Laysan Albatross - Phoebastria immutabilis


March 28, 2008

The previous issue of National Geographic had an extensive article about albatrosses and their current plight. Prior to reading that, albatrosses had been haunting the landscape with their mythic forms in many of the books I had been reading about the Antarctic. How can one not fall in love with a creature that spends years wandering the seas on wingspans up to 11 feet, only returning to land to form pair bonds and mate. In sea lore they were said to be the souls of lost sailors. They mate for life, and some species can live over 50 years. I fell in love, but was guilty of the assumption that creatures that inhabit remote, seemingly pristine areas, whether it be the wide oceans, or remote colonies in places such as South Georgia Island, have somehow been spared the toxic touch of humans. Duh, was I wrong. The National Geographic article brought into sharp relief the slippery slope of extinction on which almost every species of albatross is teetering. Numbers worldwide have been plummeting due to long-line fishing (albatrosses get stuck in lines), and oceans full of plastic flotsam (ingest plastic pieces and will feed them to their young). To clarify the point of plastics, the above photo is the entire stomach contents of a young Laysan Albatross. Awful.

Laysan Albatross belong to the family Diomedeidae (all albatrosses, much debate as to how many species included, but number currently hovers at 21), and the order Procellariiformes (tubenoses that also include storm petrals, and diving petrals). "Laysan" refers to the breeding colony in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In addition to the threats mentioned above, Laysans breeding in the Midway Atoll have fallen prey to lead ingestion. Albatrosses in this area have been ingesting lead-based paint chips from buildings abandoned by the US Navy.

A UK organization, Birdlife International has been manning the Albatross Task Force. The ATF is the world’s first international team of experts educating fishermen on using more albatross friendly fishing techniques to reduce needless casualties. You can read more up on it here and here, and consider making a donation as I just did.

Ruby-throated hummingbird - Archilochus colubris


March 27, 2008

I went into the museum yesterday to do a little work and pick up my tickets for member's night. When I saw what had been set aside for me and the other volunteer, Juna, I was both excited and a bit intimidated. There were two female ruby throated hummingbirds. I had sort of been waiting for the day when I would be allowed to work on one. As you can imagine, because they are so tiny, they are tricky in terms of creating a good study skin. I couldn't get over the tiny perfection of the creature. She was smaller than my thumb. A couple of weeks prior to this, I received my new issue of Audubon, which had some extraordinary photos of different bird nests. The Anna Hummingbird's was the most exquisite. Hummingbird females use moss, lichen, caterpillar silk and spider webs to construct their marvels of nest architecture. The ladies are master crafters, and the results are so beautiful. The female Ruby-throated I worked on came out okay. I was told it was good for a hummingbird skin- hmmm. When I was looking at the skull, I could see the tiny hyoid apparatus. This is a forked, almost tube like structure made of tiny bones that wraps around the back to the bird's skull. It controls the tongue extension and allows for the tongue to extend far beyond its bill and into the deep nectar reservoirs in flowers. Woodpeckers have a similar structure to allow them to probe for insects in trees. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds belong to the family Trochilinae, of which all North American species belong. Ruby-throated is the only hummingbird that occurs here in the Eastern US. They winter in South America, and one of their known migration routes requires them to cross the Gulf of Mexico in one, non-stop Herculean flight.

This painting will be posted to the Etsy shop.

Short-eared Owl - Asio Flammeus


March 24, 2008

This week at the Field Museum is the annul Member's Night. For two nights in a row, the museum gets all tidied up and opens its behind the scenes doors to museum members. People can wander from one department to the next and chat with scientists. I am planning on going Thursday night with a couple of friends to heckle some of the ornithologists, and snoop around some of the the other divisions. I hope the dermestid beetles got the memo to look sharp.

Awhile back I worked on preparing a study skin of a beautiful Short-eared Owl. Dr. Willard had taken it out of the freezer and laid it out to thaw, and when I first glanced at it I thought it was a Long-eared Owl, as we were having quite a few descend upon the Chicago area at the time. I went about looking for the long ear tufts and instead, found none and was momentarily confused (it doesn't take much, I tell you). Asio flammeus is a ground nester, and prefers open habitat, such as tundra, grasslands, and marshes. Although the owl is widespread, its numbers have been declining in recent years (especially in the Northeast). Factors that contribute to decline could be increased predation, and loss of habitat from human disturbance.

Willow Flycatcher - Empidomax traillii


Last week, a couple of friends came in for tours of the Bird Division's prep lab and collections. Both are artists, and both had different reasons for wanting to nose around. Having visitors allows me to pause a bit, and look through the collections too. For all the access I have been given, I don't take advantage of it very often. For instance, on Friday, Tom braved snowy road conditions and came in from Milwaukee to view some Ivory - billed Woodpeckers, and an assortment of Galapagos Finches. I have been volunteering for well over a year, and this was the first time I had looked over the Ivory-bills in the collections; somewhat amazing that it has taken me this long. Tom had just finished reading "The Beak of the Finch", a favorite book, and naturally wanted to see some Galapagos finches. On Wednesday, Andrew came by and whereas Tom had some very specific things he was interested in seeing, Andrew's was more general. He admitted to wanting to incorporate a natural history/museum theme into his work, and I am very eager to witness the results of what was absorbed from his visit.

While Andrew was visiting, I did the typical amount of research skins, two of which were Empidomax trailli. Willow Flycatchers are part of the the family Tyrannidae - Tyrant flycatchers. Tyrant flycatchers are passerine birds of the New World, that are mainly insectivorous. Willow flycatchers are pretty common, and easily confused with the Alder Flycatcher. It was thought at one point that the two were related (formerly the two were known as Traill's Flycatcher), but are now classified as separate species. I saw my first flycatcher in northern Illinois's Glacial Park. I was hiking and saw a bird foraging in a manner that caught my eye. It sat on a branch, and then leapt off and flew in a looping trajectory, quickly returning to the same branch. It did this over and over again. The bird itself was pretty nondescript, but it's fly, catch, and return behavior was unmistakable.

Great-tailed Grackle - Quiscalus mexicanus


March 22, 2008

Recently I returned from a trip to Austin, TX. If you have been in Austin, then you know that it is impossible not to run into one of these. This is an annual trip I make to participate in the SXSW music festival, and for several years I was misidentifying what I was seeing (and hearing) as Boat-tailed Grackles, a very similar species. Early on, it was thought that Boat-tailed and Great -tailed were related subspecies, but eventually it was confirmed that they are distinct from each other, having isolated breeding populations. Boat-tailed range is limited to the Gulf and Florida coastal regions. Great Tailed, on the other hand, is a species that over the last 100 or so years has benefitted from human activity, and as a result has greatly expanded its range. Around 1900, the most northern tip of that range barely extended into Texas, and now it nests in at least 14 states, and has been sighted in 21. Their preference for foraging in open grasslands allowed for adapting to foraging on lawns, pastures, and now, in city dumpsters. Their success has been so profound, that they are considered an agricultural pest, and urban annoyance (I don't know that I would call that success.). And cripes, speaking of urban annoyance, they are so loud! They waddle all over the place, on sidewalks, on lawns, as though they own the place and bray their sharp, mechanical calls. The males are glossy black, with highlights of blue and violet, and have a large tail that is often fanned out. The females have a mostly brown plumage, and a smaller tail, but the same piercing, yellow eyes. A friend's house that we stay at, has a screened in porch that looks out onto their backyard. The trees are always full of screaming, puffed up grackles and cooing white winged doves.

One More Stinkin' Starling


March 19, 2008

I have returned from my trip to the SXSW music festival in Austin, TX. I hope to be back here posting some new work soon. In the meantime I have one more starling painting going up to the Etsy shop.

Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus


March 11, 2008

I am posting today from the the temperate confines of Austin, TX. I am here to participate in a part of the SXSW music festival. It's a convention for rock poster artists called Flatstock. About a third of the illustration work that I do is screenprinted posters for rock shows` and for the past 5 years or so, I have participated in this event, selling my work. At the very least, I get to go to a warmer part of the country when I have just about had my fill of a Chicago winter. Boat-tailed grackles and White-winged doves are the predominant avian citizens around these parts. They both are a constant vocal presence, especially the grackles with their loud, piercing, metallic call.

Last week, when at the museum, I prepared a Black-billed cuckoo. In appearance, it is very similar to the Yellow-billed cuckoo, with the exception of the bill color, and eye ring color. The eye ring on the Yellow-billed is yellow, while on this one, as you can see, it is red. Both are not uncommon birds, but are very secretive. The Black-billed will often eat spiny caterpillars. The spines will stick to the inner lining of their stomachs, and then the stomach lining is shed on a semi-regular basis. Cuckoos are nicknamed "rain crows" for their habit of cooing just before a rain storm. I had never seen either species of cuckoo until this year. I recall reading somewhere that their numbers in the Chicago area were possibly higher than in other years due to the seventeen year cicadas. The cicada abundance last summer provided a real gorge-fest for a whole slew of animals.

More Starlings


March 07, 2008

I don't want to give starlings much more airtime, but they are fun to paint. These are in the Etsy shop.

Red-eyed Vireo - Vireo olivaceus


March 06, 2008

After not going into the museum for 2 weeks, I was able to volunteer this Wednesday. Dr. Willard was on a trip to the Falkland Islands, and things have been busy with illustration work and my husband's new print shop, so it seemed like a reasonable time to take a short break. I want so badly to visit that part of the world (Patagonia, the Falklands) that I shamelessly asked if devoted volunteers get discounts on Field Museum $10,000 cruises, or better yet, get to go free. I didn't think there was a remote chance of being able to wiggle my way onto that boat (and I was right), but did manage to stop myself short of asking if I could be stowed away in luggage. Who would ever know? Ah well, someday. I would love to be able to see an albatross colony.

It was a busy Wednesday in the Bird Division prep lab. There were the group of three regulars: Glen, Joan, and Bob. They focus on ruffing out birds. "Ruffing" means removing all the feathers from birds that are to be made into skeletons. The dermestid beetles will not eat feathers, and so they must be removed in order for them to get to tissue, and thus clean the bones. Myself and Andria (Art Institute Student) were preparing research skins, as usual, and then there was a mother/daughter (home schooled?) pair that have been coming in helping Mary Hennen clean off skeletons that were coming out of the beetle tanks. I prepared a Woodcock (Scolopax minor), Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus), and Eastern Screech Owl (Asio otus). Paintings of these will be turning up on here soon, I hope, especially the owl.

Several months ago, I prepared a Red-eyed Vireo, and just never got around to getting a sketch together. These vireos are quite common, and breed extensively across North America and Canada. They winter in the Amazon basin, east of the Andes. Their diet consists largely of insects, especially during the breeding season, and fruit largely supplements their winter diet. I love the olive green coloring and the bright, tomato red eye.

European Starling - Sturnus vulgarus


March 01, 2008

I don't think that I have ever prepared a study skin of a starling, but I deal with them on a daily basis. This summer a couple crammed themselves into a hole above our porch and bred (equals noise and mess!). When we first moved into our place, we constantly found them in the attic before we had the roof replaced and everything sealed. Two weeks ago, they upped the ante. Two of them had managed to get into the chimney and fell all the way down to the base of the stove pipe attached to the boiler in the basement. The wood burning stove had been running all day, so the boiler wasn't on (lucky for them). I could hear them scuffling about, and making sounds that seemed to be the bird equivalent of "you got me into this mess!". I opened the vent, then out they flew into the basement and right up into an opening in the ceiling. Gah! I managed to get them out the door after about 15 minutes of some antics with a broom, and the focused help of two cats. At one point while they were still tucked into the ceiling, I even tried talking "starling" to lure them out. I was surprised when one actually poked its head out, very interested, and then realized "oh crud, I've been duped!".

Starlings are an introduced species. 100 birds were released in Central Park in NYC in 1891, because of some group that wanted to release every species that appeared in a Shakespeare work. Since then they have spread across the continent and reached numbers of 200 million; all from 100 individuals. They're a highly social, gregarious species, and are also excellent mimics, mimicing anything from the songs of other birds, to human speech, to inanimate objects (i.e. cellphone rings). Their penchant for cavity nesting has had adverse effects on native species of birds, specifically woodpeckers. The more aggressive starlings will often evict woodpeckers from their cavity nests in trees. They're a familiar sight in rural areas in flocks of hundreds that ball up together and expand and contract across the field and sky.

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