A studio for bird study

Tag: conservation

Banding Nestling Gyrfalcons in Western Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

Gyrfalcon Nestlings

Photo 1. Gyrfalcon nestlings just after seeing their very first human being. One nestling is attempting to hide, while the other looks boldly into the eyes of the onlooking researcher.

The best part of working on a project focused on nesting Gyrfalcons is interacting with the nestlings. I can’t help but spend a moment or two to admire them each time I get one in my hands. They are young, yet full of personality and intelligence. I lose the ability to articulate the experience of dropping into a nest, and being the first human these nestlings have ever seen. Their response is remarkable, as they recognize me as an intruder and prepare to fight. There is, however, a certain degree of curiosity in their eyes. What impresses me most is their confidence, seen in their posture and stare.

Female Gyrfalcon Nestling

Photo 2. A tenacious young female Gyrfalcon, age 25 days. She is full of fight and intelligence. This attitude will serve her well after she leaves the nest and needs to learn to hunt and kill to survive.

We schedule our second round of nest entries when the nestlings are 25 days old. At this point their legs have fully developed, so we can outfit them with aluminum USGS leg bands. These bands give them a unique identification number, so that if the bird is caught or found researchers can tell where the bird came from, and where it went.

Banding Gyrfalcon Nestlings

Photo 3. Crimping the “lock-on” band. Most Gyrfalcons take band size 7B. We put bands on the right leg, and crimp a metal fold-over to ensure this piece of leg jewelry stays with the bird for its entire life.

As the nestlings grow, they begin to realize the tools that evolution has provided them to hunt, kill, and defend themselves. When we enter the nests to band, the nestlings have developed into fighters. They bite, rip, and use their talons to lash at intruding researchers. Because of this newly developed tenacity, working with them takes its toll.

Part of the Work

Photo 4. A hand weathered by tenacious Gyrfalcon nestlings. This is part of the work. The young are held in a way that they are unable to bite the hands of the researcher, but they are intelligent and talented. Often, they figure a way to make us pay for the important data we collect.

It’s great to see youngsters that have so much fight. This aggressiveness will translate into behaviors necessary for their survival. Although the most aggressive young are not the most enjoyable to handle, it means the birds have what it takes to be a large falcon in the Arctic.


Photo 5. Weighing a young Gyrfalcon. We weigh the nestlings to help calculate a general age, if unknown. Weight also helps us determine the health of the nestling.

Apart from banding, we have a number of other tasks to complete while handling the young. We take DNA samples, weights, wing and tail measurements to estimate age, and check for parasites. After each nestling receives its treatment, we switch out batteries and memory card in the nest camera. We will not come back to the nest until the young have left, so it’s important to make sure the camera continues taking data until the end.

So far, we’ve been to three of our twelve nests. Our hands have a lot more abuse ahead of them, but we are excited to continue nonetheless. More pictures and stories to come.

Thanks to Ellen Whittle for the photos of the work

Thoughts on the Past, Present, and Future of the Snowy Plover in North America

by Bryce W. Robinson

Snowy Plover - Charadrius nivosus. 11 x 14 " prismacolor on bristol

Snowy Plover – Charadrius nivosus. 11 x 14 ” prismacolor on bristol. Image copyright Bryce W. Robinson 2015

I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with how our changing world may impact the distribution of a given species, either shifting or fragmenting breeding ranges. I have a particular affinity for the family Charadridae , and I’ve found myself paying closer attention to one species in particular, the Snowy Plover – Charadrius nivosus. The Snowy plover occupies a widespread but disjunct breeding range in its western North American population(Figure 1). This range is likely a result of the bird’s need for specific (in turn limited) habitat for breeding.

Figure 1. Range of Snowy Plover - Charadrius nivosus in North and Central America. Image taken from Birds of North America Online (see referenced information)

Figure 1. Range of Snowy Plover – Charadrius nivosus in North and Central America. Image taken from Birds of North America Online (see referenced information)

The Snowy Plover is a species that has faced many challenges with the ever increasing human presence. Throughout the bird’s North American breeding range (Figure 1), human impacts have caused a multitude of threats to its ability to reproduce. These threats include but are not limited to environmental contaminants, an increase in nest predators such as Raccoon, Common Raven, Coyote, and Red Fox, all of which have experienced a human-subsidized boost in population numbers in recent decades, and recreation on beaches causing both disturbance and nest destruction. A great discussion of all factors impacting Snowy Plover populations can be found on the Birds of North America species account under the Conservation and Management section.

Multiple organizations are working with state and federal wildlife authorities to augment the negative impacts humanity and its residuals are having on Snowy Plover populations. These organizations include Point Blue Conservation ScienceFriends of the Dunes, the National Audubon Society, and many others. The effort is impressive and has seen some success. Still, there is a looming threat on the horizon, the impacts of human induced climatic changes.

What the threats of climate change mean for the Snowy Plover in western North America and across the rest of its range in S. America are still to be determined, but I’d like to emphasize the need to determine and augment these threats as they are occurring. I’ve become aware of a population level analysis that is meant to track the distributional patterns of a given species throughout its yearly cycle (Ruegg et al. 2014). The idea is to identify population structures during the major life events of a species through genetic analysis of individuals at each location; breeding, migration, and non-breeding. Understanding where individuals spend each part of the year holds the power of  identifying where negative impacts are occurring that are driving population declines. This is the big idea behind the banding effort, but this technique provides larger sample size and more power for determining population structures. It’s a huge step in the right direction.

My point is, wouldn’t this be a great tool for assessing changes in populations of the Snowy Plover over its disjunct range as the impacts of climate change become more visible and severe? The answer is yes, and we ought to begin the effort…

Referenced Information:

Page, Gary W., Lynne E. Stenzel, G. W. Page, J. S. Warriner, J. C. Warriner and P. W. Paton. 2009. Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/154

Accessed 7 February 2015

Ruegg, K. C., E. C. Anderson, K. L. Paxton, V. Apkenas, S. Lao, R. B. Siegel, D. F. Desante, F. Moore, T. B. Smith. 2014. Mapping migration in a songbird using high-resolution genetic markers. Molecular Ecology 23:5726-5739

ZEISS Optics Supports The Gyrfalcon Project and Conservation

by Bryce W. Robinson

Photo copyright Neil Paprocki

Photo copyright Neil Paprocki

ZEISS Optics has been kind enough to offer a gesture of support by providing optics for my work here in Arctic Alaska. Without a doubt, this equipment will help ensure a successful season and minimize our time and effort during searching and monitoring nests. It helps so much to have brightness and clarity while assessing behaviors or nest status.

I’m very impressed with ZEISS, not only for their products which are truly the top of the line, but with their willingness to support my work, and in turn conservation. A company interested in helping organizations like The Peregrine Fund deserves special recognition.

Photo copyright Neil Paprocki

Photo copyright Neil Paprocki

The optics I’ll be using this summer are the Diascope 65 T FL spotting scope set atop a carbon fiber tripod with a solid and smooth head, and the Conquest HT 8×42 binoculars. The minute your hands touch this equipment you know they are quality. Field work is very hard on optics at times, but I’m confident that my daily tasks will cause no harm to the binoculars or the scope. They are durable. They are quality.

Photo copyright Neil Paprocki

Photo copyright Neil Paprocki

Stay tuned over the summer. I’ll be posting digi-scoped photos of Gyrfalcons and nestlings, along with other western Alaska specialties. I’ll also write some reviews towards the end of the season on how the optics handled the harsh Alaska tundra, and helped complete the work.

Thanks again to ZEISS Optics for making Gyrfalcons visible.

The Gyrfalcon Project is on the Ground in Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

Adult female Gyrfalcon- Falco rusticolus

I’m in Alaska to start the first field season of The Peregrine Fund’s Gyrfalcon Project. I landed only three days ago, and hit the search for nests right away. At this point, the earliest nesting Gyrfalcons will have hatching eggs any day. For my research, I need to find them before they hatch.

Gyrfalcon Eyrie

Already I’ve located two occupied territories, with one nest well into incubation. With the help of my friend and field assistant Neil, I made my first entry into an eyrie yesterday to assess nest age, and gather other important data. While I was in the nest, Neil took advantage of the disturbance and documented two very responsible adult Gyrfalcons as they circled and watched my intrusion.

Adult Female Gyrfalcon- Falco rusticolus

After we finished our tasks of data collection, we left the nest. When we reached a distance of approximately 500 meters from the nest cliff, we turned around and took a look at the nest. We were happy to see the female had already returned to the nest to resume incubation. While I was in the nest, I was able to see that one egg had pipped, meaning that in a couple of days there will be some newly hatched Gyrfalcons.

Stay tuned as the summer progresses. There will be numerous reports over the course of the season. Soon there will be nestlings, and I’ll be there to photograph them. You can find out more about this work on ornithologi’s Gyrfalcon Project page, and be sure to check out the Peregrine Fund’s website and consider supporting my work, and raptor conservation as a whole. Here’s to a successful summer, with loads of Gyrfalcon’s!