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Whidbey Audubon see birds in the hand

Robin Llewellyn holds a barn owl (top) and red tailed hawk (bottom) wing side-by-side for comparison. - Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times
Robin Llewellyn holds a barn owl (top) and red tailed hawk (bottom) wing side-by-side for comparison.
— image credit: Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times

Bird in the Hand, the latest offering from the Whidbey Audubon Society, is a unique opportunity for islanders to learn bird identification by literally getting their hands on the real thing.

No wooden decoys here. The evening program will feature “expired” Whidbey Island corvids, seabirds, waders, ducks and other birds. There’ll even be an example of a flying mammal: a bat.

Unlike last year, when participants perused frozen and thawing carcasses, this year’s attendees can expect prepared specimens. There will be three different styles of displays: Flatskin birds, which include feathers, leg and wing bones and the skull; museum skins, also known as “popsicle birds,” which resemble a stuffed bird on a stick with tail feathers and one wing spread out to the side; and taxidermy specimens. These displays will allow attendees to get up close and personal without the odor and mess of thawing flesh.

Education is an important part of these events, said Robin Llewellyn as she held a red tailed hawk and barn owl wing side-by-side in Matt Klope’s shop in Oak Harbor several weeks before the event.

Pointing to the soft, fuzz-like extensions along the edges of the owl wing feathers, Llewellyn explained these are the small details that can’t be seen from afar.

When seen together, it’s easy to identify the stark contrast between the sharp-edged, slick hawk feathers and the soft, fuzzy owl feathers.

“These are the kinds of things you can only learn when you have this opportunity,” she said of the Bird in Hand event.

Klope, a wildlife biologist, agreed.

“You’ve got to have these birds in your hand to see these subtle differences in beaks, feet, eyes and feather patterns,” he said. “You can’t see this stuff in a spotting scope.”

Beside a large plastic box of wings lay a binder full of flat skins. There will be nine binders, total, at the event. Across the room museum skins take up an entire workbench alongside several taxidermy mounts and a half-dozen birds part way through the preparation process and pinned to cardboard with notes about their location and date-found penned on the backing.

The mounted waterfowl specimens belong to Klope, a U.S. Navy wildlife biologist and owner of Whidbey Island Taxidermy. A taxidermy permit from Fish and Wildlife allows Klope to be in possession of the expired birds. The protected birds belong to the Whidbey Audubon Society, which holds a Fish and Wildlife Salvage permit.

“We’re not collecting them, we’re salvaging cat kills, window kills, car kills and birds blow in during storm who are simply out of gas,” Klope said. None of the birds are killed for the collection; they’re all found post-mortem.

There’s no other Audubon society around here that does this, said Klope, who prepared most of the birds. Former Whidbey Island Audubon president Sarah Schmidt of Coupeville and Tillie Scruton of Freeland also helped prepare birds for the June 10 event.

Throughout the year, Klope collects and catalogs the bygone birds, mostly carcasses found by Audubon members, and shares a list of his inventory with Dr. Carla Dove of the Smithsonian Institute, who analyzes bird strikes by aircraft for the FAA and the military. Klope keeps a list of requested birds, and when there’s a decent-sized collection he packs a freezer chest-full and sends the birds by overnight Fedex.

The remaining birds either go to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington or join Klope’s personal collection.

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