By Carolyn Sheffield, Field Book Project
As part of the Beyond the Field Book Project section of this blog, we have been talking with Smithsonian scientists to learn about the significance of field books in their own research. I recently spoke with Dr. Storrs Olson, a paleornithologist based at the Smithsonian Institution whose research has focused on studying extinct birds, mainly on islands including those in the South Atlantic, the West Indies, Hawai’i and Bermuda. In addition to creating his own field books as part of that research, Dr. Olson also frequently consults field books in archives for historic accounts of research conducted in those same areas. He shared the following story about one field book in particular:
One of the most exciting things that I discovered was going back through a field journal, or a diary, of Andrew Bloxam who was on an official British government expedition in 1825-26. I got into this because he’d been to Hawai’i so I wanted to see what significance his Hawaiian field notes might have. He collected a fair number of birds for that time, which was very early in Hawaiian ornithology. That expedition also went to a few other places, such as Mauke in the Cook Islands. I had printed a copy of Bloxam’s journal from the microfilm in the British Museum archives, and was reading it one night in England and came across a passage about collecting on Mauke in the Cook Islands. He mentioned a bird that he had shot that day and gave an exact description of it. I recognized this right off and said to myself, ‘That’s the mysterious starling!’
The “mysterious starling” was the more or less informal English name given to a specimen at the British Museum that was considered mysterious by virtue of the fact that no one knew where it had come from. It was thought possibly to be from the Pacific but the details on who had collected it, and when and precisely where, had been lost over time. This was a particularly significant specimen, too, as it was the only specimen of that species, now extinct, in existence.
Dr. Olson told me that he couldn’t wait to get back to the museum the next morning to compare the description in the field book with the specimen itself. And then of course it turned out to be a perfect match. “Without those field notes, we would have never known. So that was a real breakthrough.”
Reflecting on the significance of such a discovery made me wonder what other kinds of long lost information has been rediscovered in field books. Do you have a story about making an exciting discovery in a field book? Let us know in the comments.
You can learn more about the mysterious starling and other birds from the Cook Islands in:
Olson, Storrs L. (1986): An early account of some birds from Mauke, Cook Islands, and the origin of the "mysterious starling" Aplonis mavornata Buller. Notornis 33(4): 197–208. PDF fulltext