Sunday, April 26, 2009


One year ago today I launched out into the big wide world of blogging. It is quite an odd thing at first as you send random thoughts out into the world, never really sure if anyone is reading them. But as we all know, it becomes oddly addictive and more and more time consuming!

In my first year of blogging I have 'met' some great folks via their wonderful, varied and fascinating blogs. One of the first people to find me was Michelle at Rambling Woods. If you haven't already seen her blog, check it out, its fantastic. Then I have what I refer to as my 'escapism' blogs. Laughing Orca Ranch, Life at the Rough String and The 7msn Ranch all these wonderful bloggers are living my fantasy life so through them I can live it vicariously! And in case you think I have no idea what their existence involves - I did work with horses full time for many years! Then there are the two 'Super-Moms' at Potted Frog and Adult Deprived. These two ladies never fail to boggle my mind with the amount of things they manage to jam into their lives and still have time to blog too! Kathie at Sycamore Canyon often has me green with envy with her never ending array of fabulous bird sightings and her brilliant photography and Arija at Garden Delights gives a wonderful glimpse into a place I have always wanted to visit - Australia. There are so many amazing and informative blogs to find and these are just a few that I have become addicted to in the last year. I can't wait to see who else I will discover over the next year. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to drop by my blog this last year, it has been a great experience and long may it continue.

Photo Credits - CJT

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


There has been a great deal of coverage recently about the plight of the honey bee (not the same as the flight of the bumble bee :)) In fact Michelle at Rambling Woods recently did a great post about this exact subject. So I was delighted today when Vincent, our 'bug man' told me he had been contacted by a lady who wanted to put some bee hives on the roof of our Museum. I know absolutely nothing about apiculture so I was quite relieved to hear that she will do all the maintenance required!

The bees had originally been intended for a city garden but for whatever reason, at the last minute they had been unable to take them. The bees had already been shipped from California and so the lady desperately needed somewhere to set up the hives and release the bees. We have an extensive prairie around the Museum so what could be better? The bees were transported in the boxes shown above. What I found rather touching was a couple of bees that had not been put into the box had attached themselves to the outside and had hung on determinedly all the way from California! You can just see one under the top, to the left of centre.

We transported all the pieces for the hives up to the roof and then kept a safe distance whilst the lady set them up and released the bees. Here she is emptying the first batch of bees into the hive.

Then the racks that will eventually be filled with honey are carefully slid into place. Early forms of honey collecting entailed the destruction of the entire colony when the honey was harvested. There could be no continuity of production and no possibility of selective breeding, since each bee colony was destroyed at harvest time, along with its precious queen. The 19th Century saw a revolution in beekeeping practice through the invention and perfection of the movable comb hive. There is a specific spatial measurement between the wax combs, called "the bee space", which bees will not block with wax, but keep as a free passage. Having determined this "bee space" (between 5 and 8 mm, or 1/4 to 3/8"), a series of wooden frames were designed within a rectangular hive box, carefully maintaining the correct space between successive frames, the bees will build parallel honeycombs in the box without bonding them to each other or to the hive walls. This enables the beekeeper to slide any frame out of the hive for inspection, without harming the bees or the comb, protecting the eggs, larvae and pupae contained within the cells. It also meant that combs containing honey can be gently removed and the honey extracted without destroying the comb. The emptied honey combs can then be returned to the bees intact for refilling.

Because we don't have anything around for the bees to feed on yet they are supplied with a nectar mix to last them through until the flowers start to bloom.

And then the top goes on the first hive.

The second batch of bees get put into the second hive

Then the precious queen is carefully inserted into the centre of the hive.
Globally, there are more than 20,000 species of wild bees, including many which are solitary or which rear their young in burrows and small colonies, like mason bees and bumblebees. Beekeeping, or apiculture, is concerned with the practical management of the social species of honey bees, which live in large colonies of up to 100,000 individuals. In Europe and America the species universally managed by beekeepers is the Western honey bee Apis mellifera, which has several sub-species or regional varieties, such as the Italian bee Apis mellifera ligustica It is this Italian variety that we now have in our hives - I wonder if they like pasta :)

Photo Credits - CJT

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


After being such a miserable old fart in my last post I thought I should make a concerted effort to turn things around with this post and be more positive, so for ABC Wednesday this week I am doing N is for New Life and New Beginnings. Although it is cold and grey and very wet outside I went out determined to find evidence that spring was really on its way - and I am happy to say, it is!

There were numerous different trees and bushes beginning to burst their buds

And some of the locals were busy checking out potential nesting sites

This is a pair of Wood Ducks Aix sponsa, sorry the lighting is so bad but as I said it was very overcast. In case you were wondering, Wood Ducks nest high up in trees and then when the ducklings hatch they make a death defying leap to the ground before scurrying off to the nearest water. They are so tiny that they just bounce when they hit the ground like little fluffy balls.

The Red-winged Blackbirds Agelaius phoeniceus, although not yet appropriately attired in their breeding plumage, are in full voice as they work to establish their territories.

I was delighted to see my first Northern Rough-winged Swallows Stelgidopteryx serripennis of the year, look closely, it is perching on the branch! Although I cannot imagine what they are finding to eat as it is way too cold for any flying insects that I could see.

Another summer visitor that has started to arrive is the Green Heron Butorides virescens, at least I know there are plenty of fish in the pond for him, although the MASSIVE Koi that I saw cruising around may be a bit more than the heron could handle :)

And why, you may ask, am I including a picture of an old tree in a post about new life? Well that is because someone has made themselves a very cosy nest right inside it......................

So although my nose and fingers were numb with cold by the time I came back inside I most definitely did find evidence of new life and new beginnings!

For great posts all with an 'N' theme this week, check out ABC Wednesday.

Photo Credits - CJT

Thursday, April 16, 2009


OK here is fair warning, I am going to have a rant, I am going to vent, I just need to, it has been one of those days.

A week or so ago I noticed that a pair of Canada Geese had taken up residence on an area of low roof at the Museum. Each day I watched as they carefully collected nesting material and I watched the female one afternoon sitting and arranging all the twigs and pebbles carefully around herself. Over the following couple of days she began to pluck her soft down feathers out and line the nest with them. When I returned to work after the weekend there were four eggs in the nest. I saw this as a wonderful learning opportunity and a perfect chance for the many city children that visit our Museum who have absolutely no contact with nature, to be able to observe something very special. So I worked with the exhibits department to put together a sign with some photographs and some information about Canada Geese and we put it up by the window which overlooked the roof area. I was happy to see parents and children reading the sign and looking out at the geese and expressing their delight at being able to see it. So we are all happy right? Wrong! Today the Chicago Park District came and put a ladder up against our building, climbed up, and removed the eggs. Unfortunately our Museum is on park property so there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.
So this is were my rant comes in - I know that it is 'only' a Canada Goose but I have a really huge problem with the whole idea that because a species has managed, against all odds to be successful alongside human beings that it automatically has to be regarded as a pest. That just bugs the hell out of me. It seems either we push a species to the brink of extinction, or in many cases, to extinction, then feel incredibly guilty and spend a fortune in time and money trying to rectify our wrongs. Or somehow an species manages to adapt and learn to live with us and then becomes despised because it is common. How does that work? I am so sick of hearing people complain about geese 'pooping everywhere.' What about us? We foul waterways and oceans on an alarmingly massive scale to the extreme detriment of numerous species - does that give those species the right to come and kill our babies because we 'poop everywhere!' Oh no, of course not, different set of rules for us.

So there was I trying to hold it together at work and behave in a rational manner, not run around and hurt people ;) When someone comes up to me and says 'Did you know that they killed the beaver in the pond too?' Now I am at serious risk of starting to loose any vague modicum of self control I may have.
We have had a beaver living in the pond behind the Museum for a while now, again quite an amazing thing as this is a pond in the middle of a city park with no rivers or streams accessing it so this beaver did really well to even get to the pond without getting killed on one of the numerous roads it would have inevitably had to cross. The problem was of course that the beaver has to eat - really the audacity of the animal, who does it think it is? So, in proper beaver style, it started chewing the trees around the pond. Someone in the neighbourhood complained and bingo! No more beaver.
I was walking home feeling very despondent, thinking I was perhaps the only person in the world who actually liked to share my space with animals - we live in the middle of the city so we have to take what we can get! When I saw this sign attached to a fence near the pond, it broke my heart to read it but maybe, just maybe I am not alone after all.

And her crime? Eating trees! Of course we humans don't cut trees down at all do we? Hmmmmmmmmmmmm? Lets ask the various species that are struggling to survive in the ever diminishing Amazon, or any other forest for that matter, what they think about that shall we?

Don't get me wrong, I can be rational (sometimes!!) about animals. I am not about to rush out and join PETA or start jumping on the bandwagon to make 'owning' a pet illegal. I have sat in the bush and watched a lioness break an antelopes legs so that her cubs can learn how to pounce and kill something, I have seen a fish eagle pick up a mongoose and drop it so that it was injured but not completely immobile so that the juvenile eagles could practice catching something that was slow moving. I feed live animals to other live animals as part of my job every day, I know nature is brutal in its own way but it is always brutal as a means of survival. With us though, we give ourselves the right to kill as and when we please for purely cosmetic reasons and that is what sickens me. I just have a real issue with us playing God and killing animals for doing what they were meant to do. (I did warn you that I needed to rant!)

Just for good measure, to ensure that my entire day really did suck, I was walking from a meeting back to my office with Scabbers, our rat, on my shoulder. He loves coming to meetings as he is very friendly and social and is hugely popular with the Museum staff. Anyway I walked down the hallway past a young woman with a stroller and she started squealing like a stuck pig! I figured it was the rat so I kept walking to get him away from her so she would calm down! Oh no - of course not, why would she, she starts shouting that it is wrong and flailing her arms about like there were a hundred rats on her! Jamie who was with me was quite amused by the whole performance - another reason why I like her! I can understand not liking rats, that is fine, which is why I moved away but really! If he was sitting quietly on my shoulder enjoying the ride, what exactly did she think he was going to do? Leap thirty feet across the hallway and grab her by the throat? I removed him from the area as quickly as I could to alleviate the problem but that was a classic case of over reaction and as a result - Scabbers is no longer allowed to ride around on my shoulder. - Did I mention it has been a really lousy day?

For those of you who have stuck with me this far, thank you. I promise I wont rant again for a while. Hey, at least the sun is shining :)

Photo Credits - CJT

Monday, April 13, 2009


For those of you who were in any doubt about my sanity it is just possible that this post will confirm your worst suspicions! For ABC this week I am doing M is for Massasauga.
As some of you know, my work involves caring for a wide range of animals at a Nature Museum. Probably the most precious, and yes, also the most dangerous, is the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Sistrurus catenatus catenatus.

This snake is native to Illinois, which comes as a surprise to many people. Unfortunately, due to persecution and severe loss of habitat it is listed as threatened, hence my comment about it being the most precious of my charges.
People will often ask me why on earth we would want to conserve a venomous snake and when I have overcome the urge to punch them on the nose, I explain that the Massasauga is in fact an umbrella species and by conserving it and the habitat it requires, we are also, by default, providing the ideal habitat for a whole range of other species. Then I usually get 'the look,' what can this small female with the English accent possibly understand about living in an area with venomous snakes? Well then I politely explain to them that I lived in Africa for nine years and had many encounters with venomous snakes! Once we have got that out of the way people seem to be ready to learn about this wonderful creature.

The Massasauga is a member of the pit viper family. All pit vipers in the US have elliptical, cat-like pupils and a heat-sensing pit between the eye and the nostril, on each side of the face, to detect its prey. The small rattle at the end of its tail is made of keratin, the same material our fingernails are made from. A new layer is added to the rattle every time the snake sheds its skin. The head is triangular in shape to accommodate the venom glands behind the eyes in the upper jaw. Massasauga's are in the group known as pygmy rattlesnakes and the adults only reach a diminutive eighteen to thirty inches in length when full grown. The Massasauga inhabits wet prairies, marshes and floodplain forests. Winter hibernation takes place in crayfish burrows or other underground cavities in moist soil.

As you would imagine, we have strict protocols in place for working with this snake. We never unlock the cage for any reason during museum hours so when we need to clean and feed her we work first thing in the morning. Believe me, neither Jamie or I have any need for a cup of coffee in the morning when we work with this snake! One of us is on look-out, equipped with a radio whilst the other one of us removes the snake from its tank, using tongs and a hook. She is placed in a secure container so that we can safely work on cleaning her cage out. The whole time we are working with the snake, a third member of staff is in an office, also with a radio, and a telephone, ready to make the necessary phone calls should anything go wrong! There is nothing like focusing your mind to start the day!
As snakes go this species is actually not particularly aggressive, if you leave it alone, it will return the favour. Of course when it is unceremoniously picked up with tongs and a hook it is not exactly overjoyed, but even then, if I work slowly and smoothly she will relax and allow herself to be scooped up and moved. If we move too fast or abruptly she will not hesitate to strike and unload plenty of venom onto the tongs.

That being said, I do feel very lucky to work with such a rare animal and hopefully go a small way towards helping people to learn about it and encourage them not to automatically kill snakes, after all, even if you don't find them beautiful, which I do, they are an extremely efficient form of rodent control!

For all kinds of posts relating to the letter 'M' check out ABC Wednesday.

Photo Credits - CJT

Friday, April 10, 2009


This post is for the Nature Notes meme at Rambling Woods - check it out.

After having written so much about all the flowers we saw on our trip to Anza Borrego I thought it was about time that I mentioned a few other classes that we encountered.
Much to my husbands dismay whenever we go to the desert I always ask him to find me a rattlesnake (I was his guide when he came to Africa and I found him all kinds of cool animals so I figure it is the least he can do to return the favour :) I just don't understand why he doesn't seem too enthusiastic!!!) My interest is not as crazy as it may first appear. I work with an endangered species of rattlesnake at the Museum but I have yet to see one in its natural environment. (OK maybe it does sound just a tiny bit crazy!) So as my husband failed to oblige with my request I had to settle for some other reptiles.

This little beauty is a Desert Iguana Dipsosaurus dorsalis. He very obligingly posed by the car window so we were able to just lean out and take this picture. How I wish that all animals would be so obliging. The Desert Iguana uses the Creosote Bushes both as sources of shade and as a food source, predominantly consuming the flowers. I think this particular individual must have lost his tail relatively recently because the colouring of the end two thirds is entirely different to the first third.

Another reptile that seemed to be much more common in the area was the Southern Sagebrush Lizard Sceloporus graciosus vandenburgianus. These were incredibly fast, and who can blame them as they are on the menu of a vast number of animals, and very difficult to photograph. The only reason we got this shot is, I was taking too long identifying a bird and my husband got bored and so he started stalking this poor lizard to photograph him! I am glad I spent too long on the bird because he got a great photo!

Those were the only reptiles we saw.
On the invertebrate front there was quite a lot of variety, largely I suspect, because of all the flowering plants. There were masses of Painted Lady and Orange Tip Butterflies but I have seen enough of those at work to last me a lifetime so I didn't chase after them for a picture. There were also a lot of bees around too and many of them were forming hives amongst the rocks so we had to pay close attention when hiking!

There were lots of these little chaps around and how could I resist with that smiley face design on their back? It is the nymph stage of a type of Stink Bug Chlorochroa spp. What I found a bit of a shame is that they don't keep that charming design when they reach their adult form, they are just a plain greyish black. The nymphs and adults feed on a variety of herbaceous plants and can be considered a pest on crops and fruit trees.

These are Master Blister Beetles Lytta magister and I went just about crazy trying to get a picture of them. They are incredibly fast, even when they are mating! The adults feed on the flowers and leaves of the Brittlebush. The female lays her eggs in holes in the soil.

I took this picture just because I thought it was such a lovely image of the bug smothered in pollen against the riotous colour of the Beavertail blossom. This is a red form of the Ornate Checkered Beetle Trichodes ornatus. They are predators of Wood Boring Beetles.

Spring was very clearly in the air as all the bugs were 'getting busy!' These Vivid Dancer Damselflies Argia vivida were making the most of the brief time that this small stream was running in Coyotte Canyon to mate and deposit their eggs. I know it is not the best of pictures but they were well embedded amongst the vegetation.

This robust character was a particular favorite of mine, it looked like a little tank rumbling along amongst the rocks. It has the slightly bizarre name of an Inflated Beetle (!) Cysteodemus armatus I have to say having looked at several other pictures of this species I think this particular individual looks rather deflated in comparison. The white which is clearly visible is actually a secretion, not part of the general markings.

And so on from bugs to birds! I have already done a post about our day at the Salton Sea which was a memorable birding trip but there were plenty of other special sightings on other days and also some more firsts for me.

Because of all the flowering plants there were hummingbirds everywhere but as we quickly learnt, the males were always so busy defending their territory and/or their mate that they never stayed still enough for us to get a picture. It was always the less exotically coloured females who would alight on a branch for a split second to give us a quick photo opportunity. And then of course they would select the most unlit spot they could find - don't they know we need light for a good photo? :)

As I mentioned in a previous post, the first time we visited Anza Borrego one bird that I didn't get to see was a Greater Roadrunner Geococcyx californianus. Well this time I more than made up for it. These quirky characters were all around the motel we were staying in and this particular individual was calling on top of a dirt pile one morning and displaying the red skin patch on the back of its head quite beautifully.

Another species I missed on my previous visit was the delightful Gambel's Quail Callipepla gambelii. These birds were also a common site around our motel and, like most quail, they were very vocal, so hard to miss. We both spent ages trying to get a decent photo of this shy species but it was another case of constant motion, so my apologies for the somewhat blurry image.

Of course as a Midwest city dweller my birding highlight has to be the three Burrowing Owls Athene cunicularia that we saw. I never imagined I would get the opportunity to watch these cryptically coloured, elusive birds for so long. There is definitely some truth to the adage of the 'wise owl' - these birds collect animal dung and spread it around near their nest site. The dung attracts dung beetles which the owls use as a food source - its like having a convenience store next to your house!
I have already posted my bird list for the day at Salton Sea, so here is the rest for the remainder of the trip. Again the asterisked ones are personal firsts.
American Kestrel,
Western Scrub-Jay*,
Red-tailed Hawk
Anna's Hummingbird,
Gambel's Quail*,
Costa's Hummingbird,
Greater Roadrunner*,
White-crowned Sparrow,
White-winged Dove*,
Purple Finch,
Lesser Goldfinch*,
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher*,
Cactus Wren,
California Thrasher*,
Who says the desert is barren?

Of course it is a place were mammals tend to be less well represented and we have yet to see the elusive Bighorn Sheep that inhabit the area. There was a rabbit that crept out onto a little patch of grass next to our room each morning but do you really want to see a picture of a rabbit? On the mammal front this little guy was the definite star.

He is a White-tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel Amnospermophilis leucurus (both his common name and his scientific names are longer then he is!) These delightful little animals get their somewhat odd name from the white colour of the underside of their tails (like an antelope). The tail is used as a sunshade during the hottest parts of the day and so white is the obvious colour choice for the job. This individual was only the size of a gerbil but inside that tiny body beats the heart of a lion. He defended 'his' rock pile very loudly when I got too close and also followed after me when I moved away - just to make sure I really left!
How could you resist?

And so to the end of my desert trip.
If you are ever anywhere near this wonderful area of the country and you happen to drive through a town called Julian (famous for its DELICIOUS apple pies) be sure to stop at the best barbecue joint in the world.

The Bailey Wood Pit Barbecue defies description when it comes to good food, miss it at your peril!

Photo Credits - CJT & Dominick V

Monday, April 6, 2009


So much for the best laid plans..........I had really hoped to be able to complete ABC Wednesday from A to Z without missing a week but last week I just couldn't get it done. Internet access in the desert is a rare commodity and I really didn't go on vacation to spend my whole time sitting in front of a computer. Anyway, back on track this week and I am posting L for Lubbers for my ABC Wednesday post this week.

As my regular readers will know, my job involves caring for a wide array of critters and this is just one of the many. Eastern Lubber Grasshoppers Romalea microptera are the largest grasshoppers in North America, found in the southern states, primarily Florida. Their bright colouring is a fair warning to anyone who might think they would make a tasty snack.

They are in fact toxic and so have far less predators than many other grasshoppers. One bird species that has worked out a way round their foul tasting defense is the shrike. Otherwise known as the butcher bird, the shrike impales its prey on thorns or even barbed wire fences and will build up a store in this way. By leaving the lubbers impaled for a few days the toxins in their bodies are greatly reduced and the shrike will then eat them! (Isn't nature neat?)

We keep a colony of lubbers in a large flight case. They have voracious appetites and have to be given a daily supply of lettuce, carrots, green onions and porridge oats!

Of course with all the eating they do, there is the inevitable consiquence and lubber poop-patrol is also a daily task! When they reach maturity they have only one thing on their mind (!) It is an endless pass time. When they have finally finished mating we put cups of damp sand into the cage and the females deposit their egg cluster deep into the sand.

We then put the entire cup into a sealed plastic bag with the date of collection on it and it is put away for three moths, somewhere cool and dark. At the end of the three months dozens and dozens of tiny little baby lubbers start emerging from the sand. When they are immature they are black with a yellow stripe down their back. It seems that this is when their own population control kicks in because very often when one of the immature grasshoppers is shedding the others will eat it as it emerges! - Yuck!!

All of us who work with them have a love hate relationship with these cool critters. They are high maintenance because they are so messy but they are beautiful and fascinating and provide endless entertainment for our Museum visitors.

For more postings for ABC Wednesday, check out the site.

Photo Credits - CJT