Storied survey

Professor helps scientists on bird project

On a two-week trip to Baja, Bryan Rasmussen photographed this group of endangered California condors.

Photo: Bryan Rasmussen

Bryan Rasmussen rode in the back of a truck as it lurched and swayed up a mountain to an old mining colony.

The trek was one of the more harrowing legs of a summer expedition in Baja. 

And, the Thousand Oaks English professor was one of the less likely team members on the two-week trip to survey the region’s biodiversity.

But there he was, careening over roads not traveled in decades and hiking the rocky backcountry alongside mules and horses that carted equipment and supplies.

That day, as he sat under the giant roll bars and the truck bounced up and down, Rasmussen caught himself thinking: What am I doing here?

The answer gets a little complicated.

Rasmussen, chair of the English department at California Lutheran University, goes back to 2014 to explain.

It was then when the museum lover and science fan took a tour of the Moore Laboratory of Zoology at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

That tour set him off on a hobby project, which later led him to team up with researchers at the lab.

By June, the small team had ended up in Baja retracing the steps of an early 20th-century bird collector.

"That was a lot of fun — getting out to some of these more remote places that people just don't go," Rasmussen said. "They're just spectacularly beautiful."

They followed an itinerary the collector had left behind, surveying and photographing the same spots nearly a century later.

Over the next few years, the Moore Lab will measure how changes over decades have impacted birds in North America.

They’ll study genetics, using the lab's extensive Mexican bird collection, and also work with citizen scientists posting online to free apps called eBird and iNaturalist to compare bird sightings then and now.

Rasmussen's job: To make sure the record they leave behind is one that reaches as wide an audience as possible.

"Knowledge ... makes all the difference in whether or not we care about something or we don't care about it," he said.

"Once upon a time, there wasn't much difference between the amateur and the professional scientist," he said.

But that started to change in the 20th century. Science became more and more specialized, and insights and writings got more and more technical.

He wants to find ways to bridge the gap and plans to use storytelling to do it.

One step will be publishing a day-by-day field journal on a website for the Mexican Bird Resurvey Project, which is expected to launch in the next few months.

"A typical day was we would just go out and document as much as humanly possible," Rasmussen said of this summer’s Baja trip. "So there was a lot of just moving very slowly through landscapes."

They chased butterflies, found a group of condors, a young owl, a cactus wren, and even spotted a tiny squirrel that’s critically endangered and only found in the mountains there.

For the guy who specialized in Victorian literature, he had wound up pretty far afield.

Rasmussen credits a move to California and time spent backpacking and hiking for him becoming an amateur naturalist.

But it was the tour of the Moore Lab about three years ago that led him to Baja.

The lab holds 65,000 specimens, mostly bird skins and most collected in Mexico by a guy named Chester Lamb. 

Lamb’s story — not the birds — hooked Rasmussen.

Tracing decades-old footsteps

Chester Lamb traveled around Mexico studying and collecting birds for Robert Moore, the lab's namesake, from 1933 to 1955. Earlier, he had worked for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley.

After the museum tour, Rasmussen started collecting and studying Lamb's maps, photographs and field notes and thought of writing an academic article on the longtime collector.

But he wanted more. He wanted to go back to some of the spots where Lamb had collected.

He went to the Moore Lab, who already was working on the resurvey project, and the trip was planned.

"It's very unusual that we have actual physical records of what the world used to look like as a direct baseline comparison to today," said John McCormack, director of the Moore Lab and one of the researchers on the Baja trip.

But that's what they had with Lamb's records.

"I've been the curator at the Moore Lab for six years now, and the vast majority of our specimens were collected by Chester Lamb," McCormack said. "I feel like I know him really well."

Now, he also has literally camped in Lamb's old campsites, stopped at the same lookouts, and walked in his footsteps.

"It was really amazing," McCormack said.

This summer, they’re scheduled to return to Mexico to continue the survey. Rasmussen plans to be there to continue telling their story.

--- Published in the Ventura County Star on Nov. 1, 2017

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