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    TEENs Summer Program

    Tags: TEENS, summer project, after school matters, hive chicago, citizen science, data collection, scientists

    Published On 7/11/2014

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    This summer, with support from After School Matters and the Mozilla Foundation (through Hive Chicago) 32 high school students are participating in the Nature Museum's TEENS (Teenagers Exploring and Explaining Nature and Science) program. The students are learning ecological and environmental monitoring techniques, data collection methods and are learning basic digital mapping skills to share what they have learned with their peers and the wider science community. This blog, written solely by one of the participants, is a great introduction to experiences of their first two weeks.

    Hm...where should I start?
    I’m Ashley Guzman, a rising senior at Walter Payton College Prep. I started the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Program for Teens in the middle of June. It’s the first After School Matters program I’ve taken part in, and so far I’ve been having a lot of fun.
    During our first week, we focused on introductions. We met the group of around 30 students and 4 instructors we would be working with, and began a conversation about our goals for the summer. A group goal we established was our hopes to become citizen scientists- everyone has the potential to be a citizen scientist. We defined a citizen scientist as someone who takes action in their scientific community; in our case, it’s contributing meaningful data as well as working to restore our environment, which I’ll get into later. By the end of this program, our collection will culminate in self directed projects that could launch us towards solutions and information, even on a smaller scale.


    Pond on South Wall of Nature Museum

    We started off collecting data on epicollect, a handy little app on our tablets that allows us to collect data while cataloguing the approximate area we found the data in. We started off with qualitative, observation based data. We took notice of the different plants that existed in the area, taking trips around our research area in lincoln park to note the diversity. We went through using dichotomous keys, which helped us identify the different plants based on specific details about them. I started noticing things like the patterns of leaves on plants, their petals, length, and the like because of these keys. We went through a similar process when identifying and cataloguing trees. I’m curious about these tags I’ve found on the trees in my neighborhood, perhaps the city has a similar plan?
    By being more aware of the types of trees and plants in the area, we can be more careful to preserve them. Like ash trees, which I’ve now learned are dying out due to the emerald ash borer (thank you Dave!).


    Bureau of Forestry Tree Tag

    Today, after doing work both inside and outside of the lab to gain more knowledge about biodiversity, our group merged and brainstormed; we pointed out observations that stood out to us and observations that could possibly direct us to our final project ideas. I want to point out something that my friend Richard said; he pointed out that he couldn’t seem to avoid bees while we were collecting data by North Pond, which had a high water level due to heavy rains. I wanted to thank him, because it’s observations like that that send my brain into a flurry of ideas, which I’m sure happens to others as well. I started thinking about something I had seen on tumblr, which said that you should give a bee water mixed in with sugar if you see that it’s stuck out of flight, because it’s likely due to exhaustion. I try not to accept these things as pure fact, because everything should be questioned! However, I wondered if this could have something to do with all of the bees near North Pond. Is this going to be my final project? Well, maybe, but I have time to collect more data, make more observations, and develop my hypothesis. I just wanted to give you an example of this train of thought, and express how much I like this kind of conversation! Sometimes, introducing observations that you didn’t think much of originally can lead into a great investigation. I’m glad we’re going to get more chances to have these kinds of discussions.
    Until then, I will leave you with this: don’t scratch your mosquito bites. They aren’t that bad.
    Also, just a fun little frog we found in the forest preserve we visited!

    Baby frog resting on a students hand

    Ashley Guzman
    TEENs Summer Program Participant 

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    Motion Film Collection Highlight: William J. Beecher (1914-2002)

    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, collection, motion film, William Beecher, Illinois, ecology, natural history

    Published On 7/2/2014

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    This is the third blog post from a series titled: Motion Film Collection Highlight. Two earlier posts can viewed here and here.

    William J. Beecher served as the Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1958 to 1982. An ornithologist by trade -- someone who studies birds -- he was an avid birder, whether in the field or in his back yard. He also had an interest in photography and film.

    During his tenure with the Academy, Beecher created educational motion films about local environments and animals that were shared with local groups and museum visitors. Beecher documented many local areas around Illinois, including the Indiana Dunes and Goose Lake Prairie, and was among the first to scientifically document many animal behaviors such as lekking in Prairie Chickens, now an endangered species in Illinois. Here are some still images and a film clip from the motion films created by Beecher in the CAS/PNNM collection.


    William Beecher, 1960


    Beetles, 1958


    Working in the field, 1960


    Birds seen during travel to Mweya, Uganda in 1966


    People holding up a board with fossils attached. [Fossils appear to be concretions, possibly from the Mazon Creek area in Illinois.] ca.1959-ca.1962


    Fox sighting, 1966


    Field trip to local prairie, 1968


    Great Horned Owl, 1966


    Field trip to Goose Lake, 1968


    Barred Owl, California,1966

    Film clip from "Feb 9/60 Zoogeogr regions mammals skulls upside down", 1960



    William Beecher, 1967

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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    Motion Film Collection Highlight: Leon F. Urbain (1887-ca. 1980)

    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, collections, motion film, Leon F. Urbain, microscopy, photography, moth, minerals, Microscopal Society of Illinois

    Published On 6/25/2014

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    This blog post continues our Motion Film Project series. Post #1 titled: The Motion Picture Cataloguing Project can be viewed here. Stay tuned for a third blog post coming soon.

    Leon F. Urbain, through his association with the Microscopal Society of Illinois, gave free classes for students in the 1960s at the Chicago Academy of Sciences' museum (the old Laflin Memorial Building). An architect by trade, he had a passion for photography, especially photomicrography, whereby he could bring the smallest worlds to life. His motion films include studies of minerals, plants, insects, aquatic life, and ecology. The Academy's collections include personal papers, photographs, motion film, and microscope slides from Urbain. Here is a sample of those tiny worlds Urbain captured and shared with others.

    From Urbain's film, “The Regal: Rarest of Local Moths,” created in 1972:


    Regal Caterpillars


    Regal Moth Face


    Regal Moth

    Here are images from a  time-lapse film of crystals growing under a microscope, titled "Crystals Growing," created in 1967:



    Images from two films on moths, ca. 1958, "Cecropia" and "Luna Moth:"


    Cecropia moths mating


    Luna moth

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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    The benefits of weeds

    Tags: weeds, violets, maple tree, lake trout, spring

    Published On 6/12/2014

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    Ok. Ok. There are a lot of Norway maple haters out there, and I think they are justified in their position.  I agree with everything Seth said in this post, and I’d certainly see a sugar maple instead of a Norway.  That said, there’s an old one outside my house and everyone (including me) enjoys the shock of bright yellow when the leaves turn colors overnight in the autumn. Few people though notice the flowers of the maple. Lots of trees flower before they leaf out in the spring and maples are among these. The flowers are pretty small and the petals are about the same color as the bracts, resulting in a powdery yellow cloud appearing in a cloud around the twigs of the tree. If you’re lucky enough to have squirrels in your neighborhood, you may notice them clipping off these flowers. They are doing this to access the sweet sap, maple syrup in the raw, and unintentionally they are pruning the tree, keeping it a nice, compact shape. They are also delivering little monochromatic bouquets of maple flowers to you.  My kids have been decorating the dinner table with bowls of floating bouquets of maple flowers and arranging them in tiny vases in their doll house. Take a moment to give inconspicuous flowers like those of the maple a close look. You’ll find a cheerful beauty.


    Norway Maple Blooms

    Speaking of cheerful weeds, violets are blooming in profusion these days. Sure they’re weedy but they are not to aggressive and I think they are cute. Plus, their flowers make any dish more beautiful. Sometimes the flowers even have a delicate violet pastille flavor, but you can’t guarantee this with the weedy ones.


    Violets

    Finally, this is the week to work on garlic mustard. It’s a vilified weed in this country and rightfully so.  It crowds out our native wildflowers both physically and chemically. (Within its native range, it is a valued wildflower itself and host of a butterfly). Wherever you see it, pull up the beast. This is the best time of year to do so because it has not begun to seed and the soil is easy to work. You may see patches of trillium, ginger or other wildflowers that are surrounded by garlic mustard. Help them out and carefully pull all the mustard nearby. Make sure to clean your boots and pats when you are done though, especially once the plants begin to set seed. It has been observed that garlic mustard is often more common in the gardens of nature lovers and their neighbors. Presumably we are tracking seeds around. 


    Lake Trout with garlic mustard pesto

    The reason this is my favorite week for pulling garlic mustard though is because the plants have begun to bolt—they’re sending their flower stalks up. Pick these stalks before many flowers have opened and steam them as you might asparagus, or mince them into a pesto. You can eat the leaves, too but they are often more bitter. No matter what, I like to add quite a bit of salt to counteract the bitterness and I often cook the shoots with an acid like lime juice or balsamic vinegar, depending on the cuisine. You can often add garlic mustard to Southeast Asian dishes without modifying the recipe. Burmese and Cambodian both regularly make use of bitter herbs; my daughters love adding garlic mustard to Vietnamese spring rolls. As with violets, since these are not cultivated m the flavor can vary from plant to plant so taste as you pick. By adding a bit of garlic mustard to your springtime diet you are helping native ecosystems, eating sustainably, and adding interesting variety to your diet. 

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    Spring Flowers Around the Museum

    Tags: spring flowers, prairie, savanah, horticulture, wildflowers

    Published On 5/22/2014

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    Walk around the restored habitat vignettes on the East and South sides of the museum grounds, and you may notice much of what you see is last year’s dead vegetation, with patches of green and a mixture of native and non-native flowers. Early spring on the prairie is a notoriously dull time for flowers, compared to woodlands or savannas. This is in part due to the fact that, in woodlands, the herbaceous layer is in a race to grow and flower before the trees fully leaf out and gobble up the available light. This results in a floral display intensely concentrated in late April and early May. In prairies, there is no shortage of light and therefore no hurry. Here, the greatest number of species flower in mid to late summer. In addition, tallgrass prairies (and, to a lesser degree, savannas) tended to burn more often in early spring than dense woodlands. This could also be a factor in why saving the flower show for later would be advantageous. Our native habitat restorations are a mixture of both prairie and savanna. Many of the native plants in bloom around the museum are found in both.
     
    I have compiled a list of native species that are in bloom this week. This isn’t meant to be a field guide, but could save time for anyone interested in doing an internet search on a plant they see. I  have attempted to include every native species, but It changes fast, and this list will be obsolete soon!  (Also, there are several species of the Sedge Family (Cyperaceae), in addition to the two I have listed, which cannot be identified until their seeds ripen)   

    These are the native species which we have intentionally planted:



    White Trout Lilly (Erythronium albidum) We have already missed this one’s blooming period, but some may have noticed this plant a couple weeks ago. A small but conspicuous part of our early spring flora.  It grows in large colonies, usually with the basal leaves far outnumbering the flowering stalks. The number of plants which flower varies greatly from year to year. This plant can be seen in almost any moderately intact woodland or savanna near Chicago in the early spring, and often ventures into nearby prairies as well. Around the Museum, they can be seen in greatest number in the Prairie on the southern side. The show doesn’t last long however, and within a few weeks the flowers and leaves seem to vanish without a trace, until next spring.


     
    Penn’s Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)  Most people may not think of grasses or sedges as flowers, but if you look closely in certain spots around the museum’s restored areas, you will notice what looks like patches of thin grass with tiny yellow flower petals at the end of short stalks. Actually, this is not a grass but a sedge- a similar looking, but different family of plants. The differences between grasses and sedges are a bit complex to get into here, but an age old rule-of-thumb cliché is that “Sedges have edges.” The base of a Sedge stem is solid and triangular, while grasses have hollow, round stems.  It may be difficult to see, but if you roll the base of a sedge stem between your fingers, you can feel the “edges.” If not, it is probably a grass. This sedge is also a trademark of Chicago area woodlands and nearby prairies that are not too shady. It is one of the first sedges to bloom, and its flowers are also extremely short-lived. The leaves remains visible until at least late summer however. Around the museum, it can be seen in patches all over, especially along the trail to the right of the entrance doors, and on the north side of the “ravine” in back, just before it meets North Pond.


    Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) Another attractive purple flower with “ladder-like” leaves which will persist until June. Grows in damp meadows and woods with rich soil. More occasional around Chicago than common. Very conspicuous on the hill facing Fullerton Ave. at the moment.


    Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) Found in prairies to open woods, this bright yellow flower is just beginning to bloom.


    Wild garlic/onion (Allium canadense) Not quite in bloom yet but will be soon.  One of two species around Chicago (and the museum) this one blooms earlier than the other.


    Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)-One of the earliest blooming Prairie Plants. It is distinctive, conventionally attractive, and quite popular in restoration projects and prairie gardens. It can be found in both prairie and savanna/open woodland. It is somewhat sensitive to disturbance, and unless reintroduced, indicates the land has not been plowed or  too heavily grazed. Currently, it has just began to flower, and will do so for about a month. A colony can be seen on the hill on the right side of the museum entrance.

    In addition to the Native plants we have intentionally planted, there are others that are not as sensitive to habitat disturbance, and came here on their own. These are some weedy natives:

     
    Common Wood Sedge (Carex blanda)  This is probably the most common sedge of the Chicago region, and also one of the most bland-looking.  It has much wider, floppier leaves and stems than Penn’s sedge, and is a grayish blue-green color. (though the petals are also yellow).  It will grow almost anywhwere.


    Common Blue violet (Viola sororia) Very common in our area, this species is unusual in its adaptability. It can be found in almost any habitat that is not too wet or dry; full sun to dense shade, pristine natural areas to mowed lawns. It has a long blooming period of a month or two. Around the museum, I have only seen a few near the tent out back (the blue variety) 


    Missouri Violet (Viola missouriensis) Almost identical to common Blue Violet, except for its leaves, which are triangular and pointed, rather than heart shaped and round. Near Chicago, it is most often seen in moist woodlands and meadows, though it can sometimes be seen in more disturbed habitats as well, such as here.

    (Note - These two violet species caused me quite a bit of confusion. The majority of the plants around the museum are apparently of the white variety of Missouri Violet. Both have a blue and white variety. The white form is less common but not rare, especially with Common Blue Violet. In the Chicago region, The Missouri Violet is less common in general, and is less likely to occur in lawns and gardens, though around the museum, the reverse is apparently true!)


    Kidney-leaved Buttercup (Ranuculus aborvitus) Blooms April-June. Part of the huge family of buttercups (Ranunculaceae), this one is the first to bloom and, of the natives in this area, the least sensitive to disturbance.  It can be found in almost any slightly damp place. This one came here on its own.


    Aunt Lucy (Ellisia nyctelea) Just beginning to bloom, and will continue into early summer. The flowers are very small, a dull white and easy to miss. This plant is a spring wildflower in woodlands but also a very common weed in gardens and disturbed ground.


    Purslane Speedwell (Veronica peregrine) Very tiny and easy to miss, it looks very similar to the other, non-native Corn Speedwell, except with thinner leaves and white flowers.

    Nate Fremont
    Assistant Horticulturist

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    A Unique View: The Motion Film Cataloguing Project

    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, collections, Collections Inventory Project, motion film, preservation, Chicago Film Archives, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust, digitzation, environment, Midwest

    Published On 5/15/2014

    Background

    As part of the Collections Inventory Project, Collections staff with the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (CAS/PNNM) conducted an inventory and preliminary condition survey of the museum’s motion film collection in 2011. The majority of the over 1,300 films were original films created by Academy staff, Board members, and local naturalists, created between the mid 1920s and the 1980s. These films documented Academy field studies, local natural areas, and different species, as well as travel by Academy staff and Board members to conduct research for exhibits. Historically, these films were used regularly by the Academy in public programs and presentations. Now, the films were becoming increasingly fragile, and the information contained within their frames was found nowhere else.

    Preservation Issues

    The films were still in their original metal and cardboard containers and needed to be rehoused with archival quality materials. The original containers -- acidic papers, cardboard, adhesives -- were causing the film to deteriorate. 

    Original Leather Film Case



    The old metal reels caused breakage to the film and were susceptible to rust, which caused chemical deterioration of the film. Acid migration from papers and cardboard affected the film’s stability. Original paper labels glued onto the reels became detached over time, creating the potential for information to become disassociated.





    The Project

    Due to the fragility of the films, CAS/PNNM sought funding support to work with a contractor who had the equipment and expertise to work with historic motion films. In 2012, CAS/PNNM was awarded a $35,000 grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation for the project. Matching funds were generously provided through a $25,000 grant from the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust and $10,000 in individual donations from our paddle raise at the Butterfly Ball. In November of that year, CAS/PNNM began working with the Chicago Film Archives (CFA) on its motion film cataloguing project.

    View from the Chicago Film Archives studio in Chicago.

    At the CFA’s studio, each film was individually assessed. Information about the film was catalogued, including: subject matter, creator and publisher, date created, film stock, date code, footage, film gauge, and other physical attributes of the film. The CFA evaluated the condition of each film, noting shrinkage and warpage, physical damage, and color fading. A few were found with damage from mold of vinegar syndrome. 

    A film with tentite mold. 

    Mold growth on emulsion of a film. 

    Vinegar syndrome is the process of the cellulose acetate film base degrading -- it is caused by humidity, and the film starts to warp, buckle, shrink, and give off a vinegary smell.

    Removed head of film with advanced vinegar syndrome.

    The acetate base of the film is cracking due to vinegar syndrome.

    The films were cleaned and minor repairs, such as repairing splices, were made to stabilize the films. The films were then outfitted with new archival cores, leaders, and containers to provide an inert micro-environment to help stabilize the films and protect them from further deterioration.

     

    Films being outfitted with a new archival core, leader, and container.

    Single frames from some of the films were also captured during CFA's assessment, providing visual references for several of the films in the collection. These digital images will be utilized to provide examples of the films’ contents for research requests, social media relating to the collection, grant proposals, among other uses.

    The project with the CFA was completed in February 2014, and the collection organized at the CAS/PNNM collections facility. A total of 1,356 films were verified and catalogued in the collection. The information resulting from the cataloguing and condition assessments gives our Collections staff a baseline with which to monitor the preservation of the films and additional data about the films to manage the collection.



    Future Plans

    The historic value of the films for conservation studies is immeasurable. Through this project, the Academy is developing a much clearer understanding of its motion film collection and how we might apply the unique field information contained within these frames. However, the films are fragile and projecting them with standard equipment would damage them. Digitally duplicating the films – the process of scanning the frames to produce a digital copy – would make the collection fully accessible. In 2007, the Academy had a small amount of its footage digitally transferred by the Film Video and New Media Department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This footage is shown in the Heritage exhibit at the Nature Museum and enjoyed by our visitors today. CAS/PNNM will use the information from the motion film cataloguing project to set priorities for digital duplication of the collection and will be seeking funding for this next project to provide broad access to these films.

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    Where is the polar bear?

    Tags: Nature's Struggle, collections, polar bear, taxidermy, exhibits

    Published On 4/16/2014

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    When you visit the Nature Museum, you will definitely notice that something is missing on the first floor…our polar bear mount.  It has been temporarily moved to the second floor of the museum to become part of our latest exhibit, Nature’s Struggle: Survival and Extinction.  Moving a mount this large, even from one floor to another, takes some planning and plenty of help. 

    Although the polar bear is mounted onto a base that has wheels, at just under 10 feet tall it was not a simple matter of pushing it onto our freight elevator. Before any of our specimens are moved, we plan out how we are going to get them safely moved to their desired location, particularly tall, heavy mounts like the polar bear. Impediments in this case were hanging light fixtures, an archway, watching out for museum visitors since we had to move the mount during museum hours, and the mount itself (those claws are still extremely sharp).

    In this case we decided the safest way to move it was to place it on its back on large, wheeled platform that would provide support during the transition. The most delicate part of the procedure was in lowering the mount onto its back. It needed to be done smoothly so that we did not cause any torque, or twisting, to the mount that could result in damage to the internal armature, or structure. 

    Mounts like this one are typically attached to their bases by long bolts that extend through their legs and feet that are secured by nuts on the underside. If one of these bolts were twisted or broken the mount would no longer be able to support itself when put back into its upright position.  Once the polar bear was successfully placed on the wheeled platform, it was taken to the freight elevator and then moved into the second floor gallery, where it was lifted back up into its standing position. 

    Come see the polar bear, as well as other specimens and objects from our collection in
    Nature's Struggle: Survival & Extinction.

    Amber K. King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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    Volunteer Appreciation Week

    Tags: volunteer, volunteering, volunteer appreciation week, service

    Published On 4/11/2014

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    On your last visit to the Nature Museum, did you notice anyone in a green apron? I bet you saw several of these folks, actually. Maybe they brought out a live snake for you to pet, or maybe you glimpsed them through the glass pinning chrysalides outside the Butterfly Haven. Those are volunteers, and to tell you the truth, this place wouldn’t keep running without them.



    Well over 300 people contribute about 13,000 volunteer hours to the Nature Museum every year –all because they love this institution and they want to help further our mission. We try to find small ways to thank them throughout the year, but every April we pull out all the stops and throw a recognition dinner to express our deep appreciation for all they do for us.

    We give service pins to those who have stuck with us through the years. Several volunteers are celebrating their 15th anniversary with us this year. That means they’ve been volunteering since before we even opened our doors to the public back in 1999!



    But it’s not just about numbers. We also honor those who go above and beyond their volunteer duties and provide truly exceptional service to the Nature Museum and our visitors, animals, and collections. This set of awards was inspired by creatures that live here at the museum.

    For example, the monarch butterfly is perhaps the most recognized butterfly in the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, not to mention the Midwest region. This striking butterfly is renowned not only for its beauty but also for its determination and tenacity as it travels over a thousand miles to find its wintering grounds in Mexico. This iconic butterfly is the perfect symbol for our Volunteer of the Year.

    The box turtle will entertain and educate the largest crowds of visitors whilst reassuring the most nervous amongst them that nature does not have to be big and scary. The volunteer selected for this award finds a special individual way to reach out to all our visitors, making them feel welcome. 

    So without further ado, please join me in congratulating the recipients of this year’s excellence awards and service milestones.

    The Rainbow Darter Award for enthusiasm: Tom Mattingly

    The Corn Snake Award for dedication: Jim Nitti  

    The Button Quail Award for behind-the-scenes work: Alan Barney

    The Metamorphosis Award for growth: Lenny Cicero

    The Fox Snake Award for visitor service: Julianna Cristanti

    The Box Turtle Award for visitor education: Jon Meisenbach

    The Tiger Salamander Award for mission focus: Luis Melendez

    The Green Tree Frog Award for eco friendliness: Valerie Sands

    The Leaf Cutter Ant Award for teamwork: Dee Kenney and Doris Devine

    The Monarch Award for Volunteer of the Year: Nicole Johnson

    Celebrating 15 years of service:
    Dee Kenney
    Doris Devine
    Joan Rathbone
    Judith Brenner
    Kristine Dombeck
    Ross Capaccio
    Ruthmarie Eisin
    Vickie Lau
    Jacki Casler

    10 years of service:
    Mary O'Shea
    Pat Hanneline
    Pat Moran

    5 years of service:
    Joan Bledig
    Paula Calzolari
    Yvi Russell
    Dana Crawford

    Celebrating 3,000 hours of service:
    Judith Brenner

    2,000 hours of service:
    Sheri Thomas

    1,500 hours of service:
    Ross Capaccio

    1,000 hours of service:
    Joan Rathbone
    Cindy Gray

    500 hours of service:
    Linda Montanero
    Aaron Goldberg
    Walt Mellens
    Lorraine Kells

    Jill Doub
    Manager of Volunteers and Interns

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    Harbingers of Spring

    Tags: spring, red-winged blackbirds, birds, ornithology, mating calls, Biology

    Published On 3/26/2014

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    Bluebirds have been the traditional avian harbinger of spring throughout our nation’s history. However, with the various pressures applied by habitat conversion, heavy pesticide application, and the introduction of exotic competitors like house sparrows and starlings, the bluebird is a species few city dwellers will ever see in their neighborhoods again. On the other hand, human activity has been generally good for the red-winged blackbird and throughout the region---city, suburb and rural areas alike—wherever there is tall grass and some standing water, male red-winged blackbirds are arriving in droves.

    As with many bird species, the males arrive first to stake out the best territories; he with the best territory will have the most mating opportunities later in the spring when the females arrive. The male proclaims his fiefdom with a loud metallic call that sounds a bit like a squeaky swing set. At the same time he leans forward to display his eponymous red wings, really just a patch of bright red feathers on his wrist that contrast well with the rest of his jet black body. While it’s a small patch of color, it makes all the difference.  The bigger and more intense patches attract the most mates. 

    In fact, scientists have influenced mating opportunities by experimentally cutting the red feathers off of some males and gluing them on to others. Much like humans who are stereotypically impressed by a man driving a red sports car, regardless of his age or personality, female red-winged blackbirds apparently look no deeper than the red patches on a boys wrists.


    Red Sports Car


    Hand-me-down van from your parents

    Once the male has established his territory, he will aggressively defend it against all interlopers, including you. It can be fun, and a little daunting, to walk past a breeding colony of red-winged blackbirds. Most will simply scream at you but usually one will sneak up behind you and, when you are not looking, he may drop out of the sky and hit you on the back of the head. Keep your eyes to the sky this spring.

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    Just grow 'em.

    Tags: native plants, black-eyed susans, purple coneflower, native gardening, Gardening, horticulture

    Published On 3/20/2014

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    For all you tweethearts out there who prefer knowledge disseminated in 140 character quanta,  I will be participating in a Twitter discussion (follow me @HorticulturSeth) on #NativeGardening tomorrow, 3/20, at 12:00 pm CST.  No surprise, preparing for this event has turned my thoughts away from the tropical plants I was perusing just last week in Florida*, and back to local flora.

    Thoughts are really all I have at this point – interactions are limited by the fact that most plants ‘round here are still hitting the snooze button awaiting more favorable weather.

    Some of you may remember my “bottom ten” lists (to which I still owe a promised conclusion.) I must say, it’s fun writing those. I mean, who doesn’t love making fun of terrible, terrible things? Especially plants, which have a limited capacity for retaliation? So hopefully you will not think less of me for admitting the temptation to combine my love of cruel mockery with my current focus on native plants in order to generate a bottom ten native plant list. (I’m looking at you, Hackelia virginiana.)

    But alas, I don’t have the heart. Native plants are underused, underappreciated, and under assault from development, climate change, and invasive species. So instead of following my baser instincts, I’m just  gonna drop some sweet, sweet native plant knowledge. To wit –

    Six native plants Chicago area gardeners really have no excuse for not growing:

    1. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) – It’s attractive.  It’s available. It’s a potent pollinator magnet. And it’s easier than shooting fish in a barrel, assuming the fish are relatively large and not similarly armed. Seriously, all you need is sun and sorta decent dirt. You have that, right?
    2. Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – Also easy to grow, though maybe a little harder to find in the garden center. Needs decently draining soil. The best thing about butterflyweed is that whole “butterfly” part. Monarchs feed on this plant from cradle to grave.**
    3. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) – You may be asking yourself, who is Joe Pye? Well, the answer is twofold: I don’t know and I don’t care. This is one of my favorite plants, and it wouldn’t change my opinion if I found out Joe Pye had invented spam email, parking meters, and the word “irregardless.” It should be noted that this plant’s kinda big. And it needs consistent moisture. But when in full bloom, there’re few plants that can rival its beauty and raw butterfly magnetism.
    4. Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) – Sun and dirt that’s not soggy - got that? You can grow this.  When you do, you’ll enjoy masses of colorful flowers over a long season, starting in early summer. You’ll also draw bees and butterflies like…flies.
    5. Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) – Whether their eyes are black or brown, the Susans really hit the spot for daisy lovers. There’s a place for a Susan in every garden, assuming she’s relatively sedentary. Also, I really needed something yellow on this list.


      Black-Eyed Susan
    6. Swamp Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) – Got a wet spot in your yard? As long as it’s sunny and the soil’s reasonably rich, you can grow flowers the size of your face.


    Swamp Mallow

    *mic drop*

    *I travel to the Sunshine State once a year to purchase plants for the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. Can I be frank with you a moment? I have strong opinions about Florida, and they are not congenial.  I hope you’re happy, butterflies.

    **I use “grave” metaphorically, as very little is known about lepidopteran death rituals.



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