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Special Spotlight — Summer in Transcription


flycatcher
MVZ image 4605, a flycatcher photographed by Joseph Dixon.

Joseph Grinnell's 1925 Field Notes from Lassen Transect

written by Nassim Bahet

This summer, I had the privilege to meet many MVZ staff during an internship primarily assisting MVZ Archivist Christina Fidler. In the Archives, I created an electronic transcript of several dozen pages written by MVZ’s first Director, Joseph Grinnell: his 1925 field notes.  Using the transcription tool, From the Page, I recorded journal entries penned during an extended survey Grinnell conducted with colleagues and family in the Lassen Transect in Upper California. Grinnell’s practices as he conducted censuses at Lassen endure today as the Grinnell method used in MVZ fieldwork, and as a widely used standard in ecology and systematics.1  His approach struck me for its thoroughness and, when censusing, its similarity to rigorous sampling procedures from a field biology reference I read at Stanford University Online High School.2 The page shown below is a Grinnell census in the Mineral region of Tehama County, and the quoted text describes another census in the region using guidelines he devised:

My "paces", averaged from a series of steps in a dusty place, were found to be 32 inches long. Therefore each side of our plot was 6400 inches long; 6400 x 6400 = 40,960,00 sq. in; divided by 144 = 284,444 sq. ft.; this divided by 43560 [= sq. ft. in one acre] = 6 1/2 acres, in the plot.

It will be seen that, in this 6-&-1/2 acres, there were 24 breeding pairs of birds, of 14 species - or not quite 4 pairs of birds to the acre. Undoubtedly, this is a maximum census figure for the whole region; while thousands of acres will equal this, other thousands of acres (above Canadian zone, and very dry parts of Transition and Upper Sonoran) will average scarcely one pair.3

Grinnell's Notes

Notes from Grinnell

Although numerous Grinnell notes relay avian life his party witnessed at Lassen, there is also significant attention to mammals, their habitat zones at varied elevations, and the impact that human intrusion had on their welfare. Grinnell annotates the day’s work in relation to zonal types visited and their salient features, interpreting observed avian and mammal behavior within their zones.  Traversing the area from Mineral to Red Bluff and back on July 6, 1925, he provides a fuller summary description of habitat zones navigated,

Today, went to Red Bluff and back - an impressive lesson in the variation of temperature inversely with altitude! The dryness below 3500 feet was also impressive; and the blueness of all the perennial vegetation (ceanothus cuneatus, Douglas Oak, and digger pine) in the Upper Sonoran. That zone might be called the "blue zone", Transition the "light green zone", Canadian the "dark green zone". These color-tone differences indicate, of course, fundamental conditions affecting physiological processes in the plants - temperature of growing season, length of growing season, dryness of air, soil-water supply, and perhaps others (such as insolation4).5

Grinnell records how human activity impacts the fauna his party studies at Lassen Transect: from presence of cattle for animal husbandry, to poachers trapping mammals for their financially lucrative furs, to the attrition, or what he scientifically refers to as “a new manner of draft on the mammalian population" 6 when automobiles on paved road kill a ready food supply for turkey vultures, reducing their need to hunt. He even notes the detrimental impact of his team’s photography on avian breeding,7 and his thoughts on cattle there:

Anyway, as I see the problem, any cattle whatsoever are destructive to the high-mountain country, scenically, recreationally, florally and faunally, and, most emphatically, from the standpoint of water-conservation. For all the parts of California, watered either by irrigation or by underground sources, from Sierra streams, are dependent on the precipitation, and retention of water, on the slopes above the 3500-foot contours.8

Although Grinnell’s teamwork at Lassen Transect creates a different ‘draft’ on the avian and mammal populations there, his field notes show sensitivity to identifying specimens for scientific purpose, exercising restraint from unnecessary collection. He records the decision to not gather female birds that were nesting or tending young offspring, and refrains from collecting on one occasion any specimen that would not be taken with its nest, showing a commitment to science that conveys the fullest context. At precisely 4:00 p.m. on June 27, Grinnell writes:

Cassin Vireo's nest: rim 1750 mm. above ground; nest near end of drooping cedar branch, 7 feet out (on south side) from trunk of tree, which is 15 inches in diameter 3 feet from ground. Site about 10 yards from edge of willow bog on one side and less distance from heavy stand of firs, on the other side; lodgepole pines bordering bog close by. This nest was found partly built on the 15th, empty but seemingly completed on the 20th, now with 4 fresh or nearly fresh eggs (two of them) and female incubating. Taken, set 2/4. Male bird sang awhile, then went away. After I had waited 20 minutes, the female came quietly, and I "collected" her.9

flycatcher

MVZ Image Card 4605

Five days later, Grinnell pens a descriptive text that puts the reader right up the tree and on the ground with his team, pinpointing moments from precisely 6:50 p.m. on July 2, 1925 at Mineral, elevation 4800 feet:

At Hammond Flycatcher's nest again. Stu up the tree - sees young in the nest, he thinks. With string, we find the nest to be 28 ft. 9 in. above the ground (guessed this morning at 25 feet). Stu does the tree work, tying a rope out as far as he can reach, taking a couple of turns on a limb above, and then chopping off the nest limb, which latter is then lowered slowly, the branches below helping to ease the process. In spite of considerable tilting the nest, and four small young it contained, reached the ground without injury. The nest [taken] proved to be 13 feet out from the trunk of the tree.10

In scientific practice, he records: “The four young are saved in formalin."11

Joseph Grinnell’s foresight and legacy are familiar through an oft-quoted statement on display at the Museum: "after the lapse of many years, possibly a century, the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California.”12 A century later, with the Grinnell Re-Survey several years underway, the impact of Grinnell’s field notes and the collections they record have grown in impact along the scientific lines he envisioned with his colleagues.


Footnotes:

  1. “In his role as teacher and mentor, Grinnell instilled the culture and process of field notes in a generation of ecologists and systematists, many of whom taught the “Grinnell system” to their students.”  Perrine, John D. and James L. Patton, “Letters to the Future” in Field Notes on Science & Nature. Ed. Michael R. Canfield, Foreword E. O. Wilson. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 219.  Perrine and Patton cite this excerpt with reference: Herman, S. G. The Naturalist’s Field Journal: A Manual of Instruction Based on a System Established by Joseph Grinnell. Vermillion, South Dakota: Buteo Books, 1986.

  2. “The main difference between ‘measuring’ and ‘counting’ is that we have no control over the dimensions of a unit in a sample when we are measuring; when we are counting, we are able to choose the dimensions of the sampling unit.” Fowler, Jim, Cohen, Lou, and Phil Jarvis. Practical Statistics for Field Biology.  Second Edition.  New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998, p. 4.

  3. Page 51, Vol. 1327, Sec. 2, Joseph Grinnell’s 1925 field notes, Joseph Grinnell papers, MVZA.MSS.005, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

  4. “The heat seemed intense. Plain Tits and Slender-billed Nuthatches were seeking the best shade in the creek-bottom; even so, holding their bills widely open, as if panting.” Page 94, Vol. 1327, Sec. 2, Joseph Grinnell’s 1925 field notes, Joseph Grinnell papers, MVZA.MSS.005, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

  5. Pages 68-69, Vol. 1327, Sec. 2, Joseph Grinnell’s 1925 field notes, Joseph Grinnell papers, MVZA.MSS.005, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

  6. Page 69, Vol. 1327, Sec. 2, Joseph Grinnell’s 1925 field notes, Joseph Grinnell papers, MVZA.MSS.005, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

  7. “On blowing these eggs appeared perfectly fresh; yet there was an appearance of drying. I suspect that "photography" is disastrous to a good proportion of the subjects - putting an end to incubation by leaving the eggs exposed to the hot sun or by chilling them when the bird is off a long period, "getting accustomed to the camera!"  Page 31, Vol. 1327, Sec. 2, Joseph Grinnell’s 1925 field notes, Joseph Grinnell papers, MVZA.MSS.005, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

  8. Page 93, Vol. 1327, Sec. 2, Joseph Grinnell’s 1925 field notes, Joseph Grinnell papers, MVZA.MSS.005, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

  9. Page 46, Vol. 1327, Sec. 2, Joseph Grinnell’s 1925 field notes, Joseph Grinnell papers, MVZA.MSS.005, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

  10. Page 62, Vol. 1327, Sec. 2, Joseph Grinnell’s 1925 field notes, Joseph Grinnell papers, MVZA.MSS.005, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

  11. Page 63, Vol. 1327, Sec. 2, Joseph Grinnell’s 1925 field notes, Joseph Grinnell papers, MVZA.MSS.005, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

  12. http://mvz.berkeley.edu/Grinnell.html




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