Ornithologi

A studio for bird study

Tag: gull

A Highlight of Birding- Breeding Sabine’s Gulls

by Bryce W. Robinson

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I can write a book about how many birding highlights I had this past summer on Alaska’s north slope. It seemed every day I had a memorable experience that will last a lifetime.

I’ve mentioned before that Richard Crossley came to Prudhoe Bay on my last week of work in the region. I agreed to guide him around the oil fields for a day and show him where I had seen particular species. He, of course, had an agenda, and I was tasked to help him out.

We had a hell of a day. I think we started around 8 in the morning, and by midnight, I was still wandering around the tundra photographing birds. He was very keen on finding the Sabine’s Gulls, a bird of which I had seen little. Still, I had a reliable spot that would likely turn up a few gulls, in the least. Just after midnight, we headed that way.

We stopped near the spot I planned to check, only to photograph a small group of Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers. While Richard took photos, I scanned about. I then saw a single Sabine’s some yards away. I alerted Richard. After scanning about a bit, we found a dozen more.

Excitedly we approached the group of gulls and began photographing. The gulls would lift off, and take turns harassing us. Such behavior is typical of breeding birds, defending their young. I took advantage of their tenacity and let my shutter fly. After gathering more photos than necessary, I began the search for the young. Soon enough I found a single bird across a pond, sitting with an adult. It was nothing more than a single ball of grey fluff. So adorable, and so vulnerable.

Our intrusion lasted only a moment. We recognized the stress we were causing the birds, and left. It couldn’t have been better; finding Sabine’s, which I’d barely seen, and having the opportunity to see both adult and young at such close proximity. The experience will stick with me for my lifetime.

The tragedy comes with the benefits of digital photography. Through some glitch, I lost nearly all photos from that evening. Luckily, I have one. It is a photo in the striking midnight sun of the arctic, of a bird I will never forget, and hope to see again, somewhere on the open arctic tundra.

 

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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.

 

Birding the Beach- A Winters Day in Sunny SoCal

by Bryce W. Robinson

Brown Pelican- Pelecanus occidentalis

Brown Pelican- Pelecanus occidentalis

Over the weekend, I found myself once again at the end of the continent, facing the expansive Pacific Ocean. Something about the ocean draws my spirit, and I feel the desire to answer and explore its waters. There will be a day when I make the journey aboard a boat, and explore what can be found above and below the sea, but for now I find myself satisfied with what lives along its shores.

Years had passed since I last saw the ocean, and I could tell. I watched the waters as if I had never known the sight. The excitement of the bird life that I could see riding the waves and flying about gave me the familiar giddiness that birding often brings. I was in a new place, with new birds, and I was happy.

Previous trips to the beach had no focus on birding. I was a young member of a rowdy crowd of miscreants who focused more on the simple fun that the waters bring. This trip was different, as I found myself solely focused on finding birds and testing my knowledge. As it is in the depths of winter, the crowds were minimal and the birds were active. This provided the perfect setting for photographing the birds and learning the new species that I found.

The shores of southern California house many wintering birds. As I scanned the waters with my binoculars, I was delighted to see the large groups of Western and Clark’s Grebes. Scattered about I found a few members of a bird that is new to me, The Red-throated Loon. I did not expect to see the bird, and at first sight I celebrated with a few strange noises of excitement. Loons wear drab basic plumage, and it is often difficult to identify specific to the species. Still, the Red-throated Loon is distinctive and I feel confident with my ID. I was unable to photograph the loons due to their distance from the shores. I was fairly disappointed, but there will surely be a time and opportunity for me to photograph the bird in the future.

Another bird that I saw but was unable to photograph was a bird that I originally set out to find. I am, of course, a raptor enthusiast, and I had never seen the White-tailed Kite before. In the distance I saw a hovering kite hunting. It was incredible to watch it dance through the air with rhythmic wing beats as it looked for food. Other raptors engage this technique, but the kite is king as its form is unmatched. I will make it a point to find the bird again and photograph the scene of the hunting kite, but for now perhaps a painting will have to suffice.

Overall the birds were friendly and I was able to have many enjoyable photo shoots with numerous birds. I would rather let the pictures speak for the birds than summarize the experience with each species. The delicate detail of life is incredible, and I encourage you to take the opportunity and time to truly experience the birds by engaging the photos, zooming in and exploring the detail. The birds are photographed as one would see them, and many are acting in behaviors precisely as the guidebooks describe.

I hope these photos communicate the beauty of the birds, and encourage you to get out to enjoy and appreciate them as I do.

Long-billed  Curlew- Numenius americanus

Long-billed Curlew- Numenius americanus

Long-billed Curlew- Numenius americanus

Long-billed Curlew- Numenius americanus. Note the closed Nictitating Membrane shielding the eye.

Willet- Tringa semipalmata

Willet- Tringa semipalmata. Adult in basic plumage

Willet- Tringa semipalmata. Adult in basic plumage

Willet- Tringa semipalmata. Adult in basic plumage

Willet- Tringa semipalmata. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Black-bellied Plover- Pluvialis squatarola

Black-bellied Plover- Pluvialis squatarola in basic plumage

Black-bellied Plover- Pluvialis squatarola in basic plumage

Black-bellied Plover- Pluvialis squatarola in basic plumage

Sanderling- Calidris alba

Sanderling- Calidris alba. Adult in basic plumage

Sanderling- Calidris alba. Adults in basic plumage

Heerman’s Gull- Larus heermanni

Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Juvenile and Adult Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Juvenile Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Yawning juvenile Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Ring-billed Gull- Larus delawarensis

Ring-billed Gull- Larus delawarensis

Ring-billed Gull- Larus delawarensis

"1st winter" Ring-billed Gull- Larus delawarensis