Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Visit to the Royal Ontario Museum

04 April 2017

     For quite a while I had been trying to plan a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum (henceforth referred to as the ROM) and had been thwarted by weather a couple of times. We finally made it today, even though the weather was still foul, with torrential rain and fog all the way into Toronto. 
     It was a very slow drive but we finally arrived at the Islington subway station where we planned to catch the train into the city. Franc and Carol, Jim and Francine arrived just ahead of us and the parking lot was full! After we arrived we tried another City of Toronto parking lot but it was also full. Carol had spotted a public parking area as we drove over so we opted for that, but even there we had difficulty parking and had to drive round and round before finding an open space. Eventually we were parked, however, and Miriam, Judy, Mary and I joined the other four and we hopped aboard the train into Toronto. 
     We were a little late arriving, but Mark Peck of the Ornithology Department extended the length of time he had committed to spend with us, so we didn't miss out on anything.
     Among our group of eight I was the only one who had any prior experience with the inner workings of a natural history museum so everyone was eagerly anticipating an expert insight into the purpose and function of an acclaimed research facility. And Mark was the perfect host.
     Here he is holding forth as he gave us an overview into the historical aspects of ornithology, collecting (and how that has changed now that we are able to extract DNA from the merest bit of tissue), the research going on at the museum in cooperation with the University of Toronto, and a look into the future as recent developments in technology are certain to overturn our accepted view of the phylogeny of birds.

     You may well conclude from the expressions on the faces of Mary, Francine, Judy and Miriam that they were absolutely engaged in his discourse.

     In showing us various specimen trays Mark included a fine selection of Spruce Grouse Falcipennis canadensis skins, and by sheer serendipity the first sample he showed us was a bird collected by Harry Lumsden about sixty years ago, with the original handwritten tag attached. My connection with Harry goes back a long way and regular readers of my blog will recall that a few weeks ago we were thrilled to see him at LaSalle Park where he was visiting his beloved Trumpeter Swans.

     In discussing the various roles that the ROM plays in the life of the community Mark emphasized that not only is scientific discipline involved, but that the collection plays an important role for artists and illustrators, and he showed us a range of books where the ROM's collection has been used in different creative ways.

     I had mentioned to Mark that we would be very interested in seeing representatives of extinct species and he did not disappoint us. Here is all that one will ever see of the Carolina Parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis and the Eskimo Curlew Numenius borealis both exterminated by humans. The Eskimo Curlew was in fact so numerous it was shot in quantities so vast that it was trundled to market in New England in wheelbarrows.Did no one ever stop to ponder that every renewable resource is finite if not managed wisely?

     Perhaps the most imponderable extinction of all was that of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, the most numerous species of bird ever to exist.

     It bears quoting the following excerpt by Pehr Kalm in 1759:

     In the spring of 1749, on the 11th, 12th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 22nd of March....but more especially on the 11th, there came from the north an incredible multitude of these pigeons to Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Their number, while in flight, extended three of our English miles in length, and more than one such mile in breadth, and they flew so closely together that the sky and the sun were obscured by them, the daylight becoming sensibly diminished  by their shadow."

     And three-quarters of a century later the legendary artist John James Audubon noted:

     The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow...pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.

     Yet we killed them all. There were peripheral issues of habitat loss with consequent food shortages, but make no mistake their absolute demise was anthropogenically engineered.
     The other specimen that Mark showed us that held a special poignancy for me was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis. This species was never abundant, but it was clearly the most magnificent of all North American woodpeckers, and by destroying its habitat we sealed its fate. 

     Not all specimens could be readily brought out but I was thrilled to see a Great Auk Alca impennis in a display case. 
     This is a tray of various species of extinct species, with many Carolina Parakeets.

     If I am not mistaken there is a Bachman's Warbler Vermivora bachmanii in there too.
     The ROM has an impressive collection of Barred Owl Strix varia skins, many of them coming from road kills.

     Carol asked if she could see a Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos and before showing her the bird, Mark placed this set of talons in her hand.

     The egg and nest collection at the museum is very extensive and we were pleased to see just a portion of it.

     No tour of the ROM would be complete without a visit to the bug room. Someone had a wry sense of humour when affixing this sign to the door.

     Sometimes all that is needed of a specimen is the skeleton and the most efficient way to get a clean set of bones, completely denuded of tissue, is to trim the carcass as much as possible and have the bugs do the rest! The result is a perfect skeletal exhibit.
     The room is hot and it stinks! Everyone was fascinated to take a look but no one was sorry to get back out!
     This was the end of our visit to the ROM and a fine experience it had been. I cannot emphasize too much what a welcoming, warm, obliging, friendly host Mark was. I hope that one day I will be able to repay his kindness.
     We got back on the subway and made our way to the Islington station to retrieve our cars. Franc was the driver of the other vehicle but since Jim and Francine had to be leave fairly early, and Carol said she had things to do too, we bid them farewell, and drove down to Colonel Samuel Smith Park to eat the lunch we had brought with us, and do a little birding if the rain abated. And it did. 
     It was hardly the most conducive of conditions but faint heart never found the good bird so we set out together.

     Our first stop was at a viewing platform overlooking a marsh and a pair of Mute Swans Cynus olor were busy building a nest.

     Sometimes, their choice of material was downright ambitious!

     There was a nice variety of ducks on Lake Ontario, including many Long-tailed Ducks Clangula hyemalis, soon to depart for their breeding grounds in the north.

     Buffleheads Bucephela albeola were also quite common, many of them seemingly having already established pair bonds.

Bufflehead - male

Bufflehead - female
     Gadwall Anas strepera always seems to be common at this location for some reason.

     This male Bufflehead seemed to be intent on driving off a rival.

     Last year Miriam and I watched a family of American Mink Mustela vison along one of the breakwaters and we were delighted to see a singleton there.

     I suspect that this individual is part of a family group for it caught a fish and instead of consuming it it went off with it in its mouth, perhaps delivering it to a mate or to a dependent family. The breeding season for this species is from late February to early April so the timing is right.
     There are many Red-necked Grebes Podiceps grisegena along the shore of Lake Ontario from Toronto to Burlington and we saw many today. All were quite vocal and a couple seemed to be courting but in a desultory and half-hearted fashion I must say. It is a singularly handsome bird.

     When we first saw the following duck I confess to being flummoxed and I was unable to come up with its identity. Kudos to Judy for suggesting a King Eider Somateria spectabilis for that is exactly what I believe it to be, a juvenile male in fact progressing into adult plumage.

     Red-winged Blackbirds Agelaius phoeniceus are populating the marshlands again and this male was a particularly handome specimen.

     Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos has greatly expanded its range in recent years and we saw three individuals all picking morsels from the ground.

     As we left to begin our drive home, downtown Toronto, in all its unappealing glass and steel, was shrouded in light fog and drizzle. We were not unhappy to be heading for the friendly environs of Waterloo.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating inside look at the ROM. A very long time since I've been there.

  2. Those claws, my goodness.
    Love the white swan, so graceful.

  3. Never been to Toronto and never seen a King Eider either.

    Didn't realize they still had so many specimens of those extinct birds.

  4. Wow, I definitely wouldn't like to be attacked by a Golden Eagle, but it would be splendid to see one... :)
    Such an interesting museum! I learned many things from this post.

  5. Hello David, It sure must have been interesting to see and hear about the collection this museum has. Reading the quotes about how in those days the sky was filled with flocks of migrating birds that the sun or moon was not te be seen is saddening, realizing that birds are in decline and we will never see such events ever again. Or do I sound to pessimistic? Nice to see you saw, despite the bad weather, some lovely birds and the Swan working on its nest, which is a good sign that Spring is also on its way in your area.
    Warm regards,

  6. Hello, What a wonderful outing. The Rom exhibit is just amazing. It is sad to see the bird now extinct. I would love to see the mink in the wild. Great post and photos.

  7. Hi David. Your comment struck me "Did no one ever stop to ponder that every renewable resource is finite if not managed wisely?" Well of course we know the answer to your rhetrorical question but I also think that man is still not learning from those mistakes. I hope I am wrong. A fine day out and of course a valuable learning experience for us adults but also I hope for the upcoming generations whereby such a facility is easily available and accessible?

    By the way I think maybe you have read too many blogs from Australia? I have read of Willy Wagtails there but never in Britain. Such a silly name with which to to label a bird.

    1. Hi Phil: I have actually seen Willy Wagtail in Australia, but for some reason I thought it was equally a colloquial term in Britain.

  8. Museums certainly have their place in this world but I prefer the second half of this post when the subjects are still alive.
    I wonder how many animals/birds would still be on this planet if it were not for humans!! There are going to be a lot less soon the way things are going. Poachers and 'happy hunters' do nothing to help for the rate of extinction!!
    Cheers Diane

  9. Museums are great places and important. Bird photos is great.

  10. Gran reportaje amigo mío, me ha gustado mucho. El museo parece de primer orden y la foto del grisegena con plumaje nupcial es espectacular, por cierto lo tienes mal escrito, una errata "grisegenga". Un fuerte abrazo desde España.

  11. I've thoroughly enjoyed this interesting post, David. Your mention of the Passenger Pigeon reminded me that I've been meaning to get my hands on a copy of Mark Avery's book, "A Message from Martha: The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and Its Relevance Today".

    I'm delighted to hear that you found the stamina to stay around Toronto afterwards to find those wonderful birds. Red-necked Grebe in summer plumage, and King Eider (in any plumage!) would have made my day.

    My love to you both - - Richard

    1. Hi Richard: That's a new title to me. I'll have to see if I can get my hands on a copy too. You could also try "A Feathered River Across the Sky" by Joel Greenberg which I do have and recommend.

  12. Well it was well worth your drive through torrential rain and fog all the way into Toronto. An amazing set of photographs and information you have shared here, thank you.

    All the best Jan

  13. Hi David and what an interesting visit you had to ROM, when you see the size of the talons in Carols hand, it gives you an idea as to how spectacular the bird is. You then follow on with some birding and some wonderful images of a real variety of birds. Super post, all the best to you both, John

  14. Hi my friend!
    A very interesting post as usual but I feel sad about all these species extinct.
    I hope humans will become wise enough to help nature in order to slow down the process of extinction at least where we are guilty...
    I love the Long-tailed Ducks they are so handsome!
    Warm hugs to the both of you :)

  15. Interesting account of the ROM visit...ahhh Ivory-billed Woodpecker.