Sunday, April 17, 2011

Surprise meeting at Magee Marsh

Rodolfo Palma and I made our second visit of the month to Magee Marsh today.  It rained throughout the drive down southbound I-75, but as we approached the Oregon exit for westbound Highway 2, the skies opened up and the sun began to shine.  This was an unexpected and hopeful sign because the weather for today was promised to be horrible. We stopped along a large field puddle across the highway to the entrance of Metzger Marsh when we saw shorebirds and gulls - Dunlin, Lesser Yellowlegs and Bonaparte's Gulls.  The light was perfect and I suggested to Rodolfo that we go first to the Magee Marsh boardwalk as the storm may have halted migrants in the woods.

We drove toward the parking lot and saw a photographer walking along the roadside who Rodolfo had not seen before.  We parked the car where eight other cars were already parked - six from Michigan.  As it turned out the Detroit Audubon Society was having a field trip led by Richard Quick today.  We birded with the DAS group and saw a nice sampling of April birds - not a lot, but enough to keep it interesting and us on our toes.

About halfway down the north side of the boardwalk, we ran into a woman with bird song recording gear.  She asked if we had seen any Fox Sparrows.  Thus far this morning we hadn't.  I commented that when Rodolfo and I visited a couple of weeks ago, Fox Sparrow had been the bird of the morning.

Fox Sparrow, April 2, 2011
But, you know, what good did that do for today - when someone says, "yesterday ..., last week ..., last month ...," etc. we saw such and such here?  Oh, well.  I said it.

The recording equipment was interesting and Rodofo and Jim Bull asked questions about editing the recordings, etc.  We learned her name, Pam Rasmussen, and that she is with Michigan State University. The fellow with the camera was an ornithologist friend visiting from Bangladesh.  This explains why Rodolfo had not see him before.  She showed us the microphone with the fuzzy hood removed and explained how it worked.  At that point, I flashed back to the February Soo trip when I had the pleasure of birding with Cody Porter, a MSU student who was recording bird sounds for his professor.  Our first bird sounds of that February Saturday morning were of nine Sharp-tailed Grouse making their charming clucking vocalizations on the Nicolet Road lek. Cody was intent upon capturing this sound.  Just at the point where Cody had the mike out the window and all was quiet I, in the backseat, broke into a spontaneous coughing fit.  Embarrassing.  Nevertheless, as I recall, he was successful in recording their sounds.  I commented on birding with Cody in the Soo to Pam Rasmussen and she knew immediately who he was and mentioned the Sharp-tailed Grouse recordings he had done.

This morning we did not see Fox Sparrows.  Rather, Eastern Towhee was the bird of the morning.  They were all around the boardwalk and frequently very confiding, uncommon and untowhee-like behavior.

The second bird of the day were several Hermit Thrushes. Unfortunately, none were singing - something I don't have a chance to hear often. There were also many Ruby-crowned Kinglets and these were singing. 

Almost immediately upon our arrival to the boardwalk, the sun that seemed so promising was again covered by clouds.  The rain held off until around 11:00 am, when the sky opened up and it began to rain heavily.  Unfortunately, I was not dressed for rain and we returned to the car along the slippery boardwalk.  We said goodbye to the DAS group and took off for the Ottawa NWR.  Today, being the third Saturday of the month, the dikes were open to cars.

On the drive over to Ottawa NWR, I noted to Rodolfo that Pam Rasmussen and her friend were in the car in front of us.  As we turned into Ottawa NRW - left to go to the visitor center, right to go to the dikes - it suddenly came to me that I knew the name Pam Rasmussen.  When I connected her name, I immediately wanted to catch up with them to speak with her again.  We first had to stop in the visitor center for the facilities.  At that point I really didn't think I would have the chance to speak with Pam.  But when we got on the dike their little car was in sight.  We passed a couple of cars and finally they pulled off the road and Rodolfo also stopped.  The Bangladeshi ornithologist was taking photographs.  I waved and got out to speak with Pam Rasmussen.

Several years earlier I had read an essay in the New Yorker titled Ruffled Feathers by John Seabrook.  I couldn't recall specific details; only that it was a gripping account of a young, American, female ornithologist and researcher who exposed theft and fraudulent behaviors by the [formerly] esteemed 20th century British ornithologist, Richard Meinertzhagen, while researching her book, The Bird of South Asia: The Ripley Guide.  On the very last page of the essay, Seabrook writes that "Pam Rasmussen is now at Michigan State University ..."  I clearly recall being surprised and thrilled that she was at Michigan State. Meinertzhagen died in 1967 and, while some of his specimens were authentic, his body of work has been thoroughly discredited.  He has even been implicated in the death of his wife, also an esteemed ornithologist when, it is hypothesized, she may have threatened to expose his behaviors.  By contrast, Pam Rasmussen's own contribution to the field of ornithology is impressive.

I walked to Pam's car and told her of recalling her name just as we were turning into the refuge entrance.  I said, "I know your name; you're famous."  We spoke for several minutes and she clarified my foggy memory of the New Yorker essay.  She also said that there are all sorts of fraudulent occurrences in ornithology.  It was still raining and we could not talk for long, but I'm glad Rodolfo and I made the effort to catch up with her.

The Ruffled Feathers abstract in the May 29, 2006 issue of the New Yorker is linked.  New Yorker subscribers can read the whole essay from this link.  Non-subscribers can scroll to the bottom for instructions to purchase a copy of the essay.  As I hope is apparent from the summary above, it's a must read.  I read it again this evening - eleven pages of riveting history and all the more meaningful now that I have met the protagonist.

Pamela C. Rasmussen has her own Wikipedia page and the Meinertzhagen fraud is mentioned here.  There is more about Pam Rasmussen, Ph.D. on her page of the Michigan State University Museum website and includes her research interests and articles about her.  The MSU Department of Zoology website also features her faculty activities and research interests.  Consistent with her activities today, I found this MSU sponsored You Tube video with Pam speaking about bird sound recordings and the importance of their accurate documentation.  Toward the end of this video there is a still image of a small owl.  I wondered if this was the Forest Owlet,  a bird thought to be extinct thanks to Meinertzhagen's manipulation of data, and rediscovered by Pam Rasmussen when she narrowed down the owl's range for a more accurate search.

Finally, and arguably the best, is her book, The Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide (subtitle is explained in Ruffled Feathers), Vols. 1 and 2 illustrated by John C. Anderton, is currently out of print but can still be purchased on Amazon.  Additionally, Pam told me that the book is being re-published this year or next.  Read the reviews that are included in the Amazon link.

My friends often tease me because I frequently comment "I read an article in the New Yorker ... "  and then launch into some description of one thing or another.  But it's worth it.  Today proves that.

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