The creative study of birds through art, photography, and writing

Resting Juvenile Bar-tailed Godwit in Western Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson


I’d like to share this video for those not fortunate enough to experience the Bar-tailed Godwit in person. I find that video is a great way to begin some familiarity with the species, and serves a higher purpose than still photos for invoking on the viewer the experience of observing such a stately bird.

I am still scratching my head as to why shorebirds rest on one leg, all the while rocking their tail back and forth. Often their eyes are open, looking about to ensure they aren’t being stalked. I assume that the birds rock to keep balance, in some way. Still, I can’t be sure and may end up searching through behavioral literature to find the answer, if it is even available.

I was excited about recording Rhynchokinesis, or the birds ability to flex its upper mandible in this two minute clip. Both birds stretch their bills in the video, and the bend of the upper mandible is rather noticeable.

Throughout my summer in Alaska I failed to be diligent about prioritizing video, but when I did record I was able to come away with some satisfying content that I am eager to share and discuss. In doing so, I hope to communicate the simple joy that I felt while sitting with these birds as they conducted themselves as they always do in their wild lives.

Illustrating for the 2015 San Diego Bird Festival

by Bryce W. Robinson

San Deigo Audubon's Bird Festival Flier

I was invited by San Diego Audubon to illustrate their pamphlet art for the 19th annual San Diego Bird Festival in March of 2015. I illustrated the Osprey above, as well as some pencil drawings included in the brochure. Additionally I’ve been invited to lead a bird illustration workshop.

ORNITHOLOGI will also have a booth at the festival, selling artwork and prints. I plan to have a good stock of both originals and prints for sale.

I have a lot of friends in San Diego, of which I’m looking forward to birding with again. I hope to see them at the festival, and make many more new friends as well. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for March!

Late Summer is for Studying Juveniles

by Bryce W. Robinson

Juvenile Western Sandpiper - Calidris mauri

Juvenile Western Sandpiper – Calidris mauri

Late summer in western Alaska is relatively slow birding compared to the early summer arrival of migrants and vagrants. Still, it holds potential for finding wayward migrants that head the wrong way, or get blown in from a storm. Additionally, even though most adult shorebirds are long gone, hoards of juveniles have taken their place. In some cases, this is the only place to see these juvenal plumages, as many of these birds will make a pre-formative molt prior to reaching their migratory stopover sites or wintering grounds. Juvenile shorebirds can be a challenge, so I’ve taken the opportunity to sift through what I find and make sure I recognize everything.

The bird above and the bird below are both juvenile Western Sandpipers – Calidris mauri, yet they appear quite different in bill length and patterning. I have seen this difference in multiple birds, and at times I’ve wondered if I am simply misidentifying the second bird. I am confident that this is just variation in the species. So, I’m putting these birds up and welcome any comments on their differences. I could be mistaken, it happens often.

Juvenile Western Sandpiper - Calidris mauri

Juvenile Western Sandpiper – Calidris mauri

At the moment it seems that the only shorebirds I see are juvenile Western Sandpipers. The density here on the Seward Peninsula is shocking. On occasion there will be a number of Semipalmated Plovers intermixed in the flocks, and even more uncommon are Baird’s. It seems Least Sandpipers haven’t made it to the coast yet, or are already gone. Time will tell. Rock Sandpipers and Dunlin have started moving through, but I haven’t seen a single Red Knot on the coast. The other day I did find two vagrant juvenile Greater Yellowlegs, a very good bird for western Alaska.

It has been fun searching for variation, all the while considering the timing of each species movements and their strategies for vacating the breeding grounds. Birding in western Alaska in late summer is enlightening, and provides a greater understanding of how these creatures manage themselves year round.


Rock Sandpiper – Calidris ptilocnemis, From Curiosity Stems Study

by Bryce W. Robinson


Here in western Alaska I’ve been able to spend a bit of time pausing from a focus on Gyrfalcons to watch the Rock Sandpiper – Calidris ptilocnemis on its breeding grounds. My fascination with its appearance, behavior, and vocalizations caused me to look into what is known about their populations and distribution, a factor of bird biology that I’m growing evermore interested in studying. My investigation led me to understand that there occur three separate subspecific populations in Alaska, the nominate ptilocnemis of the Pribilofs, the tschuktschorum of the western mainland, and couesi of the Aleutian archipelago. As I am currently conducting research on the Seward Peninsula, I have been experiencing Calidris ptilocnemis tschuktschorum. 

After some further reading, I learned that the nominate ptilocnemis has the most northern wintering region of any North American shorebird. Remarkably, these birds spend their winters in the Cook Inlet of coastal Alaska. How they manage to find enough food and weather the extreme temperatures and conditions is above my current comprehension, but I was able to find some literature on the subject. Apparently, their is no physiological characteristic or attribute that separates ptilocnemis from other Rock Sandpiper subspecies that would give it the edge to winter so much farther north. The other Rocks could physiologically manage a winter in the north as well, but for whatever reason ptilocnemis is the only ssp. to do so. This seems like a peculiarity, and that is precisely why I am so fascinated by their distribution.

There are other Calidris species that are polytypic, and have separate wintering grounds for each subspecific population. Learning about such cases is extremely enlightening and begs for some contemplation on the matter. Perhaps a polytypic species such as the Rock Sandpiper, or the Red Knot will have an edge on anthropogenic induced changes affecting key migratory sites and their ability to survive the great journey. Perhaps the ability to buffer such disruptions is already built into their distribution at the species level. They are certainly better off than a monotypic species that stops over or winters wholly in a small and localized area. If the lower Pacific Coast of North America becomes a dead zone, then perhaps the subspecies couesi and tschuktschorum will be hard hit, but the nominate ptilocnemis may fair well and maintain a presence for the Rock Sandpiper in North America. As we attempt to be aware of our ever increasing impact, it sure would be nice to know that some birds will be able to wear the disruption, even if it is to a minor degree, so we can then put more energy into those more sensitive.


Referenced information:

Gill, Robert E., Pavel S. Tomkovich and Brian J. Mccaffery. 2002. Rock Sandpiper (Calidrisptilocnemis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Ruthrauff, D. R., A. Dekinga, R.E. Gill, and T. Piersma. 2013. Identical Metabolic Rate and Thermal Conductance in Rock Sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis) Subspecies with Contrasting Nonbreeding Life Histories. The Auk 130 (1) pp. 60-68


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