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

Illustrating and Studying the White-tailed Kite

by Bryce W. Robinson

White-tailed Kite - Elanus leucurus. 11 x 17" prismacolor illustration on bristol board.

White-tailed Kite – Elanus leucurus. 11 x 17″ prismacolor illustration on bristol board.

I’ve had the White-tailed Kite on my mind to illustrate for some time, and finally put it at the front of the priority list. But lately I’ve been illustrating and feeling a bit lost in purpose. It should be enough to put myself into drawing a particular bird, but I’ve felt a need to push myself further. Not only do I want to create a unique image, but now I think it is important to learn something new about my subject each time I produce an illustration. So, for this White-tailed Kite illustration I searched the literature for an interesting paper to read and increase my knowledge.

I read a paper discussing hunting synchrony in the White-tailed Kite (Skonieczny and Dunk 1997). Hunting synchrony? I’d never heard of this before. The paper is a short communication in the Journal of Raptor Research that discusses a study on hunting habits of Elanus leucurus near Arcata California. The authors observed White-tailed Kites hunting seemingly at the same time as one another. The question was, why? So, they made their observations and compared what they saw with what was expected using chi-square analysis. The results showed that White-tailed Kite hunted in synchrony with one another. That is, when one kite was hunting, other kites in the area would hunt as well. And conversely, when no kite was hunting, other kites were inactive. It was suggested from other studies that vole activity happens in peaks, which can then influence the optimal hunting period for the kite. So, when voles are active, kites hunt and are more successful. They cue on one another to save energy and wait for the best time to hunt.

My desire to illustrate one of North America’s few Kite species spurred my desire to study further, then learning about “hunting synchrony” and developing a new bit of knowledge to bolster my understanding of not only White-tailed Kite natural history, but raptor ecology as a whole. I think I need to make a habit of pairing illustrating and study.

Referenced Literature:

Skonieczny, M.F., J.R. Dunk. 1997. Hunting synchrony in white-tailed kites. Journal of Raptor Research 31: 79-81

Migrating Wood Storks in South Texas

by Bryce W. Robinson

A few weeks ago I was in South Texas for the Raptor Research Foundations annual conference. Corpus Christi in the fall is a mecca for those into raptor migration, and likewise the whole of south Texas is a mecca for those interested in the bird world. While I was visiting the hawk watch platform, run by Hawkwatch International, I saw many birds in large numbers. Of course the Broad-winged Hawk migration was flowing well, but I was able to see something unexpected that was equally satisfying. Large numbers of Wood Stork – Mycteria americana were streaming through in kettles. The kettles were in the same fashion as the migrating raptors, and the numbers were extremely large as well. I captured some video of the spectacle to share and spread the awe of the movement of these large North American Storks.

Burrowing Owl Illustration

by Bryce W. Robinson

Burrowing Owl - Athen cunicularia. 11 x 17" prismacolor on bristol

Burrowing Owl – Athene cunicularia. 11 x 17″ prismacolor on bristol

When I first began illustrating birds seriously almost three years ago, I spent the majority of my time on owls. For whatever reason, I was fascinated in the way their faces translated onto both canvas and paper. I remember when I realized the power that the eyes have for communicating the spirit of life within a creature. The exercise of illustrating owls taught me the importance of light and detail in the eyes of birds, especially raptors.

In the past I was focused on illustrating the face and busts of birds of prey. I stayed away from illustrating the full body of birds due in part to my fascination with the face, but also because I felt that I couldn’t create a proper and natural bird. Now I’ve started a campaign with myself to overcome my weaknesses and illustrate birds as a whole, either perched or in flight. While the exercise is to properly portray a bird in whole, I’ve made it a priority to take the lessons I learned from illustrating a birds face and invoke the same sense of life and attitude in the full-bodied bird.

Creating images of living creatures has more to it than I’ve ever thought. I see incredible paintings of Gyrfalcons in flight pursuing prey, or a Great Blue Heron stalking something in shallow water, and I can’t help but marvel at the mastery the artist holds over both their medium and their subject. I hope to reach even a fraction of the ability of some artists, but at the same time I’ve realized that perhaps the process is more enlightening and more worthwhile than the product. In the end, I’ll understand birds to a greater degree simply because I have put energy and focus into their details, and attempted to communicate their life and spirit through my own creative ability.

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.


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