Raven Creates the World


August 31, 2011

This time of year I am usually on a plane headed for the Pacific Northwest. For various reasons, we weren't able to make our usual work/vacation trek out west. It's strange how my body and mind seem to know that I am supposed to be there right now. It knows I am supposed to be listening for ravens and looking for orcas. I love flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest so much that I get a little wacky when I can't be around it at least once a year. Hopefully, the next time I go it will be with my daughter. I have fantasies about taking the ferry from Anacortes to the San Jauns with her and my husband, and pointing out orcas, dolphins and harbor seals to her. Taking hikes on Orcas while telling Isabel that the croaking call that she hears echoing throughout the hills and towering stands of cedar is that of the raven, and then explaining that the raven created the world and is a bit of a trickster.

Great-crested Flycatcher - Myiarchus crinitus


August 29, 2011

Hello - it's time for your Monday morning study skin lesson. Last week at the Field I was able to work on a beautiful specimen of a Great-crested Flycatcher; a bird that I have never seen before, neither in the prep lab or while bird watching. As flycatchers go it's quite large. As you can see, its breast is a beautiful light, lemon yellow, and it has long sienna brown tail feathers. I was sad to see it in the lab as it was a window kill, but I was excited to have an opportunity to study up close such an amazing species.

Last week I posted a couple of photos of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that I had made in to a study skin, and thought that I would provide a few more process photos this time around. At this point, I am generally able to identify what I am working on, but in this case I didn't recognize the species and had to look it up in a guide. All specimens have a tag tied to their feet with a number, its scientific name, and the date it was collected.

The second photo shows what the bird looks like right before it is stuffed. I have removed everything except for the skull, wing bones, and leg bones. The skin has been cleaned of any fat and blood (usually there is little) with some sawdust. The larger piece of cotton will replace its body, with the thin part threading up through its neck and out the beak. The q-tip looking dowel will lend some support to the neck. The cotton end will be gently pushed up in to the skull, and this will also aid in keeping the eye cotton in place. Once all of the cotton is in place, then I sew up along the breast. This was the first (and only) incision I made to skin the bird.

Once sewn up, legs are tied together, and beak is tied shut. Some of the info that is included on the new tag: who the skin was prepared by (me!), sex (m), amount of body fat (low), tissue taken (yes), size and type of gonads (4 x 7 mm, testes), and skull ossification (100%). We only note skull ossification in passerine species. In the case of my flycatcher, the skull was fully ossified. This means that when I looked at it after removing the brain, a fine stippling pattern could be seen throughout the bone. This indicates that it is an adult bird. If I was working on something like a waterfowl, hawk, or an owl, ossification would not be relevant as their skulls develop differently.

The final step is to then pin out the bird to dry for a couple of weeks. I find that this is sometimes the most challenging part, and can determine a beautifully done study skin. The actual skinning can be challenging, depending on your skill level and the species on which you work. Bird skin varies greatly in strength from species to species. Robins and nightjars have infuriatingly delicate skin; tearing if you glance at them. Hummingbirds, on the other hand, have shockingly tough and elastic skin. But once the skinning is complete, there is the matter of putting feathers back in place and to make the bird look as natural as possible. I could spend twice the amount of time fussing and fidgeting with smoothing and positioning feathers compared to what I spend on the actual skinning. An experienced skinner will have developed an understanding of anatomy and feather placement, and it always shows in the final resulting specimen.

Well, I think this post is long enough! I hope to have time to do a watercolor of this fellow this week. We'll see. If I do, I'll be sure to post it.

Star Map


August 25, 2011

Oftentimes when I am working in the zoology prep lab at the Field, Dave Willard (bird collections manager) will come in with a tour group and give a brief talk about the birds (specifically the ones me and other volunteers work on) that are brought in to the lab, and how urban areas such as Chicago can pose hazards to migrating birds. Last week I overheard him say "these birds are born with a map of the stars in their heads" , and thus when they come upon a mass of lights in a dense urban area such as Chicago, it interferes with their ability to guide by the night sky.

I left the museum thinking about the phrase "born with a map of the stars". The idea that we all are born with some type of internal navigation system, whether it be a star map or some other type of intuition. I thought about how we start with these mechanisms to help guide us through life, and how there are so many things in life that can convolute these instincts and knock us off course. There's so much audio and visual noise that we ( bird and human) have to sift through on a daily basis, that a lot of the time it's as though we have to dumb down our senses, instincts, and internal guides just to cope. I often come to this realization whenever I am out camping or staying in a quiet rural area for more than a couple of days. Know what I mean? Anyway, I was inspired to make a little watercolor.

Have a lovely weekend, and do something to check in with your internal star map. I promise that it is still there.

p.s the watercolor is in the STORE, along with THIS watercolor too.

Avian Architecture


August 24, 2011

Recently I acquired a copy of a new, amazing bird book: Avian Architecture by Peter Goodfellow. As the title suggests it is all about how birds design and build their nests. It's fascinating. Just about anybody can marvel at the diversity of technique and the sheer ingenuity of our feathered buddies, but architects, crafters, and builders do take note. The book is organized by nest type: cup-shaped, aquatic, hanging and woven, mounds, and so on. Each chapter through writing and illustration details each technique while focusing on several species that employ that specific method. Techniques range from the beautifully complex, woven hanging basket of a Baltimore Oriole to the mound of stones that an Adélie penguin hords and lays its egg upon.

Speaking of orioles, the book helped me to identify a nest that my husband had found on a walk this spring as that of a Baltimore Oriole. You can see in the photos above that the nest is stitched together using a number of different materials. What's even more amazing is that the materials have been carefully selected and placed. There is an inner and outer layer. The outer layer consists of string, some type of black fishing line, and some shredded plastic-y material of the sort with which you would line an easter basket. The interior layer is entirely lined with finely woven grass or some other plant matter. All is stitched in to a surprisingly strong structure while also being delicate and light weight. Tis truly some of the finest craftsmanship I have ever seen in a functional object.

HERE's a NYT article on Peter Goodfellow's book.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Pheucticus ludovicianus


August 15, 2011

My apologies if this is a bit too morbid to go with your Monday morning cup of coffee, but I thought I would show you what I do when I volunteer at the Field Museum. Yes, this beautiful, male P. ludovicianus is dead. He was a window kill. A volunteer found him near a downtown building, and he was brought to the museum to be made in to a study skin. That's where I come in. He died in May of this year, and has been sitting in a museum freezer until last week. He'd been catalogued, weighed and measured, but needed to be turned in to a study skin. I went in last Thursday, and Dave Willard ( bird collections manager) removed him from the freezer to thaw. It took me roughly 1.5 hours to remove all his viscera and stuff him with cotton. I also have to measure his gonads and take a tissue sample. After he's been cleaned and sewn back up, then (as you can see in the photo above) the specimen is pinned out to dry for a week or two before going in to the collections. He'll rest in the collections with others of his kind, until needed for research. Sad, I know, but at least this way we can maybe find something out that will help reduce the number of window kills annually. I'll talk a bit about the species in depth in a following post.

Garfield Park Conservatory Benefit


August 09, 2011

Hey there. A while back I posted a couple of paintings I did to benefit the Garfield Park Conservatory. Here's another one, except this will not be available in my online shops. It will be available for silent auction at Lincoln Hall here in Chicago. On Thursday, August 18 Lincoln Hall is hosting a music event and silent art auction to benefit the Garfield Park Conservatory. In the area? Come on out for a great night of music, and a wonderful cause!

British Soldiers - Cladonina cristatella


August 08, 2011

Some of my in-laws had been doing work on their home rooftop, and apparently there is quit a little, biodiverse lichen and moss habitat up there. It's my husband's aunt and uncle's house, and when my mother-in-law saw what they were removing she snagged a couple these wooden planks for me. She knows I am interested in lichens (in addition to knowing I am a world class nut). Currently the planks sit out on my front porch. It's been so darned hot and wet here, that all sorts of crazy fungi have been popping up all over the place. I saw a couple of my first stinkhorn fungi yesterday, and yep, they look and smell exactly as the name implies.

You can see the lichen and moss abundance that was growing atop my in-laws roof in the photo above. It looks like someplace that Tinkerbell would bed down for the night. The red belongs to "British Soldiers" or Cladonia cristella. I had never seen lichen of this sort in an urban area before, but apparently C. cristella is pollutant tolerant, and thus fairly common and well known. There is also some species of pixie cup lichen (Tinkerbell has to be able to drink her cocktails from something) mixed in there; perhaps Mealy Pixie Cup or Cladonia Chlorophaea.

I hope to do a little painting of these guys a bit later. I'll post it if I do.

Hut Point


August 01, 2011

A watercolor commissioned for a friend, by his girlfriend for his birthday. He's been to Antarctica many times, and has wintered over. His girlfriend has done penguin and skua research there, and Hut Point became a special location for them. The peninsula still has Robert Falcon Scott's hut from one of his expeditions. Being the big Antarctic history, flora, and fauna nut that I am, this was a lot of fun to do.

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