07 September 2010

Correcting Expedition Records Essential to Historic Ornithology of Great Plains

Among the original sources of information for historic ornithology in the northern Great Plains are records from surveys by topographic engineers in the mid-1850s. The preeminent source for this particular region is - of course - the 1855-57 expeditions led by Lieutenant Governeur Kemble Warren, along with a whole cadre of support personnel, including the renowned Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, the expedition geologist and naturalist.

Since this was a government sponsored expedition, natural history specimens eventually became a portion of the vast collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

While investigating the bird records from the original journals of the Warren related expeditions, and while reviewing the specimen catalog as provided online by the Smithsonian, there were obvious differences.

It has been an interesting trail of investigation while considering the differences in record attribution, and just one example of improving the records related to some birds denoted during the early history of a growing nation.

Record Details

An original evaluation of records for the 1855-57 expeditions being considered, accepted the record details as being correct and were presented with this perspective. This was wrong, as the specimen records, based upon a closer evaluation, had obvious errors.

During the past three years, the specimen records have been more closely evaluated. This has included a review of the original journals from the expeditions - available on microfilm from the New York State Library in Albany - as well as a closer evaluation of details presented in S.F. Baird's seminal tally of bird notes. Only by entering each and every available record into a database, with all essential details, were obvious differences apparent.

Subtle differences are significant. Errors in designated dates, incorrect locality details and other specific details which were not correct, do not present an accurate view of occurrence for the bird specimens. There were also typographic errors, which are a scourge to providing a consistent and readily searchable set of records.

Correcting the Historic Record

An evaluation of dates and site of occurrence could be done only once all pertinent expedition records were entered into an electronic format which allowed sorting and grouping individual records. Once uncertain details became apparent, they were given further attention, and comparison to other records for similar dates and places. This helped to indicate corrections which were needed in the historic record.

Once the different records from the 1855-57 expeditions were entered into a relational database, certain discrepancies became readily apparent. Dates attributed to some specimens did not match the locale where the expeditionary party was present, based upon the original journal records. States did not match the designated locality. Years were apparently wrong for when the military group occurred at a specific place.

With some attention to details, these apparent errors were submitted to the curator of the bird collection at the Smithsonian Institution. The following are some examples were - based upon detailed consideration - meant record information was corrected and thus designated in an accurate manner.

Starting in September 2008, on item of consideration was USNM A4520, which had a locality of "Big Siorix River," which actually meant Big Sioux River, and was corrected to this site, with a designation to the state of Minnesota.

When two specimens of the Ovenbird were collected in April 1956, their record indicated they were taken in 1857. By noting a difference between the location of the expeditionary force during these two years, it became apparent that the 27 April dated should be for 1856, not 1857.

The Smithsonian curator checked into the details, and found that an 1856 date was correct, based upon a "catalog ledger" and so the collection record was revised.

For many of the specimens of the belted Piping Plover - Charadrius melodus circumcincta - the state given for their occurrence was the Loup Fork, which for several records, was a location in Wyoming. This was changed to its proper place, since it is obviously a site in Nebraska.

For A9017, the record base of the government institution, cited the species as the Little Tern. This was changed to Least Tern, to conform with is being another of the specimens collected at the Loup Fork of the Platte River, in mid-July 1857. The specific locale of the Loup Fork has not yet been designated for this and related species. The pertinent species records had a county designation of Howard, in the state of Nebraska, but this has been deleted and needs further evaluation of the expedition route and dates to derive an accurate place.

This applies to additional specimens, including A8819, A8820 and A8837 which had been attributed to Howard County. In looking at the map route provided by the journal records for the 1857 expedition, these records could not have been seen at this place on the lower Loup River. It would be more appropriate to indicate the occurrence of the specimens - representing the Common Yellowthroat - which occurred on or about August 3, 1857, to the western middle extent of the Loup River, more likely in Thomas County. The Brown Thrasher, also denoted by specimens, would have been further west, as the records are from a few days later, on August 6th, which, based upon expedition maps, would have laced the expedition in an area corresponding to the present Hooker County.

Most of the suggested changes have been readily made by Institution staff, though it some instances, further research is required, so particulars that require additional investigation, i.e., specific county, the incorrect designation may just be deleted and left empty until time is available to determine an accurate entry.

Considering Historic Ornithology

Historic records of birds are an essential glimpse into former occurrence of species at a particular place at some time. If the details are not correct, their value is diminished and is not acceptable to any scrutiny. Only through close attention to the particulars, can errors be detected, considered and perhaps revised.

Most of the suggested changes have been readily made by Institution staff, though it some instances, further research is required, so particulars that require additional investigation, i.e., specific county, the incorrect designation may just be deleted and left empty until time is available to determine an accurate entry.

With further attention to this aspect of historic ornithology, can essential features for the original ornithology of North America be readily appreciated, and contribute an accurate indication for modern evaluation.