Saturday, June 26, 2010

hic sunt dracones (HERE BE DRAGONS!)

The pond in the park is alive with dragonflies at the moment, probably something to do with the tropical monsoon type weather we are having this summer. We have had 8 inches of rain so far in June! Everything is very green and lush and there are literally thousands of little flying insects for the dragonflies to prey on.

I don't know if you have spent any time trying to photograph dragonflies but it is one sure fire way to drive yourself rapidly insane. They alight on a twig or a leaf in perfect light and before you even get chance to raise your camera into position, they have flown away. Of the numerous species flitting around, only two actually stayed still enough for me to photograph.

The Eastern Amberwing, Perithemis tenera

there are no prizes for figuring out why that name came about. You can't tell from my photos but this is one of the smallest dragonflies in the US with a body length of barely an inch.

But it's colour is so vivid that it is hard to miss. The male selects a stick or twig sticking just above the surface of the water and defends a territory of approximately 3 to 6 meters around it, repeatedly returning to alight on the same spot.

And the Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, (how is that for a scientific name!!!) The males are distinguished by their chalky blue abdomen

And their white head and metallic green eyes.

The Blue Dasher is also a small dragonfly with an average body length of just over an inch. The males spend a lot of time chasing each other along the edge of still or slow-moving bodies of water.

The stunning blue abdomen is brandished as a threat to territorial opponents. I personally prefer the alternative name for this species, The Blue Pirate! Especially if they are waving their abdomen around to ward off all comers.

Quite apart from the fact that they eat numerous mosquitoes in their average day (and what is not to like about that?) It is hard to imagine why such a stunning and delicate insect is regarded with such foreboding in so many cultures.
Some English vernacular names, such as "devil's darning needle" and "ear cutter", link them with evil or injury. A Romanian folk tale says that the dragonfly was once a horse possessed by the devil. Swedish folklore holds that the devil uses dragonflies to weigh people's souls. The Norwegian name for dragonflies is "Øyenstikker", which literally means Eye Poker and in Portugal they are sometimes called "Tira-olhos" (Eye snatcher). They are often associated with snakes, as in the Welsh name gwas-y-neidr, "adder's servant". The Southern United States term "snake doctor" refers to a folk belief that dragonflies follow snakes around and stitch them back together if they are injured.

I don't know about any of that but I think they are very cool and when I saw this last photo I had to wonder, if this wasn't the inspiration for the original design for the bi-plane, what was?

Photo Credits - CJT

Sunday, June 20, 2010


So what has been going on in my little world during my break from blogging? It is hard to know where to start but this will do for today.
I have blogged in the past about our lone representative of the mammal group in our Living Collections at the Nature Museum, Scabbers.

Scabbers the rat came to join our animal family on September 11th 2008. I had read about what great animals they were and how smart and affectionate they were but even I was impressed with this guy. I had also read about the very short life span of rats and how if they go beyond two years that is a bonus, so as the months flicked past Jamie and I started having discussions about the fateful day when it came and how we would deal with it.

When I left for Morocco I said to Jamie, maybe Scabbers could choose his time when I was away, that way I could avoid the trauma! Not being super mean to Jamie but Scabbers was very much a one woman rat, and I was that woman. So I figured being eminently more sensible than me she would be far less likely to be reduced to a weeping wreck than me! But of course life (and death) never tends to go to schedule and one week after my return, my dear sweet friend Scabbers had some kind of a stroke or something overnight and when we came in the next morning he was unable to move the left side of his body. Well tears or not, my job is my job, so Jamie and I immediately headed off to the vets, knowing in our heart of hearts that this was a one way trip for one member of our group and after using many Kleenex we said goodbye to our little rodent buddy.

Scabbers, during his brief time at the Museum had become an extremely popular character and would often attend meetings, sitting happily on my shoulder, greet visiting VIP's and take trips to local schools with members of the education department. One price he had to pay for his celebrity status was an occasional bath. Boy rats can get a little pungent sometimes! They are clean animals, they just have a rather distinctive scent! But even the bathing was taken in good grace. (This is his best 'Mom do we have to do this?' face.)

But he endured it, largely, I suspect because he got a big cuddle in a nice warm, snuggly towel afterwards!

When we returned from the vets I sent out a brief all staff email explaining what had happened and then we were barraged with emails and phone calls from all his friends - lots more Kleenex were used!
We let our emotions heal for a few weeks and then, sure enough, questions started getting asked about 'another Scabbers.'
Jamie and I shop at a local pet store once a week to pick up various live food items and other small bits and pieces and before we found Scabbers we had never seen a 'natural' coloured rat there. I would regularly look at the rats each week after we bought him too and they were always fancy coloured ones that looked nothing like him. So we went on our weekly trip to the store and, for the first time since we lost Scabbers I went and checked out the rats. I suppose you could call it fate or just plain old random luck but I looked in the tank and there he was.

Scabbers 2 looking back at me, large as life! Same grey black colour, same little white feet, same white belly. The only difference was a tiny little white dot on the top of his head!

I called Jamie over and she started to laugh. It was just too big a coincidence!
One lesson we had learned from having Scabbers was that rats really enjoy having a friend and we were in luck there too.

Well you know were this is heading don't you? We headed back to the Museum with not one but two new little friends! Diesel and Spike, the latest additions to the menagerie!
When they first arrived they were clearly still quite young and rather nervous little guys so we kept them in there two story cage for a week or so just so that they could get used to the new sights, sounds and smells around them but I was anxious to open it up so that they could start to have the free range of the area of the lab that had previously been Scabbers domain. When I first opened the cage up they were definitely too scared to come out but gradually each day they started to explore. Diesel (the Scabbers double) is definitely the bravest of the two and always first to do everything. I suspect Spike will play more of a companion role going forward, as he definitely prefers the safety of his cage.

As the weeks have gone by Diesel has certainly come out of his shell in no uncertain terms! When I come in in the morning he is waiting for me. He rides around on my shoulder as we do our rounds to check all the other animals. When I sit down to switch on my computer he likes to climb off my shoulder and run up and down the back of my chair.

Then as I start to type he climbs back onto my shoulder and carefully makes his way down my arm onto my desk.

I don't have a mouse pad, I have a rodent pad!

We check for phone messages.........

And then when the business is out of the way it is time for a spot of breakfast. So we go to the fridge to choose what type of fruit or veggie we would like. And before you freak out about a rat in the fridge, this fridge is used for storing animal food supplies only!

When breakfast has been selected and consumed

It is time to kick back and relax for a while to sleep it off

And then cuddle up with the best buddy, Spike.

Both Diesel and Spike have started to earn their keep now by doing public programs for our Museum visitors and needless to say, they are a hugely popular double act.
I think it would be fair to say that Scabbers has found a worthy successor and we have acquired double the fun and or trouble depending on which way you look at it.

Photo Credits - CJT

Monday, June 14, 2010


That is the question
- that I have been wondering about for the last few weeks.
After we returned from our Moroccan trip I spent literally hours sorting through our thousands of photos, choosing the ones I wanted to use, uploading them and then putting the posts about our trip together and honestly, as long as I was still doing that I could somehow fool myself into feeling that I was still there but when it was finished so, it seems, was I. Hence the long hiatus.

How did I manage to fool myself into believing that going back to the continent that so surely has stolen my heart and soul would be different this time? I fed myself all the lines about it being North Africa, totally different from the region I lived in, more 'Arab' less 'African,' no big, beautiful flora and fauna, a Muslim state, blah, blah, blah! Yeah right! IDIOT!!! Who was I kidding?

So the past several weeks have been a tough time. I have been trying hard to readjust to the utterly materialistic world of living in a tiny glass box, twenty-one floors up in the air with nothing but concrete, steel and glass for hundreds of miles around me. But it does not come easy. I have been a nightmare to live with and probably pretty miserable to work with too, although I have tried my best to keep that on an even keel at least.
I yearn for the open spaces, the sensory bombardment, the brutality, the grittiness, the realness, the uncompromising feel of Africa that I have yet to find replicated anywhere else. In short, the feeling of being alive. And no, the local gang wars and drug induced violence on the streets of Chicago is not the same thing at all!! It sounds so corny but Africa truly is like the strongest drug imaginable, once you are hooked you live for the next fix. And let me tell you, cold turkey sucks! And so here I am, mangled, battered and bruised in true junky style but still hanging in there. One of the steps I needed to take was to get back to blogging. It will certainly be a little spasmodic for a while but hopefully this is a first step.

And just to add a little salt to the wounds a friend from when I used to live in Zambia recently found my blog and left me a very sweet comment asking me to visit her blog. She is a beautiful person, inside and out, living in Tanzania with horses, dogs and a view to die for so reading her blog was pretty eviscerating (Sorry 'J' you know I love you really!) but it will give you a pretty good idea of the beautiful/brutal, spellbinding/stark, vivid/violent and utterly unique way of life that is Africa. Here it is She writes beautifully so her blog is really a pleasure to read. If you are not a blubbering mess like me :)

Enough wallowing for today, now I must go and catch up on reading some of my favorite blogs that I have sorely neglected visiting recently. I promise to try and make my next post a lot less self-pitying!