Ornithologi

A studio for bird study

Tag: great

The “Lifer” Great Grey Owl

by Bryce W. Robinson

IMG_9716 copyI still have a massive collection of experiences to share from the past year of my beatnik travels across the continent in search of birds. At the top of the list is seeing my first Great Grey Owl in the Yukon Terrritory. 

Caitlin Davis and I stopped in a small town, a village really, called Haines Junction, to meet with our friend Bill Clark, who was in the Yukon chasing and banding Harlan’s Hawks. Bill and I share a passion for the Harlan’s, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend the day with him chasing the enigmatic hawk. In the morning we set out with Bill and a young graduate student, Megan Mayo, who is doing her thesis on the genetics of pigmentation (broad description) in the Red-tailed Hawk. It was a very damp day, raining regularly, but the Harlan’s were plentiful.

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While Traveling down the highway, scanning for Harlan’s, Megan spotted a large dark creature perched on a snag. Indeed the large figure was the Great Grey Owl, watching the roadside in the rain, hoping for a meal. 

This Great Grey was my first, and Caitlin’s first, and Megan’s first as well. The bird had six eyes entranced on its behaviors. While Megan and Caitlin approached the owl to experience it in more detail, I set up my video equipment and chatted with Bill. He had seen many in his day of course, but I could tell the bird still brought him some joy. I was rushing as the girls approached the bird. I felt some anxiety at the possibility of setting up and having the bird retreat before I could take a clip. Bill reassured me that the bird wouldn’t mind the intrusion, as in his experience, they are very tame in temperament. Of course he was correct. The bird tolerated our presence.

IMG_9355 copyBoth Caitlin and I took many photos. I’d love to share everything, but at the moment I’ve settle on the three. Notice the feather structure of the bird. It is fascinating, as the rain dampened the birds feathers, creating incredible textures. Caitlin’s photo shows the birds face at an angle that displays the deep inset eyes, showing the extent of which the birds mass is comprised of feathers. I really can’t describe what it was like to be so close to such a creature. There is a reason people talk about this bird as if it were the top of their list, the bird they seek most. I encourage bird lovers to make the Great Grey Owl a priority. It is one of the birds that lives up to the hype, one that will surely not let you down.

 

 

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Lost Gulls in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

 

Great Black-backed Gull- Larus marinus

Great Black-backed Gull- Larus marinus

If you’ve started to read, then I’m impressed. Gulls in the title is probably a big turn off for most birders. But in all purity, this is what birders love. VAGRANTS. 

Still, Gulls? It is my opinion that the average birder is bored when it comes to gulls. Bored not at the lack of challenge, for there certainly is a challenge, but bored at the birds general appearance and habits. These are simply assumptions on my part. I actually don’t know the reason for the lack of enthusiasm, but I bet the reasons for low numbers of “laruphiles”, or gull lovers, are numerous. Still, it is undeniable that it is widely understood that gulls are not the most exciting subjects when it comes to birding. I on the other hand, have felt an itch for paying attention to this highly successful bird group.

There are only two gulls that breed on the north slope of Alaska, being the Glaucous Gull, and the Sabine’s Gull. Both birds are rather distinctive. The Glaucous Gull differs from other large gulls by having a notably pale back, with entirely pure white remiges. This look is distinctive, even at a distance, allowing any oddballs to be easily recognizable.

The oil fields at Prudhoe Bay house a large number of people. With people comes trash, so it is no surprise that the oil fields have a dump. Dumps are gull magnets, and the dump at Prudhoe Bay is no different. Knowing that anything is possible in birding, I formed the habit of scanning the hundreds of gulls that hang around the dump from day to day. The habit finally paid off two weeks ago when I noticed a dark backed gull amongst the pale Glaucous Gulls.

I hurriedly snapped photos and analyzed the bird. To me, it resembled a Western Gull, but some aspects were a bit off. I also noticed that the bird was banded. Very exciting, given the ability to read the band. Reading bands is a complicated business, and as the gull was in an area that I was unable to enter, I couldn’t get close enough for a better photo, or a way to read the band myself. I wish I had explored my options further. This was the only time I saw the gull. So, no band number. 

I’m just learning the gull dilemma. It is a challenge. There is a lot to learn, and the differences between many species are slight. With this vagrant dark backed gull, I had to get some help. I emailed a friend in high places, and he soon got back to me with a consensus, along with the opinions of other authorities. The result was GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL. A life bird for me, and a bird I hadn’t even considered. The back just didn’t seem dark enough. Still, after taking into consideration their input and analysis, I agreed. What a bird, so far from home.

In the following days I made my rounds by the dump, in hopes of finding the gull again to catch the band number. Last week, I thought I found the gull again, but actually, I had found something more exciting, a second dark backed gull. Immediatly I caught that this gull had no retained immature remiges, and had yellow legs. I knew the bird, even though it was another life bird; LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL!

 

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Sometimes birding is a game of curve balls. I never knew I could get so excited over gulls, but it spoke true to one of the reasons I am a birder. I love to find birds far from home, on crazy journeys themselves. I love to wonder why, and what they’ve experienced, and simply recognize that they are here, and how strange or miraculous that is.

Birders find vagrants everyday, some, much more exciting than these gulls that passed through Prudhoe bay. Nonetheless, the gulls helped me remember; This is birding, to notice something spectacular, that is so often overlooked.

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

Lesser Black-backed Gull- Larus fuscus

 

 

 

 

 

Gluttony and the Great Blue Heron

by Bryce W. Robinson

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The other day I observed a Great Blue Heron- Ardea herodias, that had caught a fish seemingly too large to handle. The above image is directly after the bird had speared the fish, and was working on a way to get the meal down its throat. Yes, I did say spear. Before this instance, I was under the impression that herons never speared their prey, rather they stabbed at the prey only to grasp it in its bill. This bird speared the fish, effectively killing it, then retrieved it from the water. I believe that if the bird had not done so, the large fish would have been too strong as it struggled to escape the herons clasping bill.

I also was taken aback at the size comparison this photo illustrates between the Herring Gull- Larus argentatus, and the Great Blue Heron. Heron’s seem like such large birds when standing alone. Anyway, I took a sequence of photos of the heron struggling the fish down its throat. The sequence is as follows:

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IMG_2815You can see in the last photo where the fish still sits in the birds body. This will undoubtedly take a while to digest. I was impressed in the least. I absolutely love seeing predators eat, and the heron is one bird that always delights. I once came upon a photo of a Great Blue Heron that had killed and was holding in its bill a Least Bittern, about to consume the close relative. How bizarre.

Anyway, I felt lucky to see this instance, even luckier to capture it on film.

 

Great Blue Heron- Ardea herodias

by Bryce W. Robinson

Great Blue Heron- Ardea herodias. 11×15″ prismacolor on bristol.

My childhood was spent in study of the Great Blue Heron. I stalked the large wader all summer, learning its habits and admiring its stoic poses. I became engrossed in a passion for the bird, and for what reason I will never know. This childhood connection will forever be an integral part of who I am. I spent many hours illustrating the bird in multiple positions, always enjoying the process of recording the creature I so admired. Today, I feel troubled that I have not put the same passion and effort into this bird. I took the morning to do so, and resolved to schedule a goal for myself. As the Great Blue Heron is responsible for my introduction into the world of birds, I find it so appropriate to write an essay detailing my admiration, feelings, and understanding on its life history. I have only posted one essay thus far, and feel that I must rectify my lapse in writing with a second essay, appropriately paying homage to the most special bird to me. This is only a preview, and I will undoubtedly take my time putting the essay together. In two weeks I will leave society to count migrating hawks for some months, and will have no opportunity to work on the essay. So it may be long coming, but be assured it will. I only found it necessary to voice my goals, as an exercise to solidify the plan for my own sake.