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

Virginia Rail Eating Fish Head

by Bryce W. Robinson

Last week I was birding with Caitlin Davis and Heidi Ware in a local hotspot. It was a clear and crisp day, following a few days of inclement weather that dumped an uncommon amount of snow on western Idaho. All of the still bodies of water were frozen. This weather was prime for sparrow chasing, but in wetland areas such as this, we were also keen on good glimpses at a hardy rail species, the Virginia Rail. Heidi quickly spotted a rail at the first reedy area we came upon. Immediately we recognized its strange behavior. It sat on the ice at the reed edge, next to what appeared to be a frozen fish head. We watched, and soon the rail began picking at the head of the fish. I quickly set my camera to video mode and began filming. I captured an interesting insight into the life of these rails during the harsh winter months. This bird was eating dead flesh, illustrating the need to diversify your food choices during trying conditions. Behavior birding; even when there isn’t much out, there is always knowledge to be gained.

Zonotrichia – The Adults

by Bryce W. Robinson

Zonotrichia - The Adults. 11 x 14 " prismacolor on bristol.  Top left: White-crowned Sparrow, top right: Golden-crowned Sparrow, bottom left: White-throated Sparrow, bottom right: Harris's Sparrow.

Zonotrichia – The Adults. 11 x 14 ” prismacolor on bristol. Top left: White-crowned Sparrow, top right: Golden-crowned Sparrow, bottom left: White-throated Sparrow, bottom right: Harris’s Sparrow. Image copyright Bryce W. Robinson

The genus Zonotrichia is comprised of four handsome sparrows. Since last winter, my first winter in Idaho, my admiration for this group has grown. In Idaho, it is possible to see all four species, even in one day.

The aesthetic of all four adult Zonotrichia sparrows together impresses me. They each have bold patterns, but altogether they compliment one another. Illustrating the differences gives one an appreciation for their similarities, and also allows an awareness of the features that separate each. Those that claim “sparrow ID is impossible” should sit down and sketch out every species. Even if it is a simple doodle, the act alone allows for a deeper understanding of what makes each species unique.

Roosting Western Screech Owl

by Bryce W. Robinson

Western Screech Owl - Megascops Kennecottii

A few days ago I was birding a wooded area along the Boise River, following a rowdy mixed flock of both Kinglet species, Black-capped Chickadees, and Brown Creeper. I’ve been developing a fascination with mixed flock behavior as the season falls into winter, and so I was taking the opportunity to watch the birds and listen to their communication. They were rolling through the area at an impressive rate, which struck me as odd. They seemed to be on the move, for one reason or another. As I followed, the flock hesitated at the edge of the thickets, so I was able to assess the composition and pay closer attention to the individuals. In doing so, my eyes settled on a feathered branch end, sticking up amidst the yellow leaves. A roosting Western Screech Owl, a treat.

Red-tailed Hawk in Pen and Ink

by Bryce W. Robinson

After second-year Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis. 11 x 17" Pen and Ink on bristol.

After second-year Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis. 11 x 17″ Pen and Ink on bristol.

I view illustrating birds as an exercise of my ability to create an accurate rendition of my subject. I’ve recently began recognizing a need to incorporate study into this exercise, and as I stated in a previous post, I plan to do so by first illustrating and then reading a scientific article that pertains to my subject. But, I’d like to add another component to my illustrations. I want to make an image that communicates useful information.

I was asked to illustrate a Red-tailed Hawk in black and white, so I took the request and made it an opportunity for me to try a concept I’ve been thinking about. I want to create images that I can teach from, or that simply communicate information for those looking to learn something about each bird. For the Red-tailed Hawk, I wanted to create an image of a bird that could be aged, as if it were a real bird being scrutinized by a biologist.

The above bird is my first attempt at illustrating staffelmauser, or staggered molt. Through illustrating this as it is seen on actual hawks, I made an attempt at communicating the necessary information for age determination.

Here is the breakdown of the birds age:

This hawk is an adult, as dictated first by shape. The wings are broader, giving the tail a shorter appearance as well. The presence of a thick subterminal band on both the tail and wing also indicate that this bird is older than a juvenile. In age determination terms, it is at least “after hatch year”. But, we can take it further. The next step would be to search for molt limits in the flight feathers, that is the presence of retained feathers. Retained juvenile secondaries would be shorter than adult feathers, and lack a thick subterminal band. If this is found, then the bird is in its second year. I illustrated the bird with two generations of adult feathers in its secondaries, and two waves of molt in its primaries ( the staffelmauser, or step-wise molt). The older feathers are paler, as they would be in an actual Red-tailed Hawk. Because of these two generations of adult feathers in the secondaries, we know that this bird is an “after second year”.

Tail banding in Red-tailed Hawks is variable. Many “western” birds, subspecies calurus have multiple banded tails in their definitive plumage. So, this is a useless trait for age determination. To read more, and for a more clear and detailed explanation by the expert, check out a recent article written by Jerry Liguori on Hawkwatch International’s blog.

After all I produced the image I was hoping for, but it isn’t as correct as I’d like it to be. That is the exercise. Each time I finish an illustration, I take a few days to let it sit and be, then return and look for areas that I need to improve. This time I requested some additional critique from a knowledgable (understatement) friend. I now have a list of things to pay attention to the next time I illustrate this bird. I like where I’m at, but I see the need to keep going.


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