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

Photographing Common Poorwill – Phalaenoptilus nuttalii

by Bryce W. Robinson

Common Poorwill - Phalaenoptilus nuttalii

Common Poorwill – Phalaenoptilus nuttalii

The other night while driving down from a great day of songbird banding, hawk watching, and trapping at Intermountain Bird Observatory’s Lucky Peak Migration Site, my friend Tempe Reagan and I came upon a number of Common Poorwill sitting in the road. I’ve had the experience of flushing “Goatsuckers” from dirt roads before, but I’ve never tried taking any photographs.

When we spotted another bird I slowed the truck early and slowly crept forward, pushing my luck for a better look. After I was nearly too close, I stopped the truck and slowly opened the door. Quietly I crept to the front of the vehicle and began taking photos. The bird seemed non-plussed by my movement, so I decided to push my luck further. I got low to get a proper angle of the bird, and soon found myself on my belly almost too close to the bird to take any photos.

Image copyright Tempe Reagan

Image copyright Tempe Reagan

I think Tempe was amused at the sight of me laying in the dirt road. I’m happy she took the photos and was willing to share, because it shows how tolerant these birds can be. I’ve heard stories of folks walking up to poorwills and nighthawks on dirt roads, being very quiet and careful, and capturing the birds before they could fly. I’ve never done this myself, but the ability to get photographs is good enough for me.

Image copyright Tempe Reagan

Image copyright Tempe Reagan

Although the truck lights seem ultra bright, they did not create much light for my camera to work with. I cranked the ISO and lowered my aperture and shutter speed as low as possible. I came away with some neat photos, although next time I bet a short video clip would be even more satisfying.

Falcon Row

by Bryce W. Robinson

Image copyright Caitlin M. Davis

Image copyright Caitlin M. Davis

Caitlin Davis is in eastern Nevada again this fall, trapping migrating raptors at the Goshutes Raptor Migration Site for HawkWatch International. She’s been sending me more of her incredible raptor portraits. I felt compelled to share a composite she put together of this years birds.

The migration is in full swing and they have been catching great birds. Already the Goshutes crew has caught multiple individuals of four of North America’s falcon species: the American Kestrel, the Prairie Falcon, the Peregrine Falcon, and a few early Merlin. Perhaps this year they will get a fifth, the large emblematic falcon of the far north, the Gyrfalcon. I’d love to see that bird in Caitlin Davis portrait style.

Molting Gyrfalcon in Flight

by Bryce W. Robinson


While in Alaska this past summer conducting research on nesting Gyrfalcons – Falco rusticolus, I made many notes and observations concerning the stage of molt for each adult bird that I encountered. I’d like to share a few things that I noticed. I’m still a young student of ornithology, so none of this is new information, just a few interesting things that I noted and count as important information to retain.

First, I was interested to note the difference in stages of molt between male and female Gyrfalcons during the incubation period. The bird I have illustrated above portrays the stage at which most females molt had reached in early to mid May. Males on the other hand had either not initiated molt yet, or had just started. Needless to say, the general trend was that females were farther ahead of males and in some cases were even more advanced than what I have drawn.

Another interesting thing I noted was that this difference in molt stage by sex changed. Once the female began provisioning for nestlings, the females molt slowed as the males caught up.

I set out to illustrate a Gyrfalcon in flight to show some of my observations on molting Gyrfalcons, however creating the digital image of the illustration did not transfer some of the aspects I had hoped it would. One thing I noted concerning the body molt was that the rump was the first to be replaced. All birds in early summer had nice contrasting rumps consisting of fresh feathers. The mantle and scapulars as well as the upper wing coverts had yet to be replaced.

The Gyrfalcons in May were growing in feathers at their initiation points. In Falcons, this is P4 or 5, S4 and 5, the inner tertials, and in the tail the central deck feathers T1. This beginning stage is important for understanding the difference between hawks and falcons, and is another reason I wanted to illustrate a molting falcon

I love studying molt, and in the largest of the falcons it interests me to a great degree. Molt is costly, energetically. When you consider a large species that lives in a harsh climate such as the Arctic, it is remarkable that they complete an entire molt a year, save perhaps a few underwing coverts. Other large avian predators of the region like the Rough-legged Hawk and Golden Eagle do not do this, a fact that makes my respect for the Gyrfalcon grow evermore.

I enjoyed the exercise of drawing this falcon in flight, and adding the aspect of molt to tell a story. I plan to make this a goal of my illustration, to combine creative imagery with context that communicates ideas and facts about the chosen subject. Of course my ability to do so is still a work in progress itself, but as with learning, the process is ultimately satisfying and something I look forward to for the remainder of my life.


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.


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