Late May on the beach….

It is only a few days before Memorial Day and the Cape Cod beaches are beautiful…and still pretty quiet so come for a walk with me…

First we’ll take a turn by the sweet smelling rosa rugosa’s which are blooming really early this year…

We will stop to admire the beach peas, also blooming really early….and while we’re at it we’ll look out over Nantucket Sound…

Here’s a close up of those lovely beach peas…

We’ll enjoy the view of the sliver that remains of Egg Island, that only shows up at low tide. That’s Great Island in Yarmouth in the background.

We’ll stop to look across Lewis Bay in the amazing light…

Check out some courting least terns…

and smile at the ones lined up at the edge of the water…

And then we’ll take one last long look at the sand, sea and sky before we head back to work…

Painting a few eggs and babies….

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to go to some wonderful places, including gull nesting colonies, while working with people doing various bird studies, etc. The nest that I painted here was off Plymouth and I did many sketches and took many photos during the few days I was there helping someone weigh and measure baby gulls. These are most likely herring gulls since they were the prevalent bird nesting in that area but I can’t swear to that–when this tiny the baby black backs look similar and so do their eggs. Gull nests are built on the ground and have an average of 3 eggs. The baby in this nest has just hatched and you can see the pip, or hole being made by the next gull that will hatch.

I thought it might be fun to show you my process while I painted this. I don’t pretend it is perfectly done but it was fun to do.

First, I sketch in the basic shapes with a pencil and then lay in the first watercolor wash.

I build up the painting, layer by layer by adding different mixes of colors

Watercolors need to have their layers built up gradually, allowing for a lot of transparency and play with colors and their complements…

I start to add some details…

Continuing to add layers I am darkening the darkest parts but beginning to add more layers to the eggs and bird, too

More details, more layers, another wash or two…

and it’s done! The finished piece is 8 x 10″ and makes a nice addition to my bird painting portfolio. I hope you enjoyed seeing how it was done.

"Someone’s been sleeping in my bed," said the little owl…

Earlier this week a reader of my Weekly Nature Watch column (Enterprise newspapers) called to tell me they had a screech owl sitting on a branch in their yard. They had previously had screech owls in a nesting box they had built but the day before they called me a squirrel had moved into the box. It was rainy, windy and cold the day I went over and sure enough, there was the little screech owl sitting on the branch, watching the box…..Every now and then the squirrel peeked out of the box but mostly it stayed inside and let the owl stare and stare and get wet and cold…..Screech owls are pretty common on the Cape and they are fairly easy to lure to nest boxes. Owl nest boxes have a 3″ hole which unfortunately is plenty big for squirrels, too. You can see that this box has even had the hole edges chewed on, most likely by squirrels, which enlarges the hole. It is not uncommon for screech owls and squirrels to go back and forth winning the box back and then losing it again. Home owners that prefer the owls are encouraged to clean the squirrel nest materials out of the box daily so the owl can return. The squirrels may still win, however.

These homeowners were adding several other nest boxes this week so it will be interesting to see what happens next. Screech owls are using boxes or holes in trees to roost right now. They don’t nest until February or March. You may be hearing great horned owls right now because they are getting ready to nest and all that hooting is helping them find a mate. Screech owls don’t hoot, by the way. They either let loose with a blood curdling screech or make a sound that is sort of like the whinnying of a horse.

Indian Pipes!

At this time of year many of our native wildflowers are blooming their last blooms but it is a great time to look for those little ghostly white plants called Indian pipes. They are fairly common in our piney woodlands and although they can be found blooming any time from June on it seems that September is their favorite time of year. On walks this week I found hundreds and hundreds of them.

Indian pipes look like a fungus because they have no chlorophyll but they are true plants nonetheless. Since they don’t photosynthesize they must get their energy elsewhere. Their roots mingle with those of fungi, such as russula or bolete mushrooms whose roots are drawing energy from the roots of neighboring trees.
Don’t pick these little flowers for they will just shrivel up and turn black, a fact that many find somewhat disturbing and which has given the plant a scary reputation with some people. One of its other names is corpse plant, probably because of this trait.
If you are walking in the woods after dark you might see these little guys glow a bit. They are really just reflecting light but its a pretty cool sight.

Young gulls….

are easy to recognize with their gray and rather mottled appearance and there are quite a few of them on our beaches and in parking lots right now. Some species of gull keep their immature plumage for up to 4 years though the average is probably more like 2-3 years.

This young bird is a first year herring gull. Herring gulls used to be the dominant gull on the Cape, with a few greater Black-backed gulls mixed in and laughing gulls in the summer. Black-backs are now the dominant gull, I believe. They are the largest gull and very aggressive so that is not surprising. There are still plenty of herring gulls around, though. They are the gulls most people around here refer to as sea gulls. There aren’t really any particular birds named sea gull, by the way. It’s just a general sort of name, like minnows for tiny fish…..

This is an adult herring gull starting to go into its fall plumage. See the red tip at the end of the beak? That is fading now but in the spring and summer that is a bright red. Baby gulls eat food regurgitated by their parents and they let their parents know they are hungry by pecking on the red spot.
Do you know why herring gulls are called herring gulls?

Spring Finally Arrives on Cape Cod!

It was a beautiful morning for walking and I took a quick walk over at the Skunknet Conservation area between errands and got to try out my new camera! Ovenbirds were calling like crazy and I got this dark picture of one singing above by zooming way in and hoping for the best. I am really just trying to figure this new camera out but am very excited about the possibilities it seems to have for photographing all sorts of things on my nature walks.

I found my first lady slippers in bloom.

¬†Also, sarsparilla is coming up all over. It looks very much like poison ivy at this stage but note the bracket of 3 branches. It also has a little flower ball coming up just underneath it in many cases.Starflowers are among my favorite spring flowers and they are just starting to bloom almost everywhere there’s a sunny woodland floor.
This big old white pine seems to be standing guard over this huge area of Canada mayflower and starflowers. In another few days they should all be in bloom. Once the leaves all fill out overhead the spring flowers of the sun dappled forest floor will fade away until it is time once again to announce that spring has arrived at last.

New Life

Everywhere you look there is new life growing. Leaves are popping out all over. Some are on the branches of trees and some are on the forest floor.

Early in the spring is the best time to find a concentration of flowering plants on the forest floor. They need the sun and once all the trees have their leaves the forest floor will be shaded. There will still be flowers later in the season but for me there is a certain sweetness in the early spring flowers.

Mayflower or trailing arbutus is still flowering in most Cape locations. I also found this little wild violet on the side of the trail and thousands of leaves of the Canada mayflower or false lily of the valley, that will be in bloom over the next few weeks. These pictures were taken at Hathaway’s Pond in Hyannis.

Mucking About in Swamps

is probably one of kids’ favorite things to do.

It’s got everything kids love. It is goopy, slimy, mucky, muddy, dirty, wet, creepy, crawly and even a little scary because you just never know what might jump, pop, slither, or crawl your way without warning.

It is a place to look under rocks and logs, to jump and splash, to find frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles and snakes. Yep, perfect kid place.

This swamp is in Wellfleet on Cape Cod.

Kids and Nature

Kids and nature are a natural mix and just a simple walk can be full of all sorts of wonders.

You might spy a painted turtle on a rock.
You could stop at a bird blind along the way to see what you could see.

You might see a red-winged blackbird singing and showing off his red epaulets.

You could find a caterpillar like this wooly bear crossing the path. Notice how it curls up to protect itself.
Or a box turtle. This lady was the first to be found on the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary this season. She was brought in to the center to be weighed and measured and checked to see if she was a sanctuary regular. The sanctuary has been keeping records of the box turtle population there for many years and kids love to be part of gathering the data.

Or some Fowler’s toads. These gentlemen had taken a wrong turn and were found in a damp stairwell when we went outside to play some games after lunch. Their black chins and release noise told us they were males. Toads often can’t seem to tell the difference between males and females if they are excited about mating and the males have a special noise they make to let other males know they are not females. The kids were very excited to touch and hold these little toads before we released them far from the stairwell.

What did you see today?