25 March 2011

Considering Avian Specimens for Cherry County, Nebraska

Cherry County is a land in itself. Spreading nearly 100 miles from west to east, and more than 60 miles from north to south, the Nebraska region is an expanse of habitats which have always been suitable for a myriad of wild birds.

The first bird notes for this particular region of the central sandhills were gathered in 1857 by F.V. Hayden, naturalist for the Warren Expedition. This military party traversed the extreme southwest section when going along the Middle Loup River, then north and west to the Niobrara River.

Though there are several indications of specimens having been collected and sent to the Smithsonian, there are now very few extant skins. The report by Baird et al. issued in 1860, listed several, but in a comparison of the details given to modern records, only two specimens seem to still exist.

¶ Sandhill Crane: August 9, 1857; collected by Hayden: catalog no. 8914; USNM A8914, with no date information, for Nebraska; site designated to match locality on this date for the expedition
¶ Marsh Wren: long-billed marsh wren; August 12 date, with no year designated; Warren expedition; year designated to 1857; UMMZ 20492; female collected by Hayden: catalog no. 8838

The particulars for these and related observation records were determined by reviewing copies of the original journals of the Hayden, J. Hudson Snowden and then using the dim, yet legible maps available in microfile copies, as drawn by the corps of topographic engineers along on the expedition which indicate their daily route.

It was about 25 years later, when the next specimens were collected within the county, which was officially designated in 1883. Mr. Carpenter was at Fort Niobrara, along the river of the same name, which had been established in spring of 1880. It was northeast of Valentine, a nearby frontier town, with its origins in the same early years in northwest Nebraska.

During this era, D.H. Talbot collected a Peregrine Falcon (SUI 17519) and Barn Swallow (SUI 17695), in the area in September, 1884, and these two skins are stored in the collection of the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.

With these tidbits of details, an effort was made to determine what other specimen records are available for this largest county in Nebraska.

Specimen Record Review

The primary resource used to locate applicable records was the Ornithological Information System [insert link]. Data queries provided combined details from different collections for the region of interest. For this endeavor, there were three queries done. Two were done for the available collections to limit the record retrieval to something which the "system" could handle and not result in a timeout. Though the United States National Museum was included in one of the queries, no records were returned, so an individual data request was submitted where the criteria was changed to specifically get records for Cherry county, rather than the other two requests for a match like Cherry County. A custom query was defined to provide results in a useful dataset.

The results were saved as delimited text files which were then combined into a single database table. Information was then further manipulated to ensure consistent species name, a designated locality for comparative purposes, conversion of the month - day - year details to a date format field, indication of year collected where a particular date was given but the year needed to be clarified, and other edits needed to designates some standard details to details from disparate sources of information.

There were a few more than 1400 records. Collections represented include the American Museum of Natural History, Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, Field Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, University of Nebraska State Museum, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, Royal Ontario Museum and Charles R. Conner Museum, Washington State University. These essential collections have a larger number of specimens, with additional places having fewer bird skins.

Pertinent details derived from these collections, include:

¶ Nine records with no date information
¶ Oldest record from 1888 with most recent from 2004, with 1374 records having a particular date of occurrence
¶ Men who collected the specimens include Fred Dille, George Hudson, W.E. Beed, N.L. Ford, H. Harris, J.S. Hunter, Isador S. Trostler, J.R. Alcorn, C.D. Bunker, W.M. Good, Harold J. Leraas, D. Liesveld, H. Nelson, Robert W. Dickerman, D. Teachnor, J.E. Wallace, A. Whitaker and L.L. Short, Jr. to mention some of those whom collected a larger number of specimens.
¶ More than 160 distinct species represented, including several notations for hybrids between buntings, grosbeaks, orioles and prairie grouse.
¶ Specimens represented from more than forty localities, with the Valentine lake district and sites along the Niobrara River prominent.
¶ In several cases, multiple birds of a single species were collected on the same date at one locality
¶ Archaic nomenclature which requires converting the given scientific name to a modern equivalent
¶ The greater number of records for a particular year are:
1965 - 155
1964 - 152
1923 - 146
1925 - 114
1922 - 83
1933 - 77
1926 - 71

There are also 48 records from 1902, when a group from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln went afield to the Valentine Lake District, taking the railroad to Valentine, and then a wagon-ride southward. The Fort Niobrara - Niobrara Game Preserve - Fort Niobrara NWR - has a fine set of species records indicated by specifics of the collection details.

It should be noted that there may be additional records among the records for the collections considered. Perhaps they may have not yet been entered into an electronic database, or if county or state was not designated, or for a variety of other applicable reasons, may not have been included in the query results.

Deficient Data

A review of the records shows some of the obvious conditions for the specimen records, and are given in specific detail to show how problematic it is to get particular records. The prominent difficulties are variances in how data is entered, lack of consistency across multiple datasets, no comparative evaluation, typographic errors, variability in how data details are entered, converting date details as an early 1900 date is converted to a post-2000 date, matching archaic names to modern equivalents, etc.

Readily obvious details needing consideration, include:

¶ FMNH 400973 - species identification given as "x"; if there is a specimen in a collection, perhaps a more precise identity could be determined

¶ ROM 57485, 57485, 57491: Zonotrichia melodia juddi which is an archaic scientific name for the Song Sparrow
¶ ROM 57566, 57568 for the Zonotrichia lincolnii lincolnii for April 1929 as collected by F.M. Dille; conforms to Lincoln's Sparrow
¶ KU 34083 - Tringa semipalmata inornatus [= Semipalmated Sandpiper] collected July 1857 by H.B. Tordoff<
¶ UMMZ 64009-11 - Steganopus tricolor [=Phalaropus tricolor] - collected in May 1926
¶ KU 14361, 14362; Spinus tristis = Carduelis tristis
¶ Multiple KU specimens: W.M. Good collected multiple specimens of Red-winged Blackbird in Jun 1949 in the vicinity of Merriman. The records list localities about "Merrimaw" which is an obvious error.
¶ UNSM 15300: Dorey Lake, there is no known locality with this name based on a review of more than 3000 place names dating back to the mid-1800s for the sand hills region
¶ CUMV 25669, CUMV 25670: "Hockberry Lake, 22 miles South-Southwest Valentine" is Hackberry Lake, Valentine NWR
¶ UNSM 11158: precise locality is given as "Mullen," which is in Hooker County
¶ KU 74178: precise locality given as "Niobrena Reservation" which is a proper locality
¶ KU 74433: precise locality given as "Niobrana Reservation" which is an obvious error in data entry
¶ KU 74596: precise locality given as " Niab. Res." which is an obvious error for this 1922 record
¶ USNM 481785: precise locality given as " Niobraba Game Refuge" which is misspelled
¶ WFVZ 110498: precise locality given as "Vallentine, Niapara Reservation" which is a dramatically mangled version of a site name. This record is from May, 1903 for a specimen of American Kestrel collected by Fred Dille, a.k.a."Dille, F M" or "Dille, F.M." or "Dille, S M" as given for ROM 57186, as well as "F. M. Dille". This is the same person - collected at the Niobrara Game Preserve, which became Fort Niobrara NWR - presented in several ways, once again indicating an inconsistent matter of data entry.
¶ For "AMNH Skin-835265" the collector was not "N. E. Beed" as designated but rather W.E. Beed.
¶ KU 34130: precise locality designated as "11 mi. S Gordon" which would be in Sheridan County, not Cherry County
¶ USNM 528034: precise locality given as "Rushville, 10.5 mi S, Niobrara River" which would also be in Sheridan County
¶ There is regularly a lack of consistency in how the precise locality has been entered into the database record.
¶ "Hackberry Lake", as well as "Hackberry Lake, Cherry Co, Nebraska" is the same place as "Hackberry Lake, Valentine N.W.R." which is the same place as "Hackberry Lake, Velentine N.W.R." and the same place as "Hackbury Lake, Valentine NWR" as add in " Valentine N.W.R., Hackberry Lake." These sites are represented in CRCM, KU and USNM collection specimens.
¶ Hackberry Lake is at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, and designated for consistency purposes as Hackberry Lake, Valentine NWR.
¶ There is also "Valentine, 20 mi WSW, Anderson Bridge, Niobrara River", and "Niobrara River, 20 mi WNW Valentine, Anderson Bridge" along with "Anderson Bridge, 20 mi WSW, Niobrara River" which refer to the same locality, now in the vicinity of Anderson Bridge WMA, along the Niobrara River south of Kilgore.
¶ Searching for records from "Merriman, 14.5 mi SW, Niobrara River" may not match records designated as " Merriman, Niobrara River, 14 1/2 mi SW".
¶ Evaluating the county designation, this is given in several ways, including "Cherry", "Cherry Co", "Cherry Co." and "Cherry County" which readily illustrates the need to do a "loose match" when requesting records for a particular county location.
¶ The locality of " NEBRASKA: Cherry County; Merriman, 9 mi N, 15 mi W" or "NEBRASKA: Cherry County; Merrit Reservoir" and " NEBRASKA: Cherry County; Valentine" have too much detail and could be presented better if the state and county details were kept to a separate data field for this UWBM data.

A trivial matter is that for people designated as the collector, most entries are in lower-case text, while others are in all caps; periods are often missing for name initials. For USNM specimens, there is " Short, L. L. JR." and why is the junior attribution in caps whereas the rest of the proper name is properly in lower-case.

This set of bird specimen records for a particular region is just one of the multitude which can be derived from the array specimen records which are available from a variety of museums. There is a vast value to this information which might be better appreciated if the prominent problems with the data details are considered and the condition of the data is improved.

Having consistent details for the multiple datasets available is essential to provide an accurate comparison of specimen records. Once this can be achieved, it will improve information quality and allow a better understanding of various details of where and when birds occurred decades ago in the historic record of the continental avifauna. The time when there is consistency in data and lack of entry errors is uncertain, but hopefully may occur at some future time to the benefit of others interested in the historic ornithology of wild birds.

Cherry County and its many places during a span of more than a century were attractive to bird collectors and present a microcosm of the condition of historic records. For this tract in Nebraska - and certainly for other places in North America - its significance could only be best understood by using data from available sources and going through an extensive edit process to provide the most accurate and useful details for the specimen records.

Add pertinent details for many of the recorded specimens would provide a wholly different representation and make the information have much more value.