Friday, March 25, 2011

Learning Bird Words


Petronia  petronia  brevirostris, Common Rock Sparrow, collected in Heilungkiang Province; Dalai Nor 
in 1935,  photographed at the The California Academy of Sciences  in 2007, © sharonbeals2007                                      

An eleven-foot high Kodiak bear with outstretched paws was standing guard next to me, and resting on the industrial shelving lining the walls the skulls of beasts bearing horns too wide for their own private shipping boxes gazed with hollow-eyed stares. All of this mega fauna company and I were installed in a corner of the  Birds and Mammals storage area of the Howard Street location that The California Academy of Sciences occupied while the old building in Golden Gate Park was being remodeled (or as some would say, the new building was being built).

It was my first day of photographing for the book, and I was more than a little daunted. The prevailing aroma of mothballs had this scent-phobe breathing shallowly. A borrowed and very expensive (39-mega-pixel) camera was carefully cantilevered over my little photographic set, prevented from colliding (at least I prayed) with some very old historic nests and eggs by the sandbags hanging from my tripod legs. Adding to the undertow of anxiety was my own collision with the software that lets you photo tethered to a laptop–software not as intuitive as I had hoped.

Calcarius lapponicus Lapland BuntingCollected on  Saint Mathew Island, Alaska, in 
1916. Photographed at The California Academy of Sciences in 2007 © sharonbeals2007  

On the table to my left was a small array of the nest specimens I had chosen to photo, along with small black glass-windowed boxes containing the eggs that matched the species of birds that had built these nests. It was getting toward closing-up time, and only a few of these subjects had made it to my hard drive (pardon the geek-ette in me, another way of saying film in the can).

More of them would been captured have if I hadn’t encountered an inadequacy beyond the mere technical. As embarrassing as it is to say for someone who ended up writing 50 essays about birds, I knew very little about taxonomy. All of those little egg specimen boxes were stored in cabinets separate from the nests, arranged in an order common to science museums and bird identification books, but on that day frustratingly elusive to me. Sorting it out was like trying to learn a language from tourist signs, parsing lists taped to the doors of those cabinets  to decipher which was an order, family, genus or species name, aided by a only a few books also written in this new-to-me code (mercifully, they had indexes). I ended up spending hours pushing the recalcitrant portable steps back and forth from cabinet to cabinet, from the Struthioniformes (think ostrich and emu) to the Cardinalidae (cardinals, grosbeaks, and now at least one tanager) climbing up and down to sort through a hundred drawers, trying to decipher the smallest handwritten type on yellowing collection tags, only to end up finding the right species of a mere six sets of eggs.

Pycnonotus sinensis Chinese Bulbul, collected from a Shanghai Garden in 1939,
photographed at The California Academy of Sciences in 2007 © sharonbeals2007  

But even with the slow progress that day, the struggles with technology or taxonomy couldn’t stop me. I was driven to master both, for sitting on that table were some of the most intriguing sculptures I had ever seen, all built with beak and foot by birds whose names I first learned in Latin, but whose stories I would end up learning by heart.

In a few weeks, the search for for Larus, Spazella,Tangara, or Petronia turned into a treasure hunt usually ending in minutes rather than hours. The software became a useful tool for photographing specimens in layers of focus, later merged to render all of the nest materials in fine detail. The mothballs (a stopgap measure in the temporary location to keep precious specimens from being chewed on by insects) became a familiar if not nostalgic scent that will always carry with it an accumulation of memories of the most wonderful time of my life. 

Sierra Club On-line story about the nests with Laurie Wigham's wonderful illustrations


  1. What a great story. I felt like I was right there with you. Beautiful images, as well. Thanks!

  2. Thank you so much Kathleen, this is all new and kind of hard work, so the appreciation is, well, appreciated.

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