Ornithologi

A studio for bird study

Tag: breeding

White Wagtail Breeding in Teller, Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

 

Working again in Nome this summer, although for a relatively short time, provided me with the opportunity to attempt to see some of the birds of the region that I had missed in previous years. One such bird was the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Before traveling to Nome, my friend Luke had informed me that he had already seen the species in a lagoon near the Red Knot camp, so my chances were promising.

Red Knot work was in full swing when I reached Nome, which limited the chance to try for the wagtails. In the meantime came a report of a White Wagtail AND a Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) in Teller some 40 miles from our camp. On 5 July, a day of rain and weather, we took advantage of the inability to work with Knots and headed to Teller to try for both birds.

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An alarm calling adult White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) in Teller, Alaska.

When we reached Teller we began the search, more focused on the plover than the wagtail as the bird was a lifer for most in the group and the wagtail was not. After 20 minutes of fruitless plover searching Luke spotted our other target, a wagtail at the north end of the village. Luke and I both set out to photograph and film the bird and soon realized it was carrying food. Another adult appeared, also with food, and our minds tipped to the possibility that these birds bred in the area. Jim (head of the Red Knot project) watched the food carrying adult and followed it back to an electricity box on the side of a nearby building. The bird entered the utility box, and exited without the food. We quickly backed the truck up below the box to gain access and check for nestlings. Sure enough a grass nest sat in the corner of the box containing small nestlings.

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Electricity box containing a White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) nest. Teller, Alaska.

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) nest. Teller, Alaska.

After quickly documenting the nesting situation we left and let the adults return to provisioning the young. At the end of the day we left Teller with an excellent experience with White Wagtail, but unfortunately no Common Ringed Plover. Such is birding.

A few weeks later on 22 July, Luke and I returned to Teller on another poor weather day to check on the success of the brood. We soon found multiple juvenile wagtails chasing the adults, begging for food. Luke mentioned that White Wagtail had bred in Teller in years past, but I was left feeling like I had just struck oil – My first White Wagtails, breeding at that!

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Juvenile White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Teller, Alaska.

The experienced left me excited. I’ve found that the best way to deal with the hangover excitement of a great birding experience is to illustrate, so after the initial sighting of the adults in early July I took advantage of the next day of weather and painted a White Wagtail on the inset of my Nome 2016 sketch journal.

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) in the inset of a 2016 field season sketch book for birds of the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. 

Seeing a bird species for the first time, and one that is quite uncommon in North America at that, is the best of birding. Especially if it feels like its been a long time coming. To see the bird and gain a first hand account of its breeding habits, well that is something else. It has a context, and context is what makes my experiences fruitful. I love life histories of birds, especially regarding breeding. I consider this experience to be the example of the what I seek when I step out the door aimed at observing birdlife.

July 2016 in Nome, Alaska had some magic, or something. But it seems that it was a continuation of a theme that started in early May. I bet that if you were to ask anyone that traveled to Nome, AK in the summer of 2016 they would agree. It was special summer, and I can’t wait to hear reports of what the fall brings in the region.

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Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk on the Breeding Grounds in Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

This post details my encounters and notes of Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawks in Alaska during the early summer of 2016. The post is separated into two parts, individuals I encountered while conducting the Alaska Land Bird Monitoring Survey in the remote western interior, and individuals I’ve encountered in the Anchorage area.

From the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge:

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Photo 1. Adult male light morph “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis harlani). Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Photo copyright Bryce W. Robinson.

I just returned to Anchorage from two weeks of bird surveys in the interior of Alaska, conducting the Alaska Landlord Monitoring Survey for the Boreal Partners in Flight. These surveys entailed travel to three remote national wildlife refuges; Innoko NWR, Nowitna NWR, and Koyukuk NWR. The aim of myself and my friend Nick Hajdukovich was to conduct point counts on refuge land. Our travel consisted of float plane transport to each refuge. Once in the Innoko, we logged 200 miles of river travel on the Innoko River to and from our two survey plots, which provided me with great exposure to untouched Alaskan wilderness. Along the way I happened upon a few individuals of perhaps my favorite bird taxon, the harlani subspecies of the Red-tailed Hawk.

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Photo 2. Innoko River, Innoko NWR, Alaska. June 2016. Image copyright Bryce W. Robinson.

The first birds I encountered on the Innoko River happened to be a nesting pair. Their nest was situated on a partially fallen White Spruce that extended over the open river. As we approached the nest we cut the motor and drifted directly beneath the brooding female. At 200 m from the nest a light morph bird, the male, took flight from a nearby tree and began vocalizing and stooping on our boat (Photo 1, 3). As we floated by, I took the opportunity to document the situation.

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Photo 3. Adult male light morph “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis harlani). Innoko NWR, Alaska. June 2016. Photo copyright Bryce W. Robinson.

It was excellent to observe the defensive behavior. Equally excellent was the light morph plumage of the male, and his silver/white tail with hints of red near the tip (Photo 3). As we passed the dark morph female on the nest (Photo 4), we could see her heavily banded tail, dark and red throughout (Photo 5). The variability in tail pattern in these birds interests me greatly, and it was excellent to see this dark bird with a near wholly red tail.

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Photo 4. Adult female “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk with nestling. Innoko NWR, Alaska. June 2016. Image copyright Bryce W. Robinson.

The female was sitting in the nest, along with one nestling which appeared to be around 15-20 days old. The nestling was panting in the intense Alaskan sun. The temperature was a balmy 70 degrees Fahrenheit, very warm for Alaska. We drifted on, got our fill of photos and satisfying looks, started up the 5 HP motor, and continued our trip.

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Photo 5. Female dark morph “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis harlani). Note the near wholly red tail. Innoko NWR, Alaska. June 2016. Photo copyright Bryce W. Robinson.

Throughout our trip we saw a few other adults, all dark morphs that one would consider “typical” harlan’s with whitish and silver tails, white streaked bibs, etc. The birds were uncooperative for photography, except for two individuals that happened to be my most sought after group of this taxon, second year birds midway through their pre-basic molt (Photo 6). I included a photo of one of the individuals, as they were quite similar in appearance and at the same stage in their molt.

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Photo 6. Second-year “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis harlani) midway through pre-basic molt. Innoko NWR, Alaska. June 2016. Photo copyright Bryce W. Robinson.

The degree of molt which these young birds undergoing is worth noting, as compared to all adults that I’ve seen. All adults, presumably breeding, are limited in the extent of their feather replacement. The two Second-year birds that I’ve photographed are molting heavily, as you can see in photo 6. This speaks to the energetic requirements of both molt and the reproductive effort, and the trade-off in allotment between both, something of which I’ve noted before in Gyrfalcons (find it HERE).

Overall the time spent in the western interior was grossly fruitful in my exposure to Harlan’s alone.

From the Anchorage area:

Something interesting is happening in Anchorage. Although I’ve seen plenty of birds in the region that fit what we call the “typical” Harlan’s (Dark morph, light bib, silver or white tail, mottled flight feathers, etc.), I’ve found two individuals, a pair, that are worth documenting. It’s important to note that I’ve been working in a fairly restricted area on the U.S. Air Force base at the north end of the city. I haven’t been able to cover much area throughout the valley, but much of my assumptions about other Red-tailed Hawk in this region come from observations at Gunsight Mountain Hawkwatch.

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Photo 7. Adult light morph “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis harlani), showing traits suggestive of B. j. abieticola. Anchorage, Alaska. June 2016. Image copyright Bryce W. Robinson.

The first bird is a light morph female that my friend Laura showed me (Photo 7.). Although it has qualities typical for Harlan’s such as a mottled tail with silver and white tones amidst red, and globular belly markings, it also possesses traits reminiscent of other subspecies such as B. j. abieticola (Northern). Most notable is the barring throughout the wing lining, and on the belly. Also notable is the regular and distinct barring in the flight feathers. The question arises whether this bird’s phenotype is an infrequent but regular occurrence in the harlani population, or a result of integradation somewhere in its recent lineage? Although the area is an intergrade zone for many other species, I’m fully comfortable saying that I don’t know, nor do I want to suggest one over the other.  The most exciting part is not knowing, and realizing there is a frontier to explore in our understanding of this species.

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Adult dark morph Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Subspecies unknown, but this bird resembles what we would expect of a dark morph abieticola, if these exist.  Anchorage, Alaska. June 2016. Image copyright Bryce W. Robinson.

The second interesting bird from the area is perhaps more exciting (Photo 8). It shows no indication that it belongs to the subspecies harlani. It resembles a dark morph calurus, with some unique contrasting qualities to the auxiliaries and undertail. I’m not sure what subspecies this bird is, but if I were to guess I’d say this bird fits with the Northern population (abieticola), suggesting that this subspecies is polymorphic. Regardless, This bird along with observations at Gunshight Mountain hawk watch support that the Anchorage area and Matsu Valley are an intergrade zone, as is the case with many other species. I think there remains much to learn about the biogeography of Red-tailed Hawks, especially as it pertains to this small area of Alaska.

Short-eared Owl Wing-clap Flight Display

by Bryce W. Robinson

Breeding flight displays in birds are a blend of the bizarre and the fantastic, a show of a birds talent and specialty in communicating it’s unique ability to portray fitness. The Short-eared Owl is no exception, as a low consistent hoot softly settles on the sky, while the bird flies with deep, moth-like wingbeats. Then, as if in suspense, the bird begins to clap its primaries in rapid motion, falling from the sky. After multiple claps and an appreciable loss of altitude the bird spreads its wings and continues its deep wing beats as before. The wing-clap is displayed in seeming desperation, as if the bird is throwing all caution to the wind to produce the most excellent round of claps for onlooking (or listening) females, and intruding males.

I rarely post videos back to back, but I’m making an exception this time because in the same evening I was privy to both Long-billed Curlew and Short-eared Owl flight displays. Both were “on my list” of behaviors to capture on video, and my excitement for capturing both in one evening is too difficult to quell. So I share…

This bird flew tirelessly. For near an hour, the owl flew in the sky performing wing clap after wing clap, all the while letting out a low consistent hooting barely audible to my ears. What a scene, and such a scene that I encourage anyone in the area of breeding Short-eared Owls to search out the chance to observe this behavior in real time. It’s bizarre, but it is at the top of the list for must see in behavior birding, and for good reason.

In the future I’ll be refining my camera skills and upgrading my lens, all in hopes of getting a more clear documentation of this behavior. For better video quality, click through the video link and watch on Vimeo in HD.

Alaska Birds are Gathering for Growth

by Bryce W. Robinson

Wilson's Warbler - Cardellina pusilla

In early July, Alaska birds are gathering for growth. I’ve been very focused on Gyrfalcon diet lately, but it too reflects the general trend of the season here. My eyes have been turning to the thickets lately, as the passerine nests have hatched out in large part. In the past week I have rarely found a passerine without a mouthful of assorted small insects.  The feeding frenzy is in full swing as hungry nestlings require massive amounts of food to fuel their rapid growth.

I appreciate the fast change here in the extreme north west of North America. It’s a great dynamic because it forces you to focus on the moment, as everything is fleeting. Soon, the adults will be joined by an abundance of juvenile birds to watch and study. I sure look forward to that!