A studio for bird study

Tag: eagle

Pen and Ink Sketching

by Bryce W. Robinson

American Kestrel- Falco sparverius. Pen and ink on paper

When I am not counting them, I am drawing them. I sat in my hotel room this morning, pondering how I might make use of my day. Of course my only day off of the mountain for the week is important for household chores such as a shower and laundry, but I always find pressure to stay away from the television and do something constructive. Sketching in my journal seemed like perfect way to pass the time. After all, I need to work on refining my skills. With the most appropriate music, I sat and sketched the day away. It was both relaxing and fruitful.

Light morph Red-tailed Hawk- Buteo jamaicensis. Pen and ink on paper

My journal is 8×5.5″, so it is very difficult to fit a flying hawk onto a page. I also used the smallest pen I have at the moment, an 01 which is not my preferred pen. I normally use 005, especially when illustrating a smaller bird. I still feel that my pen drawings are a bit unrefined. More effort and practice may produce more desirable birds. Still, I find myself staring at this flying Red-tailed Hawk with a smile on my face. I am trying to make the bird stand out with all of the particular field marks that make it appear true to the winged wanderer that I see nearly every day.

Dark morph Immature Red-tailed Hawk- Buteo Jamaicensis. Pen and ink on paper.

I love topside views of soaring hawks. This is possible my favorite thing about observing the fall migration on a ridge top. Only the most special of places leave you with a view of a soaring raptor below. I am always giddy when I come away with a good photo of a bird below my eye level, and illustrating the birds as such provides something similar to that feeling.

Golden Eagle- Aquila chrysaetos. Pen and ink on paper

I had to sketch a Golden Eagle today. We have caught three this season, each bird as special as the last. I cannot describe the feeling of beholding these large winged predators. They are as beautiful and fierce as any big cat, bear, or predator alike. They are powerful, intelligent, and proud. The spirit of these birds interacting with my own caused such an emotional clash, that I could not help myself from shedding a tear. This emotion I will forever remember, and work to pour into every piece put forth that highlighs the majesty of the Golden eagle.


From the Field Journal- Golden Eagles at the Goshutes

by Bryce W. Robinson

Two full weeks have passed at the Goshutes, and already I have accumulated many incredible stories. Life on the mountain is as close to heaven as I can get at the moment, I am sure. I’ve decided to chronicle my time here in a field journal. I will share my experiences from the journal by posting particularly interesting accounts. What follows is an entry I made last week, after observing one of the most spectacular wildlife events I have ever witnessed.

August 21st, 2012

Early August has been fairly bird-less as far as migration goes. Although birds haven’t been moving through, a great host of local raptors are keeping me entertained. I have many stories and experiences to tell of a whiny young Goshawk, pestering Sharp-shinned Hawks, bold and curious buteos, and countless others. For now, I’d like to tell of an experience I had today on my observation post. Jerry and Deneb were helping me with the count, as my co-counter Steve had yet to arrive on the mountain. Jerry and Deneb are old friends of seasons past here at the Goshutes. It was rather enjoyable to listen to their banter as they interacted as old friends often do. Jerry helped pass the time, taking it upon himself to teach me the tricks and tips he has accumulated from some thirty years of experience counting migrating raptors. Needless to say the lack of birds was made up for with teaching, chatter and humor. 

About mid-day, the three of us, steeped in some conversation of trivial matters of the world, were rocked as an intense sound of friction filled the air. Looking above towards the source of the sound, we saw two large air masters pass directly overhead. In fact, what we observed were two large adult Golden Eagles engaged in a dramatic and deliberate stoop, heading directly east with conviction. Excited and in awe, we watched the birds descent. By sight and sound, the large Aquila birds resembled two fighter jets in arial pursuit. Near the bottom of the canyon, the two birds abandoned their stoop, spreading wings, slicing the air with legs hanging, a posture of aggression. As we watched, we realized their intention. Picking up a third bird, we saw the eagles close on a soaring buteo, an adult Red-tailed Hawk.

The unsuspecting buteo realized the danger just in time. It began evasive maneuvers to avoid the slashing talons of the eagles. The menacing eagles made pass after pass at the fleeing buteo. I was astonished at the sight of their cooperative offensive. Such slow soaring raptors had turned on their agile abilities, and it became apparent that these birds are masters of the wind and sky. The dog fight continued, and the skilled buteo somehow remained untouched by the merciless eagles. Finally, finding a bubbling thermal, the Red-tailed Hawk lifted swiftly in the air. The heavy eagles slowly pursued, but were unable to match the rising speed of the fleeing buteo. I was in awe at the violence I had witnessed. Such raw experiences rip away the feeling of fluffy beauty nature often promotes. The natural world is wild, harsh, and unforgiving. This time the hawk had evaded the eagles, and peace returned to the air. 

As we stood recounting the natural marvel we had just witnessed, our reflection was rocked by the majestic image laid out before us. To the east, against the expansive backdrop of the salt flats of western Utah, another Red-tailed Hawk joined the soaring victim of the eagles. Separated by hundreds of feet, two buteos above, two eagles below, raptors alike soared in unison, circling in the calm afternoon air. Taken aback, I again and for the hundredth time that week, voiced my feelings for the place. Full of magic and natural wonder, even before the migration has truly begun, the Goshutes has captured my heart, and I am truly at peace in this place. There is no where I would rather be, as I sit on a mountain top, feeling as close to heaven as is possible.

Winter Raptor Surveys- The Third and Final Stint

by Bryce W. Robinson

My last week surveying for wintering raptors started slow. I spent the first day scanning for birds, finding a few Golden Eagles atop rock faces, and a Prairies Falcon fighting the wind while perched upon a greasewood. Windy it was, and the high desert landscape seemed to find little rest against the frigid gusts. The birds I saw were far, and there were little opportunities for photos.

It seemed the only birds present in the high desert valleys, save the occasional raptor, were numerous flocks of Horned Lark that flushed and fought the winds. On occasion I was lucky to find small groups of Sage Sparrow. Sparrows of the desert seem to be a favorite of mine. I took a minute after a scan to sketch the bird, and after reaching home, I resolved to paint a simple watercolor. Utilizing David Allen Sibley’s field guide, I found the inspiration to emulate his prolific work and begin a more diligent effort to paint birds as I see them.

Sage Sparrow- Amphispiza belli. Watercolor painting on paper.

There were a few other passerines that I found. Of course the numerous flocks of White-crowned Sparrow frequented farmlands and littered fence lines. In the high desert valley of the Wah-Wah, I was able to find a few flocks of Mountain Bluebird. These strikingly blue birds set against the pale ghostly green of the sage create a subtle beauty unique to the landscape and special to my eyes. Unexpectedly I found the other bluebird of the west, in fact, the Western Bluebird. I didn’t realize how far south I was until I saw a flock of orange breasted blue birds fluttering around a canyon stream.

The week went along with the second day as uneventful and windswept as the first. I was lucky enough to find myself headed to a more action packed area for my third day. When arriving at a field for the beginning of my survey, I was eager to see the numerous raptors that sat and watched for prey. The previous stint had yielded some twenty raptors in this one field. My first bird was a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk, however, the only other birds in the area were a solitary Bald Eagle, and a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk perched atop a power pole. The day began slow, and after traveling roads into the backcountry, I found myself in the midst of a white out that quickly covered the ground with snow. I was nervous that I might get snowed in, but continued.

Before the roads became white from snowfall, I came upon something lying directly in my path. I always get excited when I find dead animals. I do not celebrate in the loss of life, and actually mourn those that fall victim to detrimental human interactions such as being hit by a car. Still the world is wild and animals die, and if I cross paths with an unfortunate fatality, I take full advantage at the opportunity for close study of the creatures anatomy.

The dead headless Long-eared Owl- Asio otus

The bird I found in the middle of the road was of course a headless Long-eared Owl. I say of course because this bird is now the third Long-eared Owl that I have found, victim to predation from some fierce winged creature. The absence of the head, and the way the innards were obviously consumed leads to the avian culprit, however I admit that from there I am not so knowledgable as to come to a firm conclusion of who did the deed. I would guess that the Great Horned Owl is the killer. The bird is mean, and is a threat to many animals, even a fellow owl.

My final day was spent in an area of raptor abundance. Finally I had the opportunity to use my camera. I have photographed a few Ferruginous Hawks lately, but I have failed to get a photo from below that highlighted the true plumage of the bird. In my attempts to create my own personal library of raptor photos for reference, I lacked the proper photo of Buteo regalis. Finally, I remedied the problem as a light morph Ferruginous Hawk circled over head, cooperating enough for me to take some acceptable photos.

Adult light morph Ferruginous Hawk- Buteo regalis

After using Jerry Liguori’s camera the last few times I have gone to photograph raptors, it was a bit frustrating returning to my own equipment. I decided to give a go at shooting manual, and I believe it paid off. I was not able to get the quality that came from using Jerry’s camera, but I believe that I came away with some good shots.

I have shared a great deal of Rough-legged Hawk photos, and they have all been of juvenile birds. Those of you that read this and have grown tired of redundant juvenile Buteo lagopus shots, I apologize for including some more. Actually, this bird is not a juvenile. I was excited to find a few individual Roughies this time around that were not juvenile birds. The first Rough-legged Hawk I found was in fact a beautiful adult male, with multiple bands on his tail and a lighter belly band. Unfortunately I was unable to photograph the bird.

Adult Female Rough-legged Hawk- Buteo lagopus. Note the dark eye and pearl white head and breast, as opposed to the cream color of the juvenile.

I did however photograph a very cooperative adult female Roughie. I spotted the bird from afar because of the striking contrast of the dark belly band and bright white head and breast. The lightly streaked head was unlike the juveniles I had seen, and the dark eye showed that this bird was an adult. I was excited to photograph the bird in the air, showing the dark terminal tail band and dark line on the terminal edge of the remiges. These signs indicated that the bird was an adult female.

Adult Female Rough-legged Hawk- Buteo lagopus

I was very pleased with the number of birds I saw on my final day of the survey. I would say the highlight of the day was actually the first bird, an adult dark morph Harlan’s hawk. I was very disappointed at failing to get a photo of the bird, but the sight itself was rewarding enough.

As I drove towards the interstate to head home, a golden hue highlighted the frozen blue of the winter landscape. Alongside the road ahead, I noticed a large bird on the ground. It appeared to be eating a meal, and as my vehicle neared, the large bird took to the air. I fired a number of shots, and stopped to watched the bird as it circled high in hopes that I would move along. The large creature was a Golden Eagle, and the setting sunshine against its golden brown plumage created a sense of peaceful beauty in my soul. Curious at what the birds meal was, I investigated and found that I had interrupted a Golden Eagle feasting upon a wild Coyote. What a wonder and a symbol of the ferocity and harsh nature of the winter world. I have no way of knowing how the canine met its end, but regardless, the image of the eagle feasting upon another fierce carnivore, coupled with the finding the headless Long-eared Owl gave me a sense of sobering mortality.

The sun seemed to send me along my way north. As it set I pondered. It seemed to be a chapters end in my life. With the end of the winter surveys I am now to continue south to California, where I will undoubtedly find many adventures and learn more and more about the wonders of the wild world of birds.

The retreating Golden Eagle, full of Coyote flesh. A symbol of my chapters end.

Winter Raptor Surveys- The First Stint

by Bryce W. Robinson

Wintering raptors take precedence above any winter birding, in my book. True, the lakes and wetlands hold an impressive variety of waterfowl and seabirds en route to their wintering grounds, but nothing can be as exciting as the invasion of the bird worlds proudest members. I find feeder watching very rewarding as an opportunity at close range study, however, the birds of prey that populate the agricultural areas throughout the winter months provide easy insight into a world otherwise difficult and distant. Many raptors become docile and tolerant during the winter months as they attempt to conserve their energy with the limited resources they have. Territoriality is dropped, and birds crowd fields, fence-lines, wheel-lines, tree-lines, and roost-sites. Even birds of varying species tolerate one another as they watch for prey.

Last weekend, conducting winter raptor surveys around Beaver and Milford, Utah, I observed a field full of Ferruginous and Red-tailed Hawks. The Red-tailed Hawks mainly rested on a retired wheel-line, but the Ferruginous Hawks seemed to prefer the ground. As I scanned the field and took note of numbers, I observed one Ferruginous Hawk running as a dinosaur might. The bird was in pursuit of some furry creature foolish enough to come above ground. Such behaviors are the reason winter ecology is so intriguing. It seems the birds let go of all reservations to ensure their survival through the harsh and unforgiving months.

HawkWatch International conducts winter surveys every year with the help of a very dedicated volunteer staff of Citizen Scientists. I have been involved in the past, but this year I was asked to take on some part time work conducting winter surveys for a proposed energy development project for the Cedar City Office of the Bureau of Land Management. Currently, northeast of Milford, there is a large wind farm as well as a geo-thermal plant. In hopes of expanding and developing more areas for renewable energy, the BLM has approached HawkWatch International to conduct a comprehensive study of the raptor populations that exist in the proposed areas. The findings from the study will contribute to the environmental impact statement(EIS) that will be necessary for any energy development in the area. I am happy that I am involved in making sure the correct steps are taken before developing lands for renewable energy, and that I am not conducting surveys to help ensure the creation of anything that burns fossil fuels for energy. It all seems pretty moral to me, which is exactly what I want to be doing in my life.

I love the American west, and all of the creatures that inhabit it. Yes, that does include humans, however, it was revitalizing to have a respite from city living, some solitude and satisfying loneliness as I searched for the big cats of the bird world. One thing that the surveys have provided me, and perhaps the most important, is the opportunity to get out and study birds firsthand. In only the first stint of the season, I have already found valuable learning experiences, and my knowledge has grown considerably. It would be foolish not to share what I have learned. so share I shall. The following discussion details identifying age groups in the Golden Eagle, made possible through photographs.

THE GOLDEN EAGLE- Aquila chrysaetos

I came upon a number of eagles in the days I travelled the countryside. Many were in the air riding thermals, but I did have the luck of finding a few birds perched atop power poles. As I have learned more about raptors, I have worked towards honing my identification skills to sex and age, where appropriate. Aging eagles is tricky, but it is a necessary tool for understanding the dynamics of the populations especially in surveys for development. Correctly identifying immature birds from adults is critical for a precise analysis of the status of populations, but I have strived to take it a step further in pinpointing the bird to its relative age. As eagles in general do not gain adult plumage until their fifth year of life, it becomes a challenge to tell the age of an immature bird. I decided to reach out for help from one of the nation’s leading raptor experts, Jerry Liguori. His help has been invaluable.

The Golden Eagle I would like to discuss was a bird I found atop a power pole just north of Milford. I was en route to the geothermal plant on my survey area, but I could not fight the urge to pull over and bother the poor bird. After a few minutes of tolerating my intrusion, the large eagle lifted from the pole. My camera went into action as the bird retreated into the air. My photos have afforded me a few good looks at the plumage of this bird, and the opportunity to analyze and learn what can help me make a conclusive decision in ageing Golden Eagles.

As a general rule, I have always used the presence of white on the wings as an indicator of a juvenile or subadult bird. As I have learned more, I have come to the realization that this criterion has its holes. The presence of white on the wings should never be used as an indicator of age. The certain indicator differentiating an adult from an immature bird is the presence of white on the tail, or the lack of complete adult feather sets. As the bird ages, it staggers its molt. By Year 3-4, or when the bird is in Basic III plumage, it molts its inner and outer most tail feathers creating a dark central band, or split looking tail.

As seen in the preceding picture, the bird I found had a seemingly complete white band on its tail, so it must not have reached Basic III plumage.  Another hint to its age is the presence of the tawny “bar” on the top side of the wing. This bar that comprises the Upper-wing coverts can tell us whether the bird is a juvenile or not. If the tawny bar is lacking, then the bird is a juvenile, still in its first year. This bird has an obvious bar, so it must be in its second year, at least.

The conclusive factors indicating this birds age come from another photo showing the remiges. Assessing molt in the field can be difficult, in reality, nearly impossible, so photos provide the opportunity for a careful look at birds. Look at the primaries and secondaries for any disparities or anything that stands out. Even before I consulted Jerry Liguori, I had picked up on the fact that P9 and P10 on this bird looked very worn.

Often P1-P4 will molt in the first basic molt of the bird, then the next year P5-P8 will fall. The bird retains P9 and P10 into its third year. As the photo suggests, the worn and ragged look of P9 and P10 indicates just this fact. Also, the secondaries will drop in like fashion, and a bird in Basic II plumage may retain S3,S4, S8, or S9. These feathers protrude slightly past the trailing edge of the wing, as they are longer than the newer feathers. The bird I photographed shows this perfectly. S1 and S2 are obviously recessed in relation to S3. S8 and S9 stick out like a sore thumb. Seems conclusive to me. With the help of the camera, and some schooling from Jerry Liguori, I now have a precise identification; An immature Golden Eagle in basic II plumage, a 2-3 year old bird.

I would like to thank Jerry for his help with this discussion. My gratitude and respect is given for those willing to share their knowledge. The world would be nothing without those that are willing to teach.

I will soon be posting about juvenile Red-tailed Hawks, and Merlins.

Till then, happy birding.

B William