At the Front Door, Spring

Hepatica nobilis

A swell way to begin one’s day is to have a peenting woodcock on the front lawn at 5 a.m. Peenting is the sound made by the displaying woodcock, a.k.a. timberdoodle. It actually sounds more like an electrical beep, loudly repeated half a dozen times and followed by a soft twittering produced by feathers in free-fall. Too dark to see anything as I stood on the front porch barefoot in the chilly dawn, so I just listened. The woodcock display has been something of a holy grail for me. I’ve been asking around for directions to possible places to watch (wet meadows after sundown) but until this morning peenting woodcocks might as well have been ivory-billed woodpeckers.
Here at the Harvard Forest, life in Benson House has many nice gifts from nature. The stream behind us is called Nelson’s Brook and has abated somewhat from the snow melt cascade it was just a week ago, but it still offers pleasing compositions for the pencil and brush. It creates a lovely rushing sound attractive to birds looking for a drink or a bath. Right outside the front door I have seen pine, palm and prairie warblers; a pair of eastern phoebes are building a mossy nest in the porch eaves; yellow-bellied sapsuckers are tapping the sugar maples right around the house. Just this morning I saw my first blue-headed vireos, a courting pair; then a wild turkey wandered up to the porch looking for birdseed. And then there was that excellent peenting woodcock. Life just gets better and better.

Sugar Maple, Swift River ravine, Petersham

Sugar Maple, Swift River Reservation, Petersham

Boulders, Swift River Ravine, Petersham

Glacial Boulders, Swift River Reservation, Petersham


Last week the premier artist Barry Van Dusen and I hiked and sketched the Swift River Reservation just south of Petersham, a delightful excursion for a sunny afternoon. The trees are still free of foliage, but down on the sunlit forest floor we found a wee tiny blooming flower, Hepatica nobilis, emerging and flowering before the spreading canopy can throw it down into the deep dark well of summer shade. While a grand twisted sugar maple attracted my eye, Barry got down practically on his hands and knees to paint the hepatica. I tried to capture the whole gargantuan specimen on my biggest sheet of paper and and he was quietly drawing and painting the little hepatica, making the most perfect work of watercolor beauty in miniature. I polished off the maple and moved on to a great heap of huge granite boulders, a colossal monument to the great retreating glaciers. Barry stayed small. And perfectly awesome.

Barry Van Dusen painting

Barry Van Dusen gets down.

Hepatica, field painting by Barry Van Dusen

Barry lives nearby in Princeton, Massachusetts, and knows these roads and pathways like a favorite book. He’s a terrific field and bird artist, a fly fisherman, and an all-around naturalist and fun person. He’s as great a birding companion as a sketching one. While we sat in the forest we drew and listened to a winter wren’s vocal cascade in the ravine, an evening grosbeak’s flyover call, a raven’s croak.  Sounds of spring, just like this morning’s woodcock peent. Just the beginning of the season of spring, that first little stirring before it all breaks loose and turns into summer.

7 thoughts on “At the Front Door, Spring

  1. Janet Wilkins says:

    It sounds AND appears that you are amassing an enormous collection of personal reference material for future paintings. It also sounds as though your soul is enjoying the peace and joy that only nature can provide!

    I’m a bit envious too because you are finding flowers and colorful “summer” birds now … as I live just a bit closer to the cool ocean, most wild plants are still just in their “green” colors. Still, I just love the spring colors!

    So you got to hear the woodcock … a favorite place of mine to walk has been turned into an athletic field. Before this happened, I can’t tell you the number of times that I nearly stepped on some woodcocks (they do blend into their surroundings well) but, as they bolted up and flew off, they nearly gave me a heart attack. I still “recovered” quickly enough to see that “distinctive” bill of theirs!

    Enjoy your walks, I love your sketches and the watercolors of Barry Van Dusen.

  2. 100swallows says:

    I feel like I was out there with you and Barry that morning, motmot. Gosh is that old sugar maple tree well-drawn and Barry’s watercolor of the little nobilis flower. I don’t know any of those birds but I’d give a lot to tiptoe through the forest at dawn with you guys and listen. This is the next best thing.

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