Burke Museum 2015 collecting trip: SE Washington and central Idaho

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Sunrise in the Blue Mountains, south of Pomeroy, WA

A large part of my work as a graduate student — in both research and public outreach — involves specimen collections. For outsiders, the specimen collections of natural history museums are a mostly-invisible feature of institutions like AMNH (or my own Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture) best known for their kitschy dioramas and dramatic taxidermy. Specimen collections are almost always behind locked doors, in back rooms filled with identical cryptic white cabinets, and unless you have a zoologist or evolutionary biologist in the family tree, you probably don’t know they exist.

But these archives are an integral part of research programs into that question of all questions, the origin of species. Specimen collections (and associated tissue / genetic resource collections) serve as a library of biodiversity, recording in perpetuity our knowledge of of all life on earth. This is done through both type specimens (the original individual collected from a newly-discovered species) and through series, or multiple individuals of the same species collected from different locations, serving to capture some of the variation present within a species.

In western North America, at least, our understanding of species-level diversity (“alpha” diversity) is relatively complete. But our understanding of diversity below the species level — how genomes, plumage, size, and other features vary across geographic areas, across climate, along elevational gradients — remains drastically insufficient. This is the focus of the Klicka Lab’s research, and the strength of the Burke Museum, the University of Washington’s longstanding natural history museum, home of one of the most active ornithology departments in the country. To conduct this research requires not only delving into the existing specimen collections, but also expanding them, with particular research goals in mind.

How do we obtain the specimens used in research? Sometimes by salvaging incidental fatalities, when natural-history savvy citizens send birds dead from window collision or feline assault to our office. Sometimes from the Woodland Park Zoo, when a cherished ostrich or lorikeet passes away. But mostly, the specimens at the Burke Museum (known as UWBM in natural history museum acronym-speak) come from targeted collecting. “Collecting” being the euphemism of choice for the dirty job of killing, stuffing, and cataloging wild birds.

For people who love birds, nature, and animals — as I assure you, everyone who decides to pursue ornithology or museum work emphatically does, likely to the detriment of more anthropocentric passions — the idea of collecting is often hard to swallow. How do you justify taking life for science? In the anthropocene and its epidemic of collapsing wildlife populations, how do you justify removing individuals from the breeding pool?

Responding to the first critique is a philosophical issue beyond my pay grade, but it certainly pivots on a belief in the intrinsic value of knowledge, and the power of knowledge of our natural world to inform decisions dedicated to its preservation. A response to the second critique is not dissimilar, but must also encompass the vast balance of evidence that illustrates scientific collecting has no effective detriment on wild populations. It would be intellectually dishonest to say that this is an unquestioned tenet of field biology, but after a recent editorial by three scientists arguing collecting no longer has a place in modern research programs, a forceful response by no less than 123 scientists in defense of collecting demonstrates the degree to which a majority of practicing biologists believe in its continued importance, despite the now-established advent of high definition photography and other new technologies with the potential to supersede some of the utility of physical specimens.

These are debates which others have argued more forcefully and articulately than I, and I’ll leave it to you to pursue them beyond what I’ve briefly cited above.

This year, the Burke’s three week expedition focused on northeastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle before heading south for the Blue Mountains (WA) and the Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness (ID). Otherwise occupied with summer duties as a teaching assistant, I was able to take the time to join Chris (UWBM Ornithology collections manager) and Kevin (UWBM Ornithology jack of all trades and Klicka Lab technician) on the final week of the trip. Beyond being my first exposure to collecting and its nuances — using a shotgun, preparing specimens in a field camp, the upsetting method of euthanasia known as “thoracic compression” — it was also my first trip to these striking corners of the inland Northwest. What follows is an annotated account of those moments when I had my lens on me.

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My stint began in the Blue Mountains, a small range spanning NE Oregon and SE Washington between the Cascades and the Rockies. The Blue Mountains are physiogeographically unique in the region in their merger of canyons with high, flat ridges, a sort of vivisected plateau over 6000′ in elevation. We camped off a spur road at 6180′, and hunted the most floristically diverse forest I’ve seen in the inland northwest, replete with Western larch and doug fir and subalpine fir and lodgepole pine and many others. It also boasted the highest bird densities of the trip, perhaps a result of being the apogee of land for a long ways in all directions during a week in which lowland eastern Washington cleared 100 degrees F.

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After two mornings, we broke camp and drove many hours southeast to a high valley in Boise National Forest on the border of Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness. The goal was to base ourselves within spitting distance (1.5 hours drive) of the location of the University of Washington Herbarium’s 2015 collecting foray in Yellow Pine, Idaho, who we had arranged to join forces with for the final days of the expedition. At 6800′, we camped alongside a meandering stream in a marshy meadow surrounded by low mountains. Each evening, a family of breeding sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) announced their presence and soared low above our camp. A first for me, their presence was a stirring reminder of the wildness at our doorstep.

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Our field camp, amply equipped for eating, skinning, and drinking Rainier.

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After a morning in which we all hunted habitats near camp, collecting the usual assortment of montane Western birds (e.g. breeding songbirds such as dark-eyed juncos, chipping sparrows, Western tanagers, American robins, hermit thrushes, Audubon’s warblers, and many others), Chris and I headed north, downstream along Johnson Creek, to collect in mixed forest and meadow (dotted with mariposa lilies) some 800′ lower. Pictured is the .410 bore shotgun used with dust shot for collecting most smaller birds. With sufficient distance, even such delicate species as rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) can seem merely concussed by its blast.

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Arrowleaf balsam root (Balsamorhiza sagittata), past its bloom.

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A mariposa lily (Calochortus sp.)

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Lupinus sp.

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Near the airstrip in Yellow Pine, Idaho, site of the 2015 foray and a decidedly unique community. Sheer slopes and slide paths.

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My kind of town.

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Kevin, Chris, and Dr. Olmstead’s unmistakable vehicle on our rendezvous.

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Johnson Creek near its merger with the east fork of the Salmon River.

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After collection, an individual bird is prepared to become a specimen suitable for storage in the museum collections. This process, deserving of another post itself at some point, involves stripping the skin, feathers, bill, and legs from the other soft tissues, and stuffing them with cotton in a more or less standard way to enable more or less accurate comparisons with other members of its and other species.

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Here, a Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), tagged and awaiting skinning.

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After being skinned and stuffed, specimens are pinned into rigid positions to dry for several weeks. No preservatives are needed, although it’s understandably important to keep them out of the rain.

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The final morning before Chris and Kevin returned to Seattle, we hunted along a high ridge above Yellow Pine and near the skeletal mining community of Stibnite, a dry backbone of mountain bordering the incomprehensible vastness of the 2.4 million acre Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness. The Frank Church is a mosaic of healthy forest, healthy burns, and apocalyptic burns that ominously portend the future of Western forests. It’s the home to hundreds of wolves and vicious wolf extermination campaigns. It reflects the Kalmiopsis in its pyramidal, labyrinthine heights and v-shaped canyons.

I gazed into its depths, and crossed the border a few times. It was enough to win me over, and made me promise to myself to come back.

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In central Idaho, quaking aspen (Populus tremulosa) doesn’t nearly approach the degree of its extent and coverage in the southern Rockies, but occurs with a frequency alien to the Cascades, even on their dry eastern slope.

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Nonetheless, where there’s water, the forest is lush, verdant, rich.

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At the region’s highest elevations, subalpine meadows merge with groves of dark fir and short crest-like peaks of silvery rock, often clearing 9000′.

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I hunted alone the final morning to the trip, with little success. Briefly stopping to preview a section of the IMTUF100 course outside McCall on the way home, I was soon back in Nez Perce territory, the steep prairie and ponderosa country east of Hell’s Canyon bordering Highway 95. Not far beyond, the monotonous driving characterizing the Palouse agricultural belt beckoned, with many hours separating me and home. I lingered for a while at a modest marker at the site of an ambush in the Nez Perce War.

Science can be monotonous, frustrating, and poorly compensated. But after the right kind of week in the field, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.

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