings - sketchbook page - at 72 dpi

Sketchbook studies of Snow Buntings, pencil and watercolor, 9″ x 12″

The little blizzard swirls and resettles even closer to me – a flock of about thirty-five snow buntings!
From my position, I’m looking west and into the glare of the afternoon sun, which is already low in the sky at mid-afternoon. The birds are strongly back-lit, making bold silhouettes and outlining their upper edges with glowing halos. In sketching the birds with the scope, I pretty much ignore this effect, being more intent on capturing the shapes and gestures. But later, I realized that this aspect could be the basis for an interesting painting. I’ve painted snow buntings before, but never in this kind of light. Nothing like a good challenge to get the juices flowing!
Back in the studio I re-work my sketches and organize them into a pleasing composition. In laying out the group of birds, I realize I can overlap or “stack” them one in front of the other and by so doing I can make the most of those glowing halos. I do some very simple color and tone experiments to help plan my painting strategy, and then start on a larger sheet of watercolor paper.

Snow Buntings STAGE 1 - at 72 dpi

Stage one: the shadow pattern in a neutral wash

First, I paint the shadow pattern in a neutral mid-tone with a strong violet cast.
These first washes on the bright white paper appear much darker than they will in the finished painting, so I anguish: are they dark enough? Or, have I over-compensated and made them too dark? These are the kinds of things that keep water-colorists awake at night!

Snow Buntings STAGE 2 - at 72 dpi

Stage two: adding the background tones and colors

The next washes establish the background tone. It needs to be light enough so that the bird’s silhouettes really stand out. I also try to leave many little bits of white paper showing, to the give the grasses some sparkle, as they, too, pick up glare from the sun.
With the background tone in place, the shadow shapes of the birds look much paler – in fact, it’s possible now to imagine them as predominantly WHITE birds (which snow buntings are!).

Snow Buntings (dark, cool version) - at 72 dpi

The finished painting: Snow Buntings, watercolor on Arches rough, 12.25″ x 16.25″

The final phase of the painting is pretty straight-forward. I simply add the local colors of the bird’s plumage (breast bands, wing-stripes, etc) right on top of the shadow silhouettes.

I hope you can see from this demonstration how much thought goes into the planning of a watercolor. As the British water-colorist Steve Hall once said: “A good watercolor is 90% preparation and 10% execution.”