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

Juvenile Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) in Flight

by Bryce W. Robinson

I’ve included two photos of in-flight juvenile Whimbrel that I took in the first week of August 2016. I’m sharing these images for the simple reason of illustrating how a young juvenile differs from an adult. The age of these birds is told by the overall fresh, clean plumage and relatively short bill. It’s that simple in August. In a few months the bills will grow to a length comparable to the adults and determining age will become more difficult.

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Black Hawk Eagle Painting for Belize Raptor Center

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Black Hawk Eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus). 11 x 15″ Gouache on paper.

My friend Aron came to me recently to ask for a favor; an illustration for a silent auction to benefit a small raptor education center in Belize. The Belize Raptor Center is an organization whose primary focus is to showcase indigenous Belizean species as the most ecologically and economically important class of wildlife in the country.

The benefit will be held in Salt Lake City on 8 October at Church and State from 7-10 PM. There will be a silent auction, live music, and best of all live birds. If you’re in Salt Lake City, be there.

Here are a few details about the Belize Raptor Center from their website:

MISSON: Educate and inspire conservation of birds of prey and their habitat, using permitted non releasable raptors. Rescue and rehabilitate injured and orphaned birds of prey.

SUMMARY: Our mission is important because in Belize, raptors are highly persecuted due to the many myths and misconceptions that surround them. Although they are protected in the United States, the vast majority of them migrate south for the winter and face dangers such as shooting, poisoning, and habitat loss…. Only though proper education can we hope to protect them.

GOAL: We are planning to construct a brand new facility that will serve as the Visitor Center for Belize Raptor Center. Currently the center houses 6 birds of prey that are taken off-site to educate schoolchildren about the importance of raptor conservation. There will be a museum and education center as well as an indoor flight space for a free-flighted bird show – the first of its kind in Belize.

THE FACILITY: The funding will go towards the costs of labor and materials for the Visitor Center. The entire establishment is completely off-grid; solar power and rain/well water keep expenses low. Income from the gift shop and paid programs will help keep our facility self sustaining after the initial costs of building the visitor center.

If you’re interested in the painting to help the Belize Raptor Center reach their goal, but can’t attend the benefit in Salt Lake City, feel free to contact the Belize Raptor Center or me.

Find them on Facebook

Contact: belizeraptorcenterATgmail.com

http://www.belizeraptorcenter.com/our-mission/

A Southcentral Alaskan Song Sparrow – Melospiza melodia kenaiensis

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Figure. 1. Head illustrations of Melospiza melodia montana (right) and kenaiensis (left). Note the difference in bill morphology, where kenaiensis has a long pointed bill, representative of four largely year-round resident subspecies of southern Alaska, which range from south central west to the aleutians (including, kenaiensis, insignis, sanaka, and maxima).

Spending time on the Kenai Peninsula meant that I’d get exposure to one group of Alaska’s excellent Song Sparrows. The Song Sparrow breeds along the southern coast of Alaska, all the way to the Aleutians. More interesting is that there is clinal change in bill morphology and body size, where the largest of the Song Sparrows breed in the far west of its range, and has a dramatically different bill shape than what is generally seen on a sparrow (Pruett and Winker 2010). The Song Sparrows of central Alaska to the Aleutians have long, thin bills. I illustrated the difference between montana, a subspecies that breeds in the intermountain west region of the continent, and kenaiensis, the subspecies I encountered in Homer, Alaska (Fig. 1).

There have been no empirically tested explanations for the difference in bill size, so far as I can find. In discussing the issue with my friend Luke about the non-migratory habits of these birds and the habitat they occupy during winter, the best hypothesis I can come up with is the selective pressures of winter foraging, which has been shown to be the evolutionary driver in bill morphology in other species (Francis and Guralnick 2010). The birds habitat is intertidal zones where they forage on mollusks and invertebrates, instead of the granivorous diet of the other Song Sparrow subspecies.

 

The birds in Homer differed from the Song Sparrows I’m familiar with in body plumage as well. They were a cold gray, with subdued markings, different from the high contrast birds of the montana group.

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Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia kenaiensis) in Anchor Point, Alaska.

I illustrated the heads to compare bill shape, but what I’d really like to do is illustrate the full body of all of the Alaska subspecies with montana for reference, although merrilli, relatively close in size and appearance to montana, breeds in the far south east of the state and may provide the context just the same.

Song Sparrows of Alaska, what an excellent example of phenotypic divergence and the results of evolutionary selective pressures, whatever they may be in this instance.

Referenced Literature:

Francis, C. and R. P. Guralnick. 2010. Fitting the bill: do different winter food resources influence Juniper Titmouse (Baeolophus ridgwayi) bill morphology. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 101:667-679

Pruett, C. L. and K. Winker. 2010. Alaska Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) demonstrate that genetic marker and method matter in subspecies assessments. Ornithological Monographs 67:162-171

Birding Kachemak Bay, Alaska, by Boat

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) with a bill full of fish to take back to its burrow to feed young. Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

I had the pleasure of taking a few days to visit Homer, Alaska and get in some much needed birding on the southcentral Alaskan coast. I was after Alaska state bird additions, as well as a few potential lifers. I needed to get on a boat so I scheduled a trip with Bay Excursions for a morning around the bay.

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Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea). Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

I was after both Kittlitz’s Murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris) and Red-faced Cormorant (Phalocrocorax urile). Karl, who leads the trip and captains the boat, mentioned concern that it was too late for Kittlitz’s and that the cormorants were scarce in the bay this year. With the poor forecast, I still thought it equitable to make the trip and gain experience with other birds. Anytime on a boat, in good weather, is equitable.

Homer is great. There are plenty of camping spots right on the spit. I camped on the shore, woke up in the morning, and had a five minute walk to the boat ramp where I boarded and we set off. Joining me were the expected crew of older folks with cameras and an excitement for seeing wildlife. But they weren’t necessarily birders, so I knew that I was outnumbered and would have to accept that we wouldn’t be spending much time studying murrelet behavior, shearwater ID, or following any curiosities I’d have. Such is birding on a boat I suppose.

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Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus). Paler individual on the left cause pause in hopes of it being a Kittlitz’s, but no luck. Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

Immediately out of the harbor we began to see murrelets. I checked every bird, and for a while Karl paused to give the folks on the boat good looks at the endearing birds. After a short time the group grew tired of the murrelets so we unfortunately cruised by too many groups that I wanted to spend a little more time with in hopes of a random Kittlitz’s popping up amongst the marbled.

I was able to get the boat stopped for some shearwaters. I caught a handful of birds cruising about 1 km west, and once the boat had stopped a few had circled us and I was able to ID them as Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea). We spotted one set on the water that happened to be a Short-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris). With my limited experience observing procellariids on the water I felt satisfied with the short encounter.

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Juvenile Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) alone on the water. Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

One of the neatest birds we found on the water was a juvenile Horned Puffin. It’s bill was extremely small, nothing like the ornate bill of a matured bird.

Some of the strangest birds to encounter from the boat were Song Sparrows on every island we passed. I also caught a Steller’s Jay in the air above a larger island with some conifers. Island living passerines, neat to see.

Overall I was happy with the few hours on the water. I do think that the trip deserves more time, as I could have likely spent another few hours on the bay watching alcids and looking for a Red-faced Cormorant. I also would have liked to venture a bit farther out of the bay to encounter more shearwaters, and whatever else we might have happened upon farther out to sea. In the end I missed my two hopefuls, but the time on the water was excellent. I’ll be back again when the time is right for the missed species.