Oak Moss - Evernia prunastri


August 31, 2009

I never thought I'd be writing about perfume on this blog, but I have been reading a book on perfume history and am finding the intersection of botanicals, our sense of smell, and science very interesting. More specifically, it has been interesting finding exactly what natural substances have been used historically (and currently) in fragrance, and how fragrance is extracted from their sources. Animal substances include musk (historically obtained from a gland of the male musk deer, now a synthetic version is used), civet (obtained from gland of civet), and possibly the strangest, ambergris (a solid, waxy, substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales). Some of the more common plant substances include jasmine, rose, lavender, neroli, bergamot, vertiver, labdanum, and oakmoss. Oakmoss and treemoss are types of lichens that can be found in Europe, North America and North Africa. Every year tons of these lichens are harvested for the fragrance industry. Compounds found in these lichens have the ability to "fix" fragrances, giving them longer staying power, and some of these compounds, such as one found in E. prunastri, have a distinct and complex aroma that is woody, sharp and slightly sweet. Oak moss is one of the traditional ingredients found in the fragrance family (or accord) known as chypres. One of the most famous chypres is Mitsouko. Mitsouko, created in 1919 by Jacques Guerlain, can still be found, however, due to recent regulations by the European Union deeming oakmoss an allergen, it has been reformulated sans it's mossy, forest like base notes.

*painting of oakmoss available in Etsy shop.

Black-throated Green Warbler -Dendroica virens


August 30, 2009

I worked on one of these at the museum a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I tend to see a lot of them there, as they seem to be prone to colliding with downtown buildings. I've been reading up a little on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, Bird of North America. The introduction to D. virens' entry describes them as the eastern representative of the what is considered the widely dispersed D.virens superspecies. This group of closely related wood warbler species includes: D. virens, the Golden-cheeked (D. chrysoparia), Hermit (D. occidentalis), and Townsend’s (D. townsendi) warblers, and probably the Black-throated Gray Warbler (D. nigrescens). D. virens itself is currently divided in to two supspecies. It is often the most common breeding species of northern coniferous forests, and has a distinctive and persistent song. Apparently a male was recorded as singing it's song 466 times over the course of an hour.

The Lost Art of Naming the World


August 27, 2009

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times by Carol Kaesuk Yoon called "Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World". The article was accompanied by the image above by naturalist Ernst Haekel from his "Artforms in Nature", showing a profusion of hummingbird species. The article, which can be found here, is about the decline of the field of taxonomy. It goes on to explore the reasons for it's decline, the implications of that, and digs a little deeper into what is behind the human impulse to sort and name the natural world. Yoon laments ( and rightfully so I think) that by abandoning taxonomy we are losing a connection to and a place in the living world. Having an awareness of the variety of life around us affirms our place in it. So start your reconnection this weekend by finding an insect, and looking it up on here or a bird and finding it's name here. Make Carl Linneaus proud.

Cloud Forest Divinity


August 26, 2009

Yesterday, I read up on this magnificent bird, the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). Quetzals belong to the family Trogonidae. With 39 species, trogons can be found in tropical forests worldwide, but their highest diversity in the Neotropics. Within Trogonidae there are 6 species of the genera Pharomachrus and Euptilotis, which are the quetzals. Quetzals are brightly colored and subsist mainly on a diet of fruit and insects. The male Resplendent Quetzal is surely one of the most beautiful of this group. They are slightly larger than a sparrow, with emerald green body and wing feathers, and a ruby red breast. The most distinctive feature, however, is the male's extraordinarily long, green tail feathers. These feathers were so prized by the Aztecs and Mayans that they were used to adorn the the crowns of their chiefs. To obtain the feathers, however, the birds were captured and the feathers trimmed, as it was forbidden to kill them. Ancient Mesoamerican mythology revered the Quetzal as a divine spirit, and as a sort of manifestation of the god Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was described as being "majestic of presence, chaste in life, averse to war, wise and generous in action, and delighting in the culitivation of the arts and peace." Not bad, eh? The first part of the name "Quetzal" is associated with sun, green and growing things, and supposedly in the Nahuatl language signifies a large, green feather.

These days the Resplendent Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala. It's range is within the montane cloud forests from southern Mexico to Panama, a rapidly disappearing ecosystem and hotbed of biodiversity. Being a symbol of ancient Mesoamericam divinity may not be enough to preserve its existence in the wild.

*painting in the Etsy Shop

Mourning Warbler - Oporonis philadelphia


August 24, 2009

Last week at the museum, I worked on a male Mourning warbler that in May of this year had come through the city and hit a downtown building. Mourning warblers, like almost all of the wood warblers (family Parulidae) are brightly colored and beautiful. They look very similar to the other 3 species in their genus (Oporonis), especially MacGillivray's warbler (O. tolmiei). Both species have the grey "hood", bright yellow breast and olive green wings and back. Looking at a map of their respective North American ranges, however, O. philadelphia is found mainly in the eastern and midwestern portions, while O. tolmiei is primarily found west of the Rockies.

*watercolor available in Etsy Shop.

Lichens on Stone


August 20, 2009

A friend of mine has a farm in the northwestern corner of Illinois. If you are not familiar with this part of Illinois, it's beautiful and very different from the rest of the state (save the southern portion down by the great Shawnee National Forest). It's part of the Driftless Zone that continues up in to the southwestern portion of Wisconsin. This is an un-glaciated area, in other words, not flat. The landscape is full of rolling hills, with craggy stone peeking out from the ground, hinting at the caves below, and ancient, twisted oak trees sprinkled across the landscape. The last time I was there, I took some photos, some of which were pictures of lichen covered stones. There are at least 3 different lichens on the stone in the photo above. I love the colors, and did a little watercolor study of a section of it. Have a lovely weekend!

Flammulated Owl - Otus flammeolus


I've recently become addicted to Science Friday. Every now and then I've caught a show on the local NPR station, but have never browsed their website. Now I can't stop browsing their site! The last video I watched on their was about a group of field biologists trying to collect data on the tiny Flammulated owl. Flammulated owls inhabit the montane pine forests of the western U.S. and Mexico. Despite their tiny size, they have low, hoarse voices, and they are highly migratory. As a result little is known about their winter range and foraging habits. You can watch the Flammulated owl video HERE. The watercolor of the tree hugging Otus flammeolus is available in the ETSY SHOP.

Magnolia Warbler Watercolor


August 19, 2009

Since I have been working on quite a few Dendroica magnolia at the museum, I did a little watercolor of the male.

Magnolia Warbler - Dendroica magnolia


August 13, 2009

Last week when I went in for my regular volunteer shift in the bird division at the Field Museum, Dave had taken out four Magnolia warblers from the freezer for me to work on. The warblers, like just about everything that I work on, were window kills that had been collected back in May and the beginning of June. I spent the morning making study skins of them that would go in to the collections.

Magnolia warblers are extremely beautiful little birds in the family Parulidae. This group that I worked on was probably headed for nesting grounds in the boreal forest up north. The males, as you can see from the photo, have a bright yellow breast, heavily streaked with black.

Each bird that finds its way to the collections is given a number, and all sorts of information about that specific specimen is recorded on its tag that is tied around one leg: when the bird was collected, where, whether it is male or female, size of its gonads, body fat, was it molting, ossification of the skull (if it is a passerine), if a tissue sample was taken, and the name of the person that prepared the specimen. There are other details that are recorded that I have not listed, but the previous are the ones I am responsible for writing down on the labels. So in the case of the above specimen: it was found and brought to the museum on June 1, 2009, it had a trace amount of body fat, it's a male that had testes a size typical for the breeding season, a tissue sample was taken (and was frozen in a little tube with the same number that is on the tag, S09-1030), the skull was 100% ossified (indicating it was a mature bird), and no signs of molting were noticed and recorded.

Lichens In Their Unnatural Habitat


August 12, 2009

Last year for the holidays, one of my favorite gifts that I received was the giant tome "Lichens of North America". It was published in 2001 and is the most comprehensive guide on North American species of lichens and lichen biology. It's giant, and has mounds of gorgeous photographs. It came in handy recently for a rather strange project. In September I will be going to Hamburg, Germany to participate in Flatstock Europe to sell my gigposters. One of my fellow artists, Nick Rhodes from Manchester, is putting together an art exhibit that will coincide with Flatstock. Each participating artist, as we are all screenprinters, are submitting a squeegee that we have painted on or customized in some way. Seeing as I don't hand print any longer, and use a screen printing auto press, I had to scrounge up an old hand squeegee. I found a box of old ones at Jay's shop, and chose the "Joe Lally". Joe is a nice medium sized squeegee that has seen some better days. The name "Joe Lally" is the name of the bass player from the band Fugazi, in case you were wondering. After that I have no more answers for you. I looked over the squeegee trying to decide what to paint, and noticed the wood handle had splotches of ink on it that somewhat resembled lichen (yes, yes, I know; bit of a stretch, eh). Well I went with it and began covering it with paintings of lichens. Perhaps it is a desire to return the wood on the tired old squeegee back to nature, but more likely, it's just an excuse to paint lichens. Hmmmm.

Summer Reading


Well hello! Yes I am still here, just spending more time outside than updating this blog. I'll start things off again by talking about what I've been reading recently. Right now I'm in the middle of a book of essays by one of my favorite writers, David Quammen. The collection, "Natural Acts" , (paperback edition has a section of an amazing Walton Ford painting) gathers up some his early columns (beginning in 1980) he wrote for Outside magazine, as well as some of his longer pieces for Esquire and Audubon, and more current work. Quammen is the first to admit that he is a layman in the realm of biology and natural history, but he has now spent decades around experts and in dusty libraries doing countless hours of research on subjects such as vampire moths, Montana grayling, Darwin, and island biogeography. Despite all of the towering knowledge and experience, his writing still conveys a friendly arm about your shoulders as if to say "Yes, yes, I am not E.O. Wilson, and nor are you, but we can try to understand this stuff in our own way can't we?", all the while being funny, clever, and never dumbing anything down. One of my favorite essays in "Natural Acts" so far is "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?" in which he ponders if a lot of crow antics can be attributed to boredom.

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