Monday, July 9, 2012

Lab of Wonders

This is my last post on Ithaca, though there is surely more to tell about the neighborhood walks, the waterfalls, the strawberry picking, and the people, oh, the people.  But today is about an amazing place called the Cornell Ornithology Lab and our behind-the-scenes super special tour, courtesy of someone I'll call Marvelous Marge.

If you enjoy birds, you may have come across the Cornell Ornithology Lab when searching for a match-up of bird description to bird call, or to participate in their Citizen Science projects.  I knew ahead of time that they were a rich resource, but I didn't know half of it. 

When you visit the lab, there are huge windows overlooking a pond and the edge of the Sapsucker Woods.  If you didn't bring your own, there are high-quality binoculars for you to borrow as you walk the trails or sit by the window and look out.  We did all of that on our first visit, but the second time, with Dan along, we got a tour of the specimen collection.  This is not for the squeamish.  In fact, one of my cousins was pretty nervous, having a strong memory of opening a trunk on a previous visit and being profoundly disturbed by the combination of preserved specimen he saw (we unanimously agreed not to open this particular trunk, claiming it was because it might freak out the girls, but really, his memory was sufficient to freak us all out).  

The room Marvelous Marge took us to held the herpetology collection, the result of field research, and private donations.  I was amazed at how old some of the specimen were; many of the tags were from the early 1900's.

There was something about the sheer quantity of jars, and the varying sizes, that reminded me of being in a twisted candy shop, or an olde time apothecary.  I wish the light had been better for some clearer shots; it was so beautiful and so disturbing, an intersection between science and art.  

Yes, it was a little freaky. And so very interesting to observe what felt freaky and what didn't.  I had a hard time looking at the turtles piled into a pickle jar like cookies, but the frogs didn't bother me so much.  I don't think I could have looked at mammals, but thankfully we were spared that opportunity.  The next room we were shown was full of birds, lain in trays that pulled out like the instrument trays at the dentist's.

I don't want to share the photos I have of the full bodies of these birds.  Their stillness, the absence of eyes, and the unnatural positioning of their bodies - flat on their backs, their breasts puffed up as if wearing their mourning suits at a wake - it all makes them look very little like birds.  There is something very sad and undignified looking at a bird as respected as an eagle or as romantically elegant as a swan in this position.  But the opportunity to look at every detail, at the finest of feathers on these creatures I will never be this close to in life, to look at the curve of their long toes and at their resting was really something.  I could have stayed all day.

As if all of this wasn't enough, we also got a chance to tour the bioacoustics library.  The work they are doing in sound is amazing.  One project they talked about concerned the protection of Atlantic Right Whales in the Boston Harbor.  Microphones placed in the harbor alert the researchers when there is a right whale in the area, and they in turn are able to communicate with the shipping traffic that there is a whale and since the project began six or so years ago, there have been no whale casualties!!  The collection here contains field recordings from all over the world, from Cornell researchers as well as naturalists who were conducting their work at the turn of the century.  They are a resource for scientists, musicians, film-makers...

Dan is looking at a collection of recording equipment from "the olden days" - a real line-up of instruments, getting increasingly more refined and smaller.  This is geek heaven - shelves lined with meticulous notes on each recording, cans of old film footage of rare or even extinct species: the film cans below hold footage from the '50's of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The sounds on all of these old recordings are being digitized, of course.  Dan wanted me to be sure to take a photo of their server, below...

Many of the bird sounds are being used to create interactive educational tools to engage novice bird-watchers.  There are also these stations out in the visitors' lobby, where you can select an animal and hear and watch its sound waves move across the screen.  We were here a loooooong time, listening to just about every one.

And then we were ready to join the outside world again; with the smells of the preserving chemicals and so much information buzzing in our heads, it was a pleasure to re-emerse ourselves in the green greens of the pond.

who are you??
Thank you, Marvelous Marge and cousins, for an amazing adventure!! I hear the girls telling people about the labs, describing the whale project, talking about the sound equipment and the huge disc microphones, and I remember the moment we were standing in an empty lab full of tables and centrifuge machines and microscopes, talking about DNA and the freezer room of ancient finds and Christopher asked them, have you ever been in a real scientists' lab before? Then MG pointed out the pegs on which hung all the real scientists' white lab coats, and Eliza turned to Ani and said, totally giddy, "Ani. This is our future!", after which they broke into peals of maniacal laughter.  Awesome.

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Checking weather in Addis, morning of departure. Really.

...and to close up on the We Love Ithaca series, thank you to the one who sheltered and fed us, the crazy lady who hosted our family up to the day she left for a 6-week trip to Africa....good god, woman! We love you.


Kerry said...

Awww, thank you Debbie. This was just great. I have yet to go to the lab, but I know it's a very special place. So cool. Definitely a twisted candy shoppe! With white lab coats! But now I'm really wondering what was in that trunk that C opened up...I don't really want to know, do I.

slim pickins said...

K - nope, you don't. J, Dan and I even lingered behind, daring each other to open it, but didn't in the end. And yeah, you would LOVE the lab.

alissa said...

I want to know!!! gruesome and nasty is my favorite! this place looks astounding. you are so lucky!

Anonymous said...

I love you too! So much!