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

Gyrfalcon Project Update

by Bryce W. Robinson

Female Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

Here in western Alaska the bulk of the breeding Gyrfalcons are fledging young at the moment. We were able to install all ten cameras in nests this summer, and starting tomorrow will begin taking them out of the finished nests. I’ve been extremely pleased with the quality of the images that these cameras take. I’ll be spending all winter sorting through the photos to identify prey items brought to the nest. This will be a long process, as I should have somewhere around 1.2 million photos to look through. Quite an undertaking, but I’m excited to start the task.

It’s been a tough season to this point, full of challenges and some failures, but I’m happy with the success we’ve had to this point. Getting all ten cameras placed was a goal of mine, and I’m happy to have that success. For my first year, and the first year of the project, it has gone well. Above all it has been nothing short of an education. There are certainly fruits in difficulties, mistakes, and failures. Next year, I’ll have some experience to draw upon to increase the success and further the project goals.



Alaska Birds are Gathering for Growth

by Bryce W. Robinson

Wilson's Warbler - Cardellina pusilla

In early July, Alaska birds are gathering for growth. I’ve been very focused on Gyrfalcon diet lately, but it too reflects the general trend of the season here. My eyes have been turning to the thickets lately, as the passerine nests have hatched out in large part. In the past week I have rarely found a passerine without a mouthful of assorted small insects.  The feeding frenzy is in full swing as hungry nestlings require massive amounts of food to fuel their rapid growth.

I appreciate the fast change here in the extreme north west of North America. It’s a great dynamic because it forces you to focus on the moment, as everything is fleeting. Soon, the adults will be joined by an abundance of juvenile birds to watch and study. I sure look forward to that!

The Power of Feathers in Determining Shape and Appearance

by Bryce W. Robinson



Consider the photo above and the photo below. The differences in shape are rather dramatic, as the photo above looks rather non-typical of a Swallow. These two photos are of the same Bank Swallow – Riparia riparia, taken seconds apart. 


Photographing swallows in flight itself is either a challenge or futile, I haven’t quite decided. But, if you sit long enough and forget about photography for a moment, you become aware of some incredible bird behavior. I sat alongside a tundra pond a few days ago, where two Bank Swallows and one Tree Swallow made rounds picking emerging insects from the water top. The interactions between the two species, and even between the two conspecifics were entertaining, but the real thriller was their interactions with me. Multiple times the birds flew within inches of my face, all the while giving me close looks at swallow feeding strategy and behavior.

Occasionally, the birds would perch to rest. A few times they choose perches only feet from me. When they landed, the would preen and chatter. One interesting observation during these resting periods was their change in appearance when they roused, or fluffed their feathers. The birds would lose the sleek swallow shape altogether, and in some postures appear more flycatcher-like than a swallow. This made me ponder the power of feathers, as they govern a birds appearance. It’s a bit bizarre, and a useful thing to consider when looking at a far bird, or a photograph that doesn’t quite make sense. Shape is one of the most useful factors in bird identification, but can at times be misleading without extended observation.

A minor complexity in the world of birds, but nonetheless fascinating.

Red Knot Research and Photography: Clashing or Cooperative?

by Bryce W. Robinson


Red Knot - Calidris canutus roselaari

I’ve written about the use of photography to aid in re-sighting banded birds before, but I’d like to return to the subject and explore fully the idea that metal bands and color tags “ruin” a beautiful photograph of a wild bird.

Observing the Red Knot – Calidris canutus on it’s breeding grounds in Alaska is meaningful. At least, it is meaningful to me.

In Alaska there exists a small portion of the Red Knot population that breeds in the interior highlands of the Seward Peninsula and portions of the North Slope tundra. Any satellite portion of the distribution of a given species interests me greatly. So, in planning my summer in Western Alaska, I put high on the list to find and experience the Alaskan breeding Red Knot, subspecies roselaari.

There are folks here on the peninsula engaged in a demographic study of this Calidrid. I haven’t been able to make contact with these researchers yet, but as far as I understand it in the small bird world here, the time is coming. I’m interested to hear their thoughts and ideas considering the species. Until then, I have only the knowledge of what I observe myself, and what I can read.

Red Knot - Calidris canutus roselaari

Do the metal band and sea foam green leg tag take away from the beauty of this bird?

I found an individual the other morning, high on a hillside in the very western parts of mainland Alaska. Immediately I noticed the colored leg tag. As a young researcher, my resolve to photograph the bird strengthened with my desire to aid my peers with a “re-sight”. As you can see, I was successful to a degree. I came away with photos of the bird, and it’s identification tags.

The experience and resulting photos brought an issue to mind. Many bird photographers I have met and know dislike the identification jewelry because it tarnishes an otherwise natural and beautiful image. After capturing photos of the bird, I was left contemplating the idea.

I’d like to offer some of my thoughts as a young and aspiring ornithologist. As I’ve already stated, I love finding and photographing birds with color tags. To me, it is akin to trapping the bird and recording its location and identity, with the added benefit of no stress to the bird. Clean research! At least after the initial attachment of the tag.

Red Knot - Calidris canutus roselaari

On the other end are the photographers (I’m in part on this end as well, I confess) that are of the opinion that the tags diminish the quality of the images they are after. They work to capture natural images of birds, void of the tarnish of human interaction.

I’m sympathetic to the photographers view, but I believe that the proportion of individuals that we are able to outfit with these identification tags are minimal, and the chance of interacting with them again is remote. So, when a photographer has a subject that happens to have a tag, it ought to be viewed as fortuitous and an opportunity to learn about the bird and aid research efforts.

I photograph birds for many different reasons, but high on the list is to learning. Being something of an artist, I understand the drive to capture the most aesthetically pleasing image, but I propose instead a new avenue for the aesthetically driven. This is the art of bird study, to capture an image that is both beautiful and informative. This image would have the natural beauty and allure of the bird, but also the context of its interactions with humanity, holding in its information tag a history unique to the individual and the potential at snapshots of a story as beautiful as any image anyone could gather.


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