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A Day at the Museum

September 26, 2007

When I moved out to North Carolina a few years back one of the most pleasant effects was that it put me closer to a world-class natural history museum of the type I never had access to in little Springfield, Mo. You may ask yourself, “Raleigh has a world-class museum?”. You may ask yourself, “What is that beautiful house?” Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down… Wait…Sorry.

The answer is of course, yes, Raleigh has a fantastic museum and since I’ve moved into the area I’ve tried to volunteer there in some capacity on the weekends and when I’ve been between jobs (fickle fickle grant money). I’ve been in the Naturalist Center, where kids come and handle study skins and specimens and that was great, and I’ve been in the Living Conservatory where I got to feed the sloth who is surprisingly ill-tempered, but now I’m where perhaps I was born to be; the bird lab, yesterday was my first day.

I’ll back up a bit and explain why suddenly I have all this free time. If you put 2+2 together you’ll notice that time at the museum roughly corresponds inversely to periods of employment. Well, that’s cause I’m down to part time at the numbers factory* at UNC where I worked. I’m back in school working towards a Master’s Degree in Wildlife Sciences now that mrs. N8 has become Dr. mrs. N8, though not the kind that can prescribe medicine so don’t ask. I have class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and since I’m down in Raleigh anyway I spend those afternoons at the museum. The museum’s bird collection is fantastic with specimens from all over the world, not just North Carolina or even the eastern United States. I’m like a kid in a candy store there, except instead of candy it’s rows upon rows of cabinets full of dead birds. So, kind of like candy, yaknow?

I got there yesterday afternoon and was immediately put to work by Becky, the collections manager, checking the collection for bugs, which means checking every individual bird. She’s a real slavedriver, that Becky. Ok, actually she’s super, and don’t think I’m backing down on that slavedriver thing because I know she reads this blog occasionally, well, not much. She put me on shorebirds, which, awesome. So I got right in there amongst the scads of Sanderlings (left) and lots of Knots (right) among others. I was especially interested in the amount on intraspecific variation with the peeps. The museum has tons of Calidris sandpipers in various stages of molt and basic plumage from all the way back to the beginning of the last century so there was alot to look at and even the differences in bill length among individuals of the same species was impressive. There was even an entire drawer full of unidentified peeps, birds that, in the hand, were such difficult IDs that they couldn’t be placed to species. Though, in shuffling through them, there were a few that might be able to be straightened out. A job for an enthusiastic volunteer perhaps?

So intraspecies were tough, how about interspecies? The fun part about looking at skins is that you can really examine the differences between birds that are tough IDs in the field. So with the sandpiper drawers laid out before me I took it upon myself to set up some of these conundrums for you, dear reader(s), so check it… To the left we have a Baird’s Sandpiper on the left and a White-rumped Sandpiper on the right. Look how streaky the WR is compared to the Baird’s, that’s not always as obvious in the field but in the hand it’s dead-clear. And on the right side we have a Western Sandpiper above a Semipalmated. Look at those beaks! I should point out though, that I chose birds that would prove my point, a “classic” Western and Semi. There were several intermediate birds of both species in the drawers that would have been real head-scratchers in the field.

And as a bonus, here’s a blast from the past, the Eskimo Curlew, here next to it’s Long-billed cousin. Sorry the pic is a bit blurry I don’t know why that happened. I have more pictures from yesterday but I’m going to save them for a post specifically about the project I’m working on for Becky. She’s got me aging the museum’s collection of Larids, including all the gulls, terns, and the current birdy object of my obsession, jeagers. It’s going to be tons of fun and likely make me a better field birder for a group of birds that can be really tough. Keep an eye out for that soon, the possibilities are endless.

*Not really a numbers factory

One Comment
  1. Greg permalink
    September 28, 2007 12:49 pm

    Congratulations on being in a room full of dead birds! Sounds like an opportunity for an Alfred Hitchcock rendition of Night at the Museum.
    Seriously, though, this is really cool and interesting reading. I was shocked at the Western/Semipalmated comparison and feel like I’ve had it all wrong all along. Shorebirds are just so difficult for me, and your photos and comments are helpful. Looking forward to future id related blogs.

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