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

Singing Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella breweri) on Sagebrush

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Singing Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella brewer) on sagebrush. Gouache on watercolor paper.

One of the best parts of spring in the Sagebrush landscape of western North America are it’s singing inhabitants. The Brewer’s Sparrow may be my favorite, because of its subdued but beautiful plumage and distinct trill song. On a spring morning at sunrise, one can walk through a healthy stand of sagebrush, songs erupting all around, as multiple males sing atop their sagebrush posts.

Brewer’s Sparrows have a distinct buzzing song, that sounds superficially simple and distinct. But, their songs can be variable and have multiple types as described in Rich (2002). See the figure below to gain a familiarity with the variability.

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Song types of the Brewer’s Sparrow, long (A) and short (B). Figure taken from Birds of North America Online, adapted from Rich (2002). 

Rich (2002) found that the variability seen above seems to follow no geographic trend or isolation, nor does there seem to be any song sharing among neighbors. High turnover among territories and potential for natal dispersal could limit the development of local dialects, etc. Interesting stuff…

If you’re unfamiliar with the sound of a singing Brewer’s Sparrow, be sure to visit Xeno-Canto and explore.

My friend Eli is wrapping up some research investigating the impacts of anthropogenic noise on sagebrush inhabitants in southwest Idaho. Breeding Brewer’s Sparrows were among a few focal species of her study. She’s currently working through the publication process, and when her work comes to surface in print, I’ll be sure to share. I expect that anthropogenic noise has some masking impacts on a Brewer’s Sparrow song, and in turn could potentially change the dynamics of song structure under anthropogenic noise blankets, etc. More research and time will tell.

Here is a short clip of a singing Brewer’s Sparrow in Idaho that I took through my Zeiss scope. The song is barely audible because of how distant I was from the singing bird:

Referenced Literature:

Rich, T. D. 2002. The short song of Brewer’s Sparrow: individual and geographic variation in southern Idaho. Western North American Naturalist 62(3): 288-299.

Orange-breasted Falcon Painting

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Orange-breasted Falcon (Falco deiroleucus). Gouache on watercolor paper. ©Bryce W. Robinson.

In a short time I’ll be heading south to northern Central America (primarily Belize and Guatemala) to research Orange-breasted Falcons (Falco deiroleucus). I’ll be working with The Peregrine Fund on their Orange-breasted Falcon project. My main focus will be assessing occupancy at historical territories, investigating potential territories, nest monitoring, banding nestlings, and assessing nest success. All work that I’m familiar with, but in a completely different system.

With the new system comes new opportunities to start fresh and learn. As a birder, my mouth is watering from the anticipation of learning new birdlife to a degree I have yet to experience. Field work with the falcon will be a great vehicle for learning this new bird life, as I’ll be immersed in the system daily, always paying attention to what is around me.

Alaska is an exciting place for an ornithologist, because it is still somewhat a frontier in our basic understanding of some of its birdlife. The Neotropics are similar, but to a greater degree. Due to the nature of the system, and the magnitude of its biodiversity, there is much work still to be done to fill in gaps in our basic understanding of the natural history of some species. This frontier is where I want to be, so I consider myself quite fortunate to begin a potentially five month stint in a place where so many opportunities lay.

I’ll be blogging birdlife along the way, including videos, photos, field sketches and stories. It’ll be a content heavy time, and I’m looking forward to it.

 

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) Watercolor Painting

by Bryce W. Robinson

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When I was a kid, I poured over the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). I’d spend hours near my house in Ithaca, NY, stalking this bird to get a better look. I was studying the bird, its habits and its behaviors, though I didn’t quite realize what I was doing at the time. I’d also spend hours sketching the bird. It was the first bird I drew, and I drew tirelessly.

Since I was a kid I’ve done a few Great Blue Heron illustrations and started a few paintings, but due to my diversified passion for birdlife I haven’t finished a painting of this subject since I was a kid. Finally, I had the opportunity to do so.

I look at the painting and I see loads to improve upon, but it’s so satisfying to see my illustrations as a child against the painting above. As I do, I reflect on my journey thus far in life and look forward to many more paintings to come.

First Idaho Record of Red-flanked Bluetail – December 2016

by Bryce W. Robinson

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On 31 December 2016 I made the five hour trip from Boise to Lewiston to see Idaho’s first record of Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus). On arrival, the bird already had a crowd watching it forage along the Russian Olives that bordered the river.

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It was a sunny and relatively warm morning, and the bird was actively foraging. It would appear on the tree edge and making foraging sallies to the ground. It looked like the bird was eating the Russian Olive fruits, but one of my photos show it with an arthropod in its bill as well.

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It made its way foraging between four trees along the river, heading south to the last tree and then returning north. Occasionally it would disappear low in the trees along the rivers edge, and return to foraging within a few minutes.

My favorite aspects of this bird were its subtle hues in the plumage, particularly the blue throughout and the white throat patch. I also enjoyed its behaviors, such as the constant tail dabbing. The bird was extremely cooperative, providing all watching with excellent views. At times when it would come to the ground to forage, it would do so only feet from the birders. I’d say it was behaving about the best anyone could hope for concerning a high profile vagrant.

I spent some time attempting to capture video of the bird perched on a limb, tail dabbing. I mostly was unsuccessful, but did manage the following clip that is poor quality. It’s worth sharing just to show the birds behavior.

 

The Red-flanked Bluetail was a great end to 2016, which was a bummer of a year for so many reasons, but was incredible and profitable regarding birds. Hopefully 2017 will match or exceed. Happy New Year.