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

Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher (Myiobius sulphureipygius) Foraging in the Dark Understory of Southern Belize

by Bryce W. Robinson

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I’ve been in Central America for nearly two months, and I haven’t had the time or energy to post any stories, images, or illustrations from my experience thus far. There are of course many stories to tell.

Flycatcher (Family: Tyrannidae) diversity in Central America is very high. Getting to know this diversity has been an excellent challenge. I’ve had a lot of luck seeing most species that I might encounter in Belize, and among my favorite have been the small and endearing flycatchers of the rainforest, such as the Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher (Myiobius sulphureipygius).

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I’ve seen the bird only a few times. It sits low in the understory of the rainforest, near relatively open areas and perch hunts for insects. Its large eyes are obviously engineered to spot prey, and it tactfully watches and waits until it sees an opportunity. This can be for a minute or more.

These birds don’t seem to mind my close proximity when I’m watching and photographing, and seem only focused on its task of procuring food.

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Contrasting this seemingly patient and calculated technique with another small flycatcher, the Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher (Terenotriccus erythrurus) has been enlightening. From what I have observed, these birds are constantly making attempts at captures, and hardly sit still for more than a few seconds. It’s difficult to tell if these many attempts are all successful, because the insects it is after are much too small to observe at any distant.

Hopefully I’ll be able to capture both foraging techniques on video. There’s always another way to describe the behavior, whether it be writing, illustration, or video. I’d like to blend all three for these birds.

Published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology: First record in birds of nestling relocation following nest collapse

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Photo of a female Gyrfalcon holding a surviving nestling following partial collapse of the nest. Photo published in Robinson, B. W., N. Paprocki, D. A. Anderson, and M. J. Bechard. 2017. First record of nestling relocation by adult birds following nest collapse. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 129 (1) 216-221 

Since I’ve been hard at work in central America for the past month, I haven’t had the time to share a recently published article from my Gyrfalcon work. The article details the behavioral response of a female Gyrfalcon following the partial collapse of a nest. The photo above shows her holding the only surviving nestling following the partial collapse of their nest on a cliff side in Alaska. Just moments later, the female took the nestling to safety at another ledge farther down the cliffside. This behavioral response to threat is the first documented case in altricial birds!

Read the full article: 

Robinson, B. W., N. Paprocki, D. A. Anderson, and M. J. Bechard. 2017. First record of nestling relocation by adult birds following nest collapse. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 129 (1) 216-221

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.