A studio for bird study

Tag: black

Black Tern in the High Prairie

by Bryce W. Robinson


I think one of my favorite birds is the Black Tern- Chlidonias niger. They are visually striking birds, and their habits are equally intriguing. I remember last summer, making my way down through Canada, bound for the border, then Chicago. Once I hit southern Saskatchewan, the land became scattered with small ponds and marsh lands. It was a lush scene, full of birds. They call these scattered bodies of water on the high prairie the prairie potholes. They are the remnants of the last glacial maximum, and now are home to multitudes of waterfowl, and birds alike.

Black Terns are common in this part of North America. One afternoon, I pulled over at a small pond, where a group of Black Terns were coursing the sky, feeding on the open water. I watched their behavior for some time, and soon realized that they were feeding young, somewhere hidden in the reeds. I could hear the juvenile birds begging. It was impossible to locate a bird. They were simply too deep, safe in the marsh.

At this time of the year, some of the terns had already started their pre-basic molt. It interested me that not all of the birds in the flock had started molting. I know very little about the molt cycle of the Black Tern, but this variation between individuals stuck with me.

I hope to find myself watching Black Terns again, sometime in the late summer this year. If I do find a few, I’ll be paying attention to their plumage, the date, and what aspects might be influencing their individual molt timing. I’m sure someone like Steve Howell, who has studied the various molt strategies between taxa, and knows a thing or two, could offer some insight.



An Arctic Ocean Alcid: The Black Guillemot

by Bryce W. Robinson

photo-6 copy

I’ve seen little of the worlds Alcids. Perhaps my lack of exposure is the reason for my heightened fascination with this bird group. While on the shores of the Arctic Ocean this summer, I knew I had one bird to see, Cepphus grylle, the Black Guillemot. Guillemots are not uncommon in coastal ecosystems, but they are delightful birds in my opinion. Their red flesh, in the mouth especially, is what really draws me to them. The common and very close relative the the Black Guillemot is the Pigeon Guillemot. Superficially the birds are identical, except for a few key features. My task was not only to find the Black Guillemot and get some great photos, but to document the differences that separate the bird from the Pigeon Guilly. In doing so, I would learn the difference for myself.

The area around Prudhoe Bay lacks any coastal cliffs, so I knew I’d be out of luck finding a nest colony. I  had to muster my patience for the guillemots to show up when the sea ice had melted sufficiently. Luckily, the intense nesting season of the shorebirds kept me busy and entertained enough to keep the itch to see the Black Guilly at bay. In early July, the ice was gone, and I began to look for the bird.

There is a drill pad sitting in the middle of the bay, accessible by road. They call the pad Endicott. Imagine a monstrous monolith sitting in the Arctic Ocean. A large steel structure, an emblem of the beauty of human advancement and industry, entirely appropriate of the name ENDICOTT. Lucky for me, the shores of Endicott are gravel covered, and in some areas the shore is comprised of concrete barrier blocks. I believe this adequately imitates coastal cliff regions, which draw in alcids such as the Black Guillemot. One afternoon I finally found the birds at Endicott, very close to shore, chasing snow buntings and feeding on the shore bottoms. At the time, I could only look, but resolved to return.

When I finally did return, I was escorting a bird man named Richard Crossley around the oilfields ( A story in and of itself). I remember walking along the slanted concrete blocks with a few friends, rediscovering the black and white alcids, and sitting patiently, waiting for them to wander closer to our lenses.

There I sat with my friends, Crossley, Jie Kim, and Caitlin Davis, watching the Arctic Ocean and the Black Guillemots. Finally a bird came near, and we let our shutters fly. I was certainly pleased with the experience. After a few minutes of shutter clicks and giggles, the bird became wise to the human admires, and fled. While it fled, I photographed, and caught one telling feature that separates the Black from the Pigeon Guillemot, the white underwing.

IMG_7313_original copyThe white underwing of the Black Guillemot separates it from the gray or dark underwing of the Pigeon. Of course, at this point I would love to supplement the photo with a photo of the Pigeon’s underwing, but I didn’t do my duty of photographing the bird extensively when I was watching hoards of them along the pacific, earlier this year. Jerry Liguori has told me countless times that I should photograph everything all the time, just in case, and I’m just starting to see the negative impacts of not heeding his advice. Well, I’m learning…. I’m beginning to think I’ll always say that.


Merlin- Falco columbarius

by Bryce W. Robinson

Merlin- Falco columbarius. 11x15" watercolor on paper

The Merlin is an extremely interesting falcon. Three distinct subspecies split the Merlin; the Taiga, the Black or Pacific, and  the Prairie. Each subspecies exhibits a particular plumage type, a fact that undoubtedly adds to my obsession with the bird. Most commonly seen is the Taiga. The males are a beautiful slate blue, with orange hues on the breast. The female is a paler version of the male, with brown tones replacing the blue, and lacking the orange hue. I have had many encounters with the Taiga this winter, and I am sure there will be more before the seasons end. I have also had a few opportunities this year to see the Prairie Merlin. The Prairie is a very pale version of the Taiga, easily distinguishable. The final subspecies is the Black Merlin. True to its name, the Black is a dark Merlin. Captivating for the onlooker I am sure, but alas, I have never personally seen a Black Merlin. I am sure that with diligent effort that fact will change. For whatever reason the Merlin is a favorite of mine, and I find every encounter a blessing. I look forward to meeting the bird time and time again, photographing, watching, and painting the bird thousands of times over.

Birding Blythe, CA

by Bryce W. Robinson

Blythe, California is not a destination for most. The small town is a bit run down and simple, not necessarily what anyone would have in mind when thinking of southern California. Still I have found beauty here. Surrounding the small town are green fields of alfalfa and other agricultural developments. I find myself here for work, living from a motel, and birding the surrounding farmlands for leisure. Possibly my favorite part of being in Blythe is the proximity of one of the west’s greatest river, and undoubtedly my favorite, the Colorado. As you can imagine, the unnatural clear waters of the southern Colorado draw in a number of birdlife and create a wonderful scene for  birding adventures. Truly the river is the only reason numerous green fields scatter the desert countryside.

While out birding the agriculture fields Yesterday, a co-worker spotted a treasure just outside of town. Along the roadside, atop an irrigation sluice gate, sat a docile Burrowing Owl. We watched the bird as it dozed, occasionally glancing around but otherwise disinterested in going-ons. I couldn’t stop myself from snapping shots, but due to the size of the bird, and our distance, I was dissatisfied with any of the photos I came away with.

Today I took hope in the chance that the bird would be in the same place, and sure enough the bird sat vigil to the same scene. This time around I resolved to decrease the distance between the owl and myself. I succeeded and the bird payed no mind. Still, the photos I have leave me wanting, but with the excitement of the experience and my desire to share, I have decided to include the bird in my report.

Burrowing Owl- Athene cuniculeria

Burrowing Owls are one of the most charismatic members of the avian community. Their mannerisms can be extremely amusing at times. I will surely be visiting this bird often, and documenting our time together.

I haven’t spent much time birding outside of Utah, and as a result, I am seeing many new birds. Among these include a few flycatchers that are not present or numerous back home. Apparently someone spotted a Vermillion Flycatcher the other day by the river, so I will certainly be after that till I see it. I did have a little related luck today in finding a tyrant, the Black Phoebe. This bird is wonderful, and I believe it has entered my mind as a candidate for future illustrations. Soon, very soon. Until then, a photo will suffice.

Black Phoebe- Sayornis nigricans

Another Tyrant that I have not known well till now is the Say’s Phoebe. Here in the Mojave, the Say’s are numerous, but I do not complain. They are a treat to and a wonder to watch, drawing me into their world.

Say's Phoebe- Sayornis saya

Of course with flooded green fields come insects and food for numbers of birds. I was delighted and surprised when I found a flock of white birds in an alfalfa field. It has been years since I have seen the Cattle Egret. These small birds belong to a group that are special to me. Watching them brings me back to my younger years of birding, and reminds me what I am searching for when watching birds. As with most of the birds of the day, the egrets I found were tolerant and cooperative.

Cattle Egret- Bubulcus ibis

The shores of the river housed a great deal of birds. As always, waterfowl were scattered across the mellow current. The American Coot was numerous, but intermixed and occasionally, I found some interesting birds. The other waterfowl that floated along included the Ring-necked Duck, the Canvasback, the Mallard, and a few Common Goldeneye. While watching a small group of Goldeneye, I noticed a Barrow’s Goldeneye grouped with a Common. This is probably a normal occurrence, but it was new to me.

Female Common, Male Barrow's, and Male Common Goldeneye, respectively.

Our raptor total of the day was incredible. Within a five minute interval, we saw three species of Falconidae, ending with a circling Prairie Falcon. I was unable to get any acceptable photos of any of the birds. This will be a task for the time to come, but for now I would like to share a photo that is a first of mine. I have never photographed the Turkey Vulture in flight, yet I felt the need and took the time and I believe it paid off. It is indeed a task of mine to maintain a comprehensive photo library, and the Turkey Vulture is certainly and integral part of a complete list.

Turkey Vulture- Cathartes aura

While working, I have been monitoring a few nesting Red-tailed Hawks. Of course the bird is a favorite and even a fascination of mine. I must admit I was surprised to see the difference in the birds this far south from those present back home.. The birds I have seen so far only add to my desire to learn more about plumage variations in this incredible buteo. I have been chasing some birds in hopes of photographing the them in good posture from below, illustrating in whole their plumage, to cross reference with the photos I have from the birds back in Utah. So far I have been unlucky, but I will continue to try.

Adult Light-morph Western Red-tailed Hawk- Buteo jamaicensis calurus

I wouldn’t recommend Blythe as a destination for most, but for birders, I would suggest spending the time, as you pass through on I-10, to exit and visit the river and the adjacent farmlands. If you have never birded the desert of southern California then I certainly suggest. I will continue to bird the area, and report what I find. Soon, I hope to convey the unrecognized ecological treasures that the town of Blythe presents.