Talents of Sibley Nature Center leader helps illustrate outdoor education in Midland, Llano Estacado

What do you get when you cross a scientific illustrator with a zoologist? You get Amarillo native Michael Nickell who was instrumental in the redevelopment of the Sibley Nature Center. With a background in biology, museology, zoology and drawing, he says, “it took me most of my career to find my dream job.”

Nickell was a freelance scientific illustrator for over 30 years with designs appearing in numerous journals around the world. He has also had assignments from the National Geographic Society, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and several scientific authors. He was first hired as a part-time artist at the Sibley Nature Center 16 years ago to paint the decorative and informative icons of the Llano Estacado. (Sibley staff describe our area as a large plateau – the Llano Estacado – rather than a basin.)

That’s why, as you walk along the covered entrance, you see his renditions of Quanah Parker, Ranald S. Mackenzie, and Charles Goodnight as well as the horned lizard, mesquite, box turtle, bison, pronghorn, grama, prairie dog and sandhill crane. . In the auditorium are colorful 4-by-6-foot panels titled “The Four Seasons of the Llano Estacado,” which also pay homage to the region’s habitat types and cultural influences. Its four panels are surrounded by stuffed birds, deer and a bear for a three-dimensional representation of the fauna of these regions.

Armed with two master’s degrees, Nickell described how he became a museum scientist at the center. He enlarged the scale of 10 native insects, painted them and then transferred them to Masonite. These have been cut out in the head, thorax and abdomen so that the children can assemble a new insect. He also designed and illustrated an exhibit surrounding the impressive crocodile-shaped skull of a Triassic period phytosaur. These roamed West Texas when the land was swampy before the Llano Estacado.

Working with prehistoric skeletons came naturally to Nickell. While at Texas Tech, he participated as a field paleontologist in the canyons of Crosby and Garza counties where they unearthed skeletal material from several Triassic vertebrate species, many of which were new to science. He also traveled to Antarctica for a month of collaborative paleontology work with several other universities in December 1983.

Now, aided by a grant from the FMH Foundation, Nickell is planning a gradual Pleistocene (Ice Age) exposure on the Llano Estacado. The Musée du Sud-Ouest has donated a mammoth tusk, which it is painstakingly repairing (and could benefit from the help of volunteers). Sibley also acquired replicas of the skull and right hand of a 12- to 14-foot short-faced bear, which probably feasted on other mammals like horses, camels, and bison. He is currently drawing interpretive reconstructions of the Pleistocene megafauna mammals of this region to be incorporated into the exhibit. Nickell said the Llano Estacado had a wonderful connection to that era.

In the meantime, he manages the entomology collections, skeletal materials, Midland County herbarium collection with several hundred specimens (of which over 200 will be new records for the county) and several museum bird skins . There’s a freezer full of birds that need to be added (hopefully by volunteers). As in major museums, these skins can be used for research and compared with older specimens from other collections to look for things such as changes in distribution and evidence of evolution.

In addition to his curatorial duties, Nickell is also a beekeeper at Sibley. He is still involved in education and would like to offer the adult bug camp again this summer. It’s a nocturnal business with sheets and UV lights to attract nocturnal bugs. UV lights are used while walking on a trail to spot scorpions with their incandescent green glow.

Nickell recently hung one of Sibley’s quarterly regional art exhibitions in time for a public reception at 6pm on Tuesday. Susan May exhibits a dozen automata for hands-on viewing. Many are built out of old cigar boxes with recycled and natural materials. Visitors can also check out the mammal exhibits and the clever chalk renditions Nickell drew of the badger, owl and coyote on the office doors of three of the five Sibley-paid employees.

So what do you get when you walk through an outdoor laboratory with collections of insects, bones, plants, birds, Pleistocene skeletons and research? You get a little-known natural history museum locked away in the Sibley Nature Center, thanks to the brushwork, education, and display talents of museum scientist and naturalist Michael Nickell.

Summer courses, Sibley membership, etc.

You can become a member of the Sibley Nature Center, 1307 E. Wadley Ave., for $40 a year. Call 684-6827 for more information.

In addition to public receptions like the one on Tuesday at 6 p.m. for Susan May’s automatons, many other events are planned for the summer.

According to Director of Education Phil Salonek, the next two months are full of activity. Summer camps for 5-7 year olds will take place on June 7-8, June 21-22 and July 19-20. Older children, ages 8-12, will attend camp on June 9-10, June 23-24, and July 21-22. Sessions will be held from 9 a.m. to noon at the center.

AgriLife, through the Texas A&M Extension Service, will host the following lunch and learn sessions at noon: “Earth Kind” Landscaping, May 25; Good selection of herbs, June 15; Chemical Safety, June 22; and Saving Water with “Earth Kind,” July 6.

Various family events include songs at Sibley at 6 p.m. on May 24, June 28 and July 26; a teachers’ workshop at 9 a.m. on June 2; farmers’ markets at 6 p.m. on June 14 and 28; a brown bag conference at noon on June 16; and theater Thursday at 6 p.m. July 14.

Please call the center at 684-6827 for details.

Sam D. Gomez