The scene at the Syre Education Center was a little different than usual last Friday afternoon.
While the space is typically home to hordes of curious schoolchildren learning more about the birds of the Northwest via more than 500 well-preserved species of winged creatures—as well as perusing a native peoples’ display and historic pioneer, Victorian and logging exhibits—those wandering through the Whatcom Museum on this summer afternoon were humans of a more, ahem, mature variety.
Kids are still welcome here, but adults typically have to get special permission to hang out at the Edson-Edson-Booth Collection. However, through July 29, those who’ve already grown up will still be allowed to visit as the museum transitions its main exhibit space at the Lightcatcher Building.
“It’s been since 2005 that the exhibit was open to the public,” the young woman at the reception desk told me and my companion before we ventured forth. She noted the exhibits and more are all part of the permanent collection, and pointed out she was once one of the schoolchildren who came through its doors.
Those that are used to the more contemporary works that can often be found at the museum’s main display areas should be aware, however, that this is visual stimulation of a much different kind.
For example, the artists who compiled the bird displays were actually taxidermists who helped bring the dozens of avian species to life. And the native baskets, tools, logging exhibits and Victorian-era recreations that are on display are permanent installations meant to teach.
After being informed this was one of the largest collections of birds in the Northwest, we set out to see for ourselves what so many Whatcom County youth have been privy to over the decades.
We first visited the predatory bird display. As we looked over the owls, massive bald eagles in flight, harriers, kestrels, osprey, Peregrine falcons, northern shrikes and ravens and more, my second in command soon proved to be a much more adept identifier of birds than I could ever hope to be.
“See that spotted owl over there”? he queried. “They cause all sort of mischief in the forest industry. And that burrowing owl? Well, one just like that chased me down a trail once. Those were the talons that were grazing the top of my skull.”
Water birds were the next species highlighted, and while they weren’t nearly as imposing as their counterparts, they were still worth a closer look-see. Among the kingfishers, curlew, terns, guillemots, marbled murrelets, buffleheads and sanderlings, we spotted a western grebe that reminded my date of another bird run-in he’d had while working on Washington trails.
“Once, at the office in Skykomish, I came across a box full of grebes,” he recalled. “The weather had been bad, and they landed on the road instead of the river. Many of them had broken their legs, and they were boxed up on their way to a wildlife sanctuary.”
Before we were done, he also informed me that harlequins go far, far up mountains, common loons live in lakes, sandhill cranes migrate to Alaska during the summer, sage grouse and marbled murrelets are indicator species, blue grouse are delicious, and gray jays will “take food out of your hands and land on your face.”
At this last statement, an older gentleman who’d been standing nearby said, “Really”? My guy nodded, happy to be a tour guide for a day.
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