Sunday, October 16, 2011

bird is the word

Vietnam is an easy place to get distracted from what you are actually doing. With a million and one places to explore and endless amounts of new food to try and exciting adventures to plan, it is easy to forget why I am actually here. It helps to work in such a positive work environment..the people at the CBD are incredibly hardworking and it motivates me to actually do productive things with my day. But I am writing this blog post to convince people from home that I am actually working and managing to accomplish great and innovative things over here. I also don't know who is going to come across my blog, and I am assuming I don't know everybody who is reading it, so I would like to bring attention to important issues in Vietnam. Sometimes I think it is a forgotten country in the US, and I only want to stress that this country is only moving forward. Most people have intense passion for their country here, and have every intention of understanding the environment and diversity of this unique place. I would hate for the US to pass up this opportunity to collaborate with this country in trying to discover the wonders that this country has to offer before it is too late. (Okay, finished with my emo rant--but I am serious!!) Now, onwards...ATTENTION: this post could potentially be extremely and utterly boring for those who have no interest in science or biodiversity or museums, but I encourage you to stick with it. You could learn something! (At least look at the pics...)

The first portion of my project involved a trip to the museums in Hanoi in order to assess where past species in the babbler family have been found. I would then take pictures, take measurements, and record information on the tags, hopefully providing insight as to where these birds used to be located and to see if they are still there and how boundaries have changed, etc. I also hope to establish some sort of database for Vietnam so that people can continue to add to it in the future in an easy, automated way (cue comp sci background). An ornithologist from the CBD (Quang) accompanied me on the trip to help with identification and translation. I went into this trip to Hanoi with low expectations because I had no idea how many specimens these "museums" were going to have or what sort of condition the specimens were going to be in--and even further more, if the specimens would have tags on them/provide any sort of useful information.  I use the term "museum" loosely because they are not museums at all in the sense that they are open to the public to view. These places are basically collections of preserved animal specimens that can be used for researchers.

Yet again, Vietnam never fails to surprise me. Museum trip was a complete success. The first place we went, the Institute of Ecological and Biological Resources, had many more specimens than I expected and the samples came from all over Vietnam so it was not as limited to the northern regions. Also, many of the samples came from the 60's-80's which definitely surprised me. Although not all the tags had longitude/latitude info, nearly all of them had location information. I could not have been more thankful for the ornithologist that accompanied me in assisting me in translating the tags--a real life saver. We spent 2 days there so I just ended up measuring, photographing, and recording all the Timiliidae species they had, whether I was going to use them or not, just in case. It ended up totaling around ~150 specimens. Unfortunately, many of the specimens were in very poor condition and not well-prepared.

The second place we went was the University of Hanoi Sciences zoology department. Although it was definitely an interesting visit, it was somewhat of a bust due to the fact that they did not have a bird curator for their collection. Therefore, the specimens hadn't been touched in years. They had a large collections but many of the specimens were virtually inaccessible because the drawers were so tightly sealed from having not been opened in so many years that we literally could not open them. It was pretty humorous, but also unfortunate knowing that there are so many specimens in there locked away. I was only able to catalog and photograph ~30 specimens and many of them were northern specimens, so not sure how useful they would be, but I tried to do all the Timiliidae that I could. The trip was successful in the sense that we bridged important connections for the CBD and even learned about 3 more (small) bird collections in Hanoi--so it is likely I will plan another trip there.

So what exactly am I doing in these collections? For those of you who have never seen "behind-the-scenes" in museums, it can be pretty hard to picture. But I managed to get some pics of me in action (don't laugh):
essentials: field guide, wing ruler, calipers for measurements, keys that fail to open drawers, fancy cameras, tags for specimen corrections
doin' work
yeah i'm a dork
^^^Please note the drawers on the right in the above pics. Yeah, those were not about to open up anytime soon. Hundreds of beloved bird specimens will remain hidden from the world. 

misidentified specimens!!!! when i saw that these were labeled as P. schiscitceps, a red flag went off. Not at all, these are of course my beloved P. ruficollis (except maybe on the left)...any feedback?
So after hours and hours and hours of looking at birds, you start to question your sanity. And how could you not when you have this guy looking at you the whole time?

Needless to say, Quang and I were ready to relax at the end of the day. Our hotel was very near Hoan Kiem lake, the lake you should remember from my previous post when I last went to Hanoi. So we walked around the lake at night and it was quite enjoyable. We also were able to meet up with Emily! (the other Fulbrighter living in Hanoi) so she showed us some cool cafe that overlooked the whole lake. 
quang and i--i'm aware i look like i crawled out of the grave. but cut me some slack--i was measuring birds from 8AM-630PM.

On the last day, Quang and I finished a little early, due to the fact that we could not open up the drawers of any of the collections so there were much fewer birds to examine. To kill some time, we tried to do some sightseeing, but it was absolutely pouring rain all day, so that complicated things a bit. It was also cold rain and extremely windy. I actually felt like I was in Chicago for a second. I guess Hanoi actually gets cool in the winter. Anyways, we weren't able to visit Uncle Ho's grave (nickname given to Ho Chi Minh by everyone here). Apparently, it closes at noon during the day so we missed our chance. We did manage to see a temple thing that was the first university in Hanoi. It was interesting, but once again, sightseeing in Vietnam is not what you would expect anywhere else. This time, it was rainy and cold and it was hard to pay attention or be passionate about what you are looking at. Anyways, here's a little tidbit about it:

i'd like to study here

Apparently if you were some super-genius in VN, you get your name on one of these stones. And people would come (and still do) pray to these stones before a big exam for good luck. Turtles are an important symbol throughout VN (notice the stones are sitting on top them)--symbolizing a steady and stable life.
hall of fame

bird standing on a turtle
 If you remember my last post about Hanoi, I mentioned that there was a little island on the other side of the bridge but we didn't go to the other side because it cost money. Well, this time we paid, mainly just to get out of the rain. But I got to see the giant fossilized turtle that they keep inside the temple on the island.

Although my previous post was very pro-Hanoi-ish, I have to say that after visiting a second time, I was more than relieved to return to Saigon. I left my heart in Ho Chi Minh City....