Saturday, January 31, 2009


Last June I was asked to join a team to put together a new exhibit at the Museum. We have an extensive collection of specimens that goes back over 150 years and we wanted to give visitors to the Museum a sample of these huge collections. It was decided that we would do a bird exhibit and I was charged with deciding how to present them and then select the specimens. As Chicago is such a hot spot on the migratory route for hundreds of bird species that seemed like a fairly obvious choice for the theme of the exhibit. I then divided the birds by habitat, woodland, grassland and water with a final section showing birds that have adapted successfully to city life.

Once I had selected all the specimens, our excellent Collections team then took on the very long and detailed task of condition reporting, repairing (if needed) and cleaning all the specimens for display. In the mean time I wrote a descriptive piece for each bird (all 102 of them!) and members of the exhibits team worked on putting together the display case. Within each habitat we had to decide how the birds would be arranged. This was done initially by drawing rough outlines of all the birds on foam core and juggling them around until they looked right. We then tacked the foam core onto a false back, inside the display case and punched through a hole where each species would be located and wrote the name of the bird beside it. The false back had a layer of brown paper over it so that we could make notes about how the bird was to be attached etc. We then finally started to attach each specimen to the false back, inside the case.

This was a very important part of the process because despite all the prep' work, you never really know until you have the actual specimen in place, how it is going to look in relation to all the others. And believe me we did a lot of switching around at this stage!

As you can see, we didn't have much space to work in inside the case!

When we had screwed, drilled or hooked all the specimens in place we then had to take them all down again - This was a false back remember! The brown paper was removed and kept as a template and the real backdrop was put in.

We could now work from the template, putting all the specimens on to the real back drop - no room for errors in this process, once a hole was drilled there was no changing our minds!

This was the really rewarding part of the process. We often worked late into the night but none of us seemed to mind as we were actually seeing our new exhibit taking shape before our eyes.

Finally we had every bird in place, we then put in all the labels, closed up the case and breathed a huge sigh of relief!
In front of the case we have two screens, one has a touchscreen which allows you to see a close-up photograph, read my descriptive piece, hear the call, and see video of each of the species inside the case. The other screen talks about migration, how you can get involved with birds (voice over done by me, so someone has already commented that it sounds very BBC!!) and also shows the different habitats and places you can visit nearby to see these birds.

At the side of the case we have a big map showing the area commonly referred to as the Mississippi Flyway and talking about bird migration in general and in particular in relation to Chicago.

And so, as they say, 'our work here is done.' I hope many people will get a great deal of pleasure from this new exhibit and hopefully learn more about their avian neighbours too.
The one thing I take away from this project is the confirmation of the fact that I have some awesome co-workers. Namely, Dawn, Amber and Steve from our collections department who toiled away long and hard to get all the specimens on display, Brian, our IT wizard who's endless patience with my utter lack of technical knowledge when putting together all the video pieces must have nearly driven him crazy! And also to Kerri the project manager who had the unenviable task of keeping us all on target and up to deadlines - something akin to herding cats! I have a huge feeling of pleasure every time I walk past this exhibit - I guess that is what is known as job satisfaction :)

Photo Credits - CJT

Friday, January 30, 2009

SKYWATCH FRIDAY (Back to Cornwall)

As the skies of Chicago have been rather grey and uninspiring this week I have decided to take you on a whistle-stop tour of Cornwall for something a little more cheery, and considerably warmer!

When we visited last June the weather was glorious and all the wild flowers were blooming.

Being a fairly exposed peninsula of land, there are some pretty serious winds that blow at various times of the year which are strong enough to influence the shapes of the trees.

Once the centre of tin mining for the world, these ancient stone mine buildings are dotted all along the coastline as reminders of an earlier industrial age.

With the exception of a small region of serpentine, virtually the entire peninsula is comprised of predominantly granite with very shallow top soil. Not many plants can thrive in these conditions but one that is successful is heather. Pictured here at Cape Cornwall as the sun was setting and the moon was rising.

Even after the sun has set the scenery is still dramatic and starkly beautiful.

Travel the worlds skies at Skywatch Friday.

Photo Credits - CJT & Dominick V

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week it is the letter 'B' for ABC Wednesday so I am going with B is for Bark. I am not talking about the noise that a dog makes but rather the covering on a tree. I have always loved the huge variety of patterns and textures that bark comes in so I figured why not?

Bark serves as a waterproof, defensive layer for the tree, helps prevent loss of water from the tree by evaporation, acts as a barrier against attacks by insects and diseases, insulates the tree from drastic temperature changes, and in some instances, protects the tree from fire damage. It also serves as a shield to protect a very important part of the tree—the cambium layer.

The cambium (a watery layer only a few cells thick) is the generative layer, giving rise to both xylem and phloem. Xylem carries water and minerals from the roots to the leaves. Phloem carries manufactured food (sugars) from the leaves to the roots.

Bark also rids the tree of wastes by absorbing and locking them into its dead cells and resins.
Thickness of the bark varies with the different tree species. In some, the protective armor is quite thin, but in others it can be very thick. For example, the bark on a few of the giant sequoia trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is two feet thick.

As the growing tree expands by adding a new sapwood layer, its protective armor becomes too tight, and the outer bark splits and cracks. Definite bark patterns are produced by each species as a result of this cracking, and these patterns are so distinct that some trees can be identified by them. The outer bark layers also are shed in many different ways. Birth bark peels off in paper-thin strips; sycamore bark flakes off in large, thin, brittle plates; cedar bark peels off in long, fibrous strips; and the cinnamon-red plates of the ponderosa pine flake off in bits like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

So there is plenty going on under this tranquil exterior! Because bark does serve so many purposes, there are very few trees that can survive being ring-barked. Ring-barking is when a horizontal strip of bark is removed all the way around the circumference of the tree either by animals or man, thus essentially cutting of its 'circulation'. The tree will then slowly die.

There is one big exception to this. The mighty Baobab Adonsonia digitata. The debate continues to rumble as to whether this can truly be called a tree or rather the worlds biggest succulent. The bark on the lower part of the trunk often bears scars caused by local people who harvest and pound it to retrieve the strong fibre.

Although the bark is often heavily stripped by people and elephants, these trees do not suffer as a normal tree would from ring-barking. Baobabs have the ability to simply continue growing and produce a new layer of bark. The wood of the baobab is soft, light yellow and spongy.

You may have worked out by now, I love trees, their shapes and structures and their shade but I have to confess, although I would be able to tell you the names of many trees in the area of Africa where I used to live, I have been very lazy about learning North American trees, so please don't ask me to identify all the trees I have photographed above!

To see how B inspires other people go to ABC Wednesday.

Photo Credits
All Bark Pictures - CJT
Baobab - Robin Pope Safaris

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Tai at Earth, Wind and Water and the organisers of the Nature Blog Network are encouraging their members to list their top ten nature posts of 2008. Are they kidding? I don't think I can narrow it down to ten! I had so much fun last year, trying to pick only ten is a tough task! So I have gone for the top ten nature moments of 2008, some of them are a single post, and some are not.

10. Discovering that that leaf wasn't a leaf at all!

I had never seen a Maple Spanworm Moth before and this one was a beauty!

9. The Tussock Moth Story unfolding

This was a great series of sightings over the summer during which I learned all about another new invertebrate.

8. Supper with the Snakes

This is where the top ten nature posts goes a little awry! I didn't actually do a post for this event! My excuse was that I was suffering (unbeknown at the time) from appendicitis and would actually end up in hospital the next day so I wasn't feeling up to photographing the event or posting about it. However it was an event that I thought of and put together, at the Museum. Children of all ages (!) came for supper the night after Halloween and shared their evening with all the snakes in my care plus a few extras! It was great hit and is now going to an annual event.

7. Our annual Biology Department Field Trip.

This is always a fun event because we are a diverse group all with different areas of expertise so the number of interesting things we see in a relatively short period of time is massive.

6. Finally getting to see Giant Tortoises, up close and personal.

Nothing can really prepare you for seeing these behemoths for the first time. They are so huge and there is something incredibly powerful, emotionally about the fact that some of the largest have been wandering around for hundreds of years, truly humbling.

5. Overcoming my fear of water enough to go snorkeling.

This was an awesome experience and now that I have my terribly geeky, bright yellow, buoyancy device there will be no stopping me! Provided we are somewhere were the water is warm!!

4. Possibly discovering a species in a previously unrecorded area.

This was a weekend designed just for 'getting away from it all' but as it turned out, it is possible that one of the species I photographed and posted is a new species recording for that area so when I go back this year I have been charged with recording the GPS co-ordinates and collecting a couple of specimens.

3. My First Bioblitz

Some would call us crazy but I loved this event. Hopefully it will be the first of many.

2. Getting my Blanding's Turtle Project off the ground.

Its been a long time coming but this project is fascinating, hugely rewarding and one of which I am quite proud.

1. The trip of a lifetime.

The Galapagos! How could anyone with an interest in the natural world not be totally inspired by these truly incredible islands?

Quite a year. Who knows what 2009 will hold? Although somehow I doubt that I will be doing anything to top the number 1. listing!

Photo Credits -
10, 9, 8, 7, 4 - CJT
6, 5, 1 - Dominick V
2, 3 - Jamie Stubis.

Friday, January 23, 2009

SKYWATCH FRIDAY (A Ray of Light, Part Two)

Well the sky has obliged again this week and provided me with another view. As the sun was rising over Lake Michigan it went behind the clouds but there were a couple of little splits in the clouds and that was enough to let the rays through which then, in turn, reflected on the partially frozen lake.

There are skywatch shots from all over the world at Skywatch Friday, check it out!

Photo Credits - CJT

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I have seen ABC Wednesday posts on other peoples blogs but being slightly obsessive I wanted to wait and start at A! And this week it has come around again.
So I thought I would continue with the theme of my previous post and have A for AMAZING AMPHIBIANS. After all, my previous post showed the stars who will be featuring in our upcoming exhibit but there are a couple of others who are feeling a little left out.

This delightful Gray Tree Frog Hyla versicolor is a recent acquisition. An ex member of staff phoned me up because she found him sheltering in one of her plant pots and wanted him to go somewhere were he would be well cared for. How could I say no to such a charming character? Now he sits in his tank gobbling up crickets and in the mornings he puffs up and chatters away at the top of his voice.

This charismatic American Toad Bufo americanus has grown up here at the Museum. My co-worker Jamie rescued it from her window well where it was in grave danger from her wayward Dachshunds! We do a regular toad feeding program each week and people love to see her gobbling up waxworms or crickets.

This is the 'Naomi Cambell' of Cane Toads from my previous post who still hasn't quite forgiven me for making him pose for the photo session. Much happier now sitting and pooping in his water bowl! How charming!

Whatever your opinions of amphibians they are great indicators of the health of our surroundings. They have semi-permeable skin and so are very susceptible to any pollutants and toxins that we put into the water, spray on the land or inadvertently release into the air. If you live in an area where you see frogs and toads on a regular basis, think yourself lucky. If it is healthy for them then it is healthy for you too. If, like many of us, you rarely see amphibians, that is cause for concern. Approximately one third of all amphibian species are in rapid decline. In fact there is such concern about this issue that 2008 was declared the year of the frog, to try and raise awareness of their plight. If you would like to find out more, check out this great website.
In the mean time enjoy some other posts relating to the letter A at ABC Wednesday.

Photo Credits - CJT

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I am currently working on a new exhibit about amphibians. I have to suggest suitable live specimens, provide them, house them appropriately in the exhibit and provide copy for their labeling. An extra little twist last week was to provide some good photographs that our marketing department could use to publicize the exhibit. Not the usual thing for me but you have to understand neither our exhibits department or our marketing department are too keen on getting up close and personal with any of the critters in my care. Frogs and toads are not about posing to have their pictures taken and tend to jump about, so the marketing crew essentially whimped out and asked us to do it! Which is fine, I wouldn't want to do their job either so I don't have a problem with it.
My colleague Vincent, otherwise known as 'the bug man' is very good about lending a hand with things with backbones if I ask him. He is an extremely talented photographer who could easily make a career in photography if he ever fell out of love with invertebrates! He also has an enormous camera with dozens on buttons on it, and, most impressive of all, he knows how to use it! So he was an obvious choice as photographer for this shoot. The snag being of course that he had to have bright lights and still subjects to get decent photos, neither thing is particularly enjoyable for a frog or toad. Some people will 'slow things down' by putting the critter into a fridge for a while before photographing. I wasn't about to do that. So I was responsible for catching the wayward models and repositioning them when they hopped off! I think you will agree, Vincent did a fantastic job.

The Cuban Tree Frog Osteopilus septentrionalis was the most obliging of the models and struck the pose without too much coaxing.
This native to Cuba and neighboring Caribbean islands has become established in Southern States of North America. It is an invasive species and is now the largest species of Tree Frog in North America. Consuming native frogs and lizards and posing a threat to the biodiversity of the areas into which it spreads. It hitchhikes on vehicles or relocated soil and plants. The native green and squirrel tree frogs are rapidly disappearing due to its presence. This species of frog has a large appetite, it will eat insects, other frogs (even frogs of their own species), snakes, lizards, and young birds. They vary in colour from dark green to pale grey and will change colour depending on their environment. These noisy frogs have a call that sounds like the bark of a small dog! They have expanded pads on the ends of their toes that allow them to climb trees, shrubs, windows, and buildings. The presence of toe pads can help distinguish tree frogs from other frogs such as toads and aquatic frogs like bullfrogs. Cuban Tree Frogs have exceptionally large toe pads.

This is a baby Ornate Horned Frog Ceratophrys ornate who won everyone's hearts from the day he arrived! I am not sure whether people will still be so fond of him when he reaches full size.
This is one of several species of Horned Frog native to tropical and montane rain forests of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Due to their disproportionately large mouth and voracious appetite they are commonly referred to as Pac-man Frogs. Their upper eyelid is pulled up into a little point over the eye, forming the appearance of ‘horns’ from which they got their name. They move about very little, preferring to lie in ambush. They will swallow prey up to their own body size, they feed on frogs, lizards, snakes, rodents, birds or large insects or your fingers if you get too close! All of the horned frogs have enormous mouths and are highly predatory, even the tadpoles are highly carnivorous. This species of Horned Frog can grow up to five inches across.

I know - it's not a frog! But the name of the exhibit is Amazing Amphibians so that's OK! This is a Tiger Salamander Ambystoma tigrinum His name is Fat Boy and he is quite used to the spotlight as he has been used for publicity a number of times and been on TV.
The Tiger Salamander is the State Amphibian of Illinois, they are the largest land-dwelling salamander in the world. They emerge from their burrows at night to feed on worms, insects, frogs, and even other salamanders. Salamanders deposit their eggs in pools and ponds where they hatch into an aquatic larval form with large, external gills. Eventually the larva will lose its gills and emerge from the water, taking on the adult form. Some larva never metamorphosize into the adult form, they become sexually mature while in their larval form, this is called neoteny. The occurrence of neotenous forms is particularly common where terrestrial conditions are bad. These salamanders are relatively long lived reaching 12 to 15 years of age and in some cases even older.

This Cane Toad Bufo marinus was the most badly behaved of the models, maybe we should call it Naomi Cambell? He hopped around all over the place and every time I picked him up to reposition him he chattered at me furiously.
Also known as the Giant Neotropical Toad or Marine Toad, this is a large, terrestrial true toad native to Central and South America. Its reproductive success is partly because of opportunistic feeding: it has a diet, unusually, of both dead and living matter. Adults average 4 to 6 inches in length. Prinsen a toad kept as a pet in Sweden, is listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the largest recorded specimen weighing in at 5.8 lb with a length of 15 inches from snout to vent. The cane toad has numerous glands, when threatened, the Cane Toad secretes a milky-white fluid known as bufotoxin from these glands. Bufotoxin contains components that are toxic to many animals and the tadpoles are highly toxic to most animals if ingested. Because of its voracious appetite, the Cane Toad has been introduced to many regions of the Pacific and the Caribbean islands as a method of agricultural pest control, notably failing in the case of Australia in 1935, and derives its common name from its use against the Greyback Cane Beetle pests of sugar plantations.

Who gets your vote as Americas next Top Model?

Photo Credits - Vincent O

Saturday, January 17, 2009


I have done posts previously about the Blanding's Turtle Project that I work on. This week I did a phone interview for another article about them. I particularly like how this one came out, the writer did a good job of getting all the facts out there. If you would like to learn more about these wonderful creatures, check out the article.

Photo Credits - CJT

Friday, January 16, 2009


This morning when I was getting ready for work the Weather Channel kindly informed me it was -17 degrees outside with a wind chill of -33 degrees. Oh whoopee I am going to freeze on my five minute walk to work! But my one consolation as I put on the dozens of layers of clothes required to step outside was that this was a great photo 'op' and all from the comfort of my own front room! This is Lake Michigan steaming, although the lake is frozen it is still much warmer than the air temperature, hence the steam.

And this was the ice on the inside of my windows this morning. (yes, I did say the inside :) ) It looks so pretty with the morning sunlight shining through it.

Update - It is now 4pm and I think I shall have to run outside in my bikini as we have just reached the giddy heights of zero degrees for the first time in fourty-eight hours. Positively balmy!!

Photo Credits - CJT