A studio for bird study

Tag: harrier

The Gray Ghost

by Bryce W. Robinson

Northern Harrier- Circus cyaneus. 11×18″ Prismacolor on Bristol.

Deneb Sandack has been involved with the Goshutes Raptor Migration sight in some way or another since its inception in the early 80’s. For many years she has acted as the lead bander at the sight, going above and beyond to ensure that the sight runs smoothly and achieves its goals each season.

Her passion for trapping birds is unmatched. I admire her greatly for this passion. Over the years she has trapped and processed thousands upon thousands of birds. Each year she returns to the mountain with hopes of trapping what is her personal white whale, a bird that has evaded her tremendous luring and trapping skills for years. This bird is the Gray Ghost, the adult male Northern Harrier.

The Gray Ghost, a name known among raptor enthusiasts and birders alike. Termed such because of its ghostly gray plumage, and intense yellow eyes. It hunts just above the ground, floating along in search of prey, reminiscent of a specter in search of a soul. A truly remarkable and mystifying creature, very deserving of its super natural epithet.

Because the male Harrier is the single regular migrant that has avoided capture by Deneb all of these years, I thought it prudent to honor her and her goal by illustrating the bird. This bird is for her, as my tribute to her hard work and dedication, and hope that next season at the Goshutes Raptor Migration Sight she finally pulls the Gray Ghost from the sky.

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Female Juvenile Northern Harrier- Circus cyaneus

by Bryce W. Robinson

Female Juvenile Northern Harrier- Circus cyaneus. 11x15" watercolor on paper.

In honor of the delicate beauty of everything female, I painted the Northern Harrier. Although common, I find myself enamored and entranced with every view of this bird. The young females seem especially vivacious, with the teetering wander to hunt for prey and the dainty image while perching to preen. My goal with the female juvenile harrier was to capture the youth and liveliness in  character, portraying femininity common to all creatures, yet remaining true to the birds identity and wild nature. Perhaps a lofty goal, but worthy of the effort nonetheless.

Adult harriers are sexually dimorphic, but differences can also be seen in juvenile birds as well. Typically, a juvenile Northern Harrier is a cinnamon brown with a beautiful reddish breast. The difference between the male and female is seen in eye color. It becomes a challenge to sex juveniles in the field, as you often see harriers on the wing, and hardly perched. When the chance arises that you find a tolerant youngster, take note of the eye color and any other differences that stand out. I remember a day while photographing harriers with Jerry Liguori, when we were taking shots of what we thought to be an adult female. After reviewing the photos and seeing a few key details, namely eye color, Jerry recognized that the bird was in fact a young male. These particulars can add more fun and excitement to the challenge of raptor ID.

This painting was created while listening the musician Lisa Hannigan. I suggest coupling the visual with a like artist. It is sure to enhance the experience. Enjoy.

The Harriers of Farmington Bay

by Bryce W. Robinson

Yesterday, I said goodbye to the marshlands of the Great Salt Lake. Tomorrow, I head to an area near another large saltwater body, the Salton Sea. The birds and topography are sure to change, and with that, come new stories and experiences. As exciting and sweet as exploring new lands can be, it comes with the bitterness of leaving the loved behind. Life is fluid, and this dynamic is inevitable. Embracing the shift, I decided to bird a favorite spot, Farmington Bay WMA, for one last time before I head south. Undoubtedly I will reunite with the place, but it will be long before I do.

The day was clear and sunny, and the birds were active. I accompanied a friend, Mitch, on his second day with new camera equipment. It was nice to see someone as excited as myself with the opportunity to search out winged creatures and capture their allure on film. Throughout the afternoon, we watched the plentiful usuals with delight.

The wandering flight of the Northern Harrier is a spectacle. Although the bird is plentiful, I never grow tired of watching its slow travel above the Phragmites, and the occasional dramatic flip when unsuspecting prey is found. If you sit sedentary and wait, eventually a Harrier will wander overhead, and provide perfect opportunities to capture their fierce gaze.

Male Northern Harrier- Circus cyaneus

Many who see the Harrier for the first time comment on its owl like appearance. Truly the bird has a face reminiscent of an owl, due to a similar morphology. Harriers possess a facial disc much like that of the owl. This disc allows sound to funnel directly to the birds ear, creating hypersensitive hearing. As the bird wanders the fields, it hones is hearing to any rustle of its small prey. When it senses anything, it rolls dramatically to pounce upon the poor creature. I have never observed a tactic like this from any other bird. The behavior is incredible, and as I stated before, it is a spectacle to behold.

Juvenile Northern Harrier- Circus cyaneus

The Harrier is sexually dimorphic. The male is a ghostly grey above, white belly below, with black tipped wings and piercing yellow eyes. The female wears beautiful brown, with a heavily streaked belly. Juveniles resemble the female, differing with a brilliant orange belly. With long wings and tail, and distinctive flight and hunting behavior, the Harrier is among the easiest of the raptors to identify at a distance.

Male Northern Harrier- Circus cyaneus

Mitch and I had an afternoon full of fun, and as the sun sank and our souls relaxed, we watched the golden light highlight the hunting birds. It was a satisfying goodbye, and as we left I felt comfort with my move, and the place I was to leave behind. As they say, out with the old, in with the new, and as I travel on I pledge to continue to chronicle the life of birds and b.

Learning from the Best- A Day in the Field with Jerry Liguori

by Bryce W. Robinson

Yesterday was spent photographing birds with Jerry Liguori. It was such a full day that I forgot to wish my mom happy birthday. I accept the label of a terrible son. Sorry mom, Happy Birthday.

I find that surrounding myself with those that are more skilled and knowledgable than myself helps me learn quite a bit more than I might alone. Birding with a man like Jerry Liguori should have been highly intimidating, but I felt very comfortable being myself and exposing my identification weaknesses. He is a very humble person, willing to teach and share his passion.

Jerry has some incredible photography equipment. You can look through the guides on raptor identification that he has published and see that he knows his stuff regarding bird photography. I was excited to see him in action, and perhaps pick up on some of his techniques. Seeing my camera and lens against his, Jerry kindly offered me the opportunity to use one of his set ups for the day. Taken aback, I accepted the offer. What followed was the best day of bird photography I have ever had.

As we continued, Jerry took the time to teach me some general techniques of using the camera on manual. I really learned a lot about the hows and whys of photographing raptors. I was so grateful that he was willing to take the time and energy to show me how to share in the experience. From my experience with Jerry, he teaches those who share his passion not from an ego, but from a true love of the birds. I personally feel that with true passion comes a desire to share and infect others with that same passion, and I see that in the way Jerry interacted with me.

From the start, Kestrel’s were every where to be seen. I have never been able to get as close to birds as I did with Jerry. He says he has the best luck, for whatever reason. I would be skeptical, however, we had some great experiences with tolerant birds. Here are two Kestrels, the first a docile male atop a sign, and the second, a hungry female feasting on an unlucky Marsh Wren.

Male American Kestrel- Falco sparverius

Female American Kestrel- Falco sparverius eating a Marsh Wren- Cistothorus palustris

Although common, I never pass up the opportunity to observe a Kestrel. They are a lot of fun to watch. The female munching on the Marsh Wren was very tolerant of our intrusion. As we watched her eat, we could see feathers fly as she ripped them from the bird. Admittedly, both Jerry and I assumed the Kestrel was feasting on a vole or field mouse. It wasn’t until I reviewed my photos at home that I discovered what the bird’s meal actually was.

Another species that seemed to cover the marshlands in large numbers was the Northern Harrier. Again, as common as the bird is, it is always enjoyable to watch it wander low above the marsh, occasionally making acrobatic moves at unsuspecting prey. We spent some time driving alongside many Harriers, photographing as we drove.

Northern Harrier-Circus cyaneus. Juvenile.

Northern Harrier- Circus cyaneus. Juvenile.

Another bird that was fairly numerous was the Rough-legged Hawk. According to Jerry, we didn’t see as many as usual, but to me the numbers were acceptable. All of the RL’s that I photographed are juveniles, which I found interesting. One particular individual was missing p7, a bird that Jerry had photographed a few weeks prior when the feather was dangling but not fallen. I did my best at getting a decent photo of the distant bird.

Juvenile Rough-legged Hawk-Buteo lagopus missing p7

The sun was in and out as the day went on. We found a RL on the wing taking advantage of a sunny spell and good thermals. Directly underneath the circling bird, I shot to my hearts content. I came away with some great photos as the bird rose on thermal updrafts, observing the strange behavior of the two mad humans below.

Juvenile Rough-legged Hawk- Buteo lagopus

Although the day was definitely dedicated to photographing raptors, I had the opportunity to take the time to capture images of a number of species outside of the raptors. While I was photographing some waterfowl, I saw a friend Debra, and she informed  that I had missed the opportunity at seeing two Great-horned Owls roosting. That was disappointing, but I was glad to come away with the birds that I did.

As we drove along a winding road, we spotted a Loggerhead Shrike only meters off the road. Surprisingly, the bird did not fly when we stopped directly beside it. I fired a number of shots, then took the time to simply watch. As I watched, Jerry stopped photographing to check the quality of his images. At that moment we both missed the opportunity to catch the shrike expelling a pellet in a dramatic fashion. We continued with a win some lose some mentality. I believe that when photographing birds, if you do not preemptively adopt this mind set, you will certainly go mad with missed opportunities.

Loggerhead Shrike-Lanius ludovicianus

American Wigeon- Anas americana

Song Sparrow- Melospiza melodia

Cistothorus palustris

Ring-billed Gull- Larus delawarensis

Great Blue Heron- Ardea herodias

It was an exceptional day of birding. I am very grateful for Jerry Liguori’s willingness to share his time and equipment with me, and teach me some things about a world we both find fascinating. I hope to join Jerry in the field again very soon. It must be in the very near future, because in a few weeks I will be moving to southern California to work as a biologist conducting nest surveys for a consulting firm. I want to get in as much Utah birding as I can before I leave, but I will certainly continue my study after I relocate. Soon the species that are featured will change as I travel. The ebb and flow of life is truly something to embrace, and embrace it I shall.