A studio for bird study

Tag: hawks

An Illustration of Some Members of the Genus Buteo

by Bryce W. Robinson


18×24″ Gouache on watercolor paper. From top left: Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni), Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus), Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), and Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). Purchase limited edition prints here.

I’ve been illustrating raptors in flight for some years now, which really took off when I met Jerry Liguori. Jerry took me under his wing, so to speak, and filled my head with everything he himself has learned over his many years studying the identification of raptors, particularly in flight. His tutelage accelerated my skills and knowledge in raptor identification, and I can confidently say that without his selfless teaching, my illustrations wouldn’t be the same.

I’m currently focused on tuning in my raptors in flight. I am about to start some large illustration projects focused on these taxa, so I am working to develop my technique and process as well perfecting relative shape and sizes. It’s a challenge, because illustrating each correctly involves so much more than the obvious differences in plumage. What makes each unique are shape, proportion, and posture. I’ve found posture to be the most challenging aspect to capture, since this seemingly simple factor has so much power over whether the bird looks real or not. Furthermore, in flight postures and shapes are influenced by the direction and motion of a bird in that moment in time. For instance, a bird soaring has a unique shape but because of the position of the viewer, that shape may be different for each wing because of the birds posture and how wind or resistance bends the outer primaries. To understand and master this effect is going to take repeated sketching and exploration.

Purchase an 18×24″ limited edition archival print (30 available) of this illustration in the shop. Your support helps me continue to refine my illustration, so thank you ahead of time! Also, be sure to add Jerry Liguori’s unique guidebooks to your library. Jerry has taken raptor identification to the next level, and his guidebooks are a wealth of information for mastering in-flight identification. You can find his books here: Jerry Liguori’s Hawk’s From Every Angle and Hawks at a Distance


Falling Into a Red-tailed Fascination, With a Harlan’s Twist

by Bryce W. Robinson

Juvenile "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawk- Buteo jamaicensis harlani

I rarely begin a post with a picture, however, I would like to pay tribute to one of the most remarkable creatures to occupy the sky. For reasons truly unexplainable, I find myself fascinated with the varieties of the Red-tailed Hawk, particularly and most intensely, the Harlan’s. The striking plumage and variable tail patterns certainly seem to be the most fascinating aspect of the Harlan’s. Perhaps it is the little known aspects of the birds great north breeding ecology, and the overlap with other Red-tailed strains creating intergrades and even more peculiar and strange forms of this relatively common species. I find the Red-tailed world intriguing on multiple levels, and I have made the goal of a lifetime study of the bird. In my search to specialize for my graduate work, I do at the moment believe I have found my candidate.

I spent the other day photographing birds with Jerry Liguori once again. Of course he lent me his equipment for more photography fun. I still can’t put a finger on why he would be willing to do so, other than his kindness. So I must admit, this entire post is all due to Jerry’s kindness, and I would not have been able to get any images near the quality of what is shown without his help.

Jerry has studied raptors for years. He also has a keen interest in the Red-tailed Hawk. He has written many articles on Red-tailed variants like the Harlan’s and the Krider’s, and has shared a few with me. I have gained much satisfaction in browsing through a number of Harlan’s tail shots that he sent me, illustrating the vast variety that exists among these birds. I actually blame Jerry for feeding my obsession with the bird. Now he has to put up with my endless intrigue as I pick his brain for answers regarding Harlan’s.

On this outing we went to an area of particular popularity due to the high density of wintering raptors. As any Utah birder likely knows, the area I speak of is the basin directly south of the point of the mountain. The birds detailed in this post were all photographed at this basin. Keep in mind that I stayed in place for a few hours, and the amount of birds featured in this post occupy the area around the basin, which is little more than a square mile. Wintering ecology is an amazing thing, as normally territorial birds put up with others, not even of the same species, and share the resources at hand.

This year, multiple reports of Harlan’s Hawks at the point have hit the hotlines. I had visited the area in November, and saw a Harlan’s, but the soaring raptor was much too high for any reasonable photography. On this day with Jerry, my luck changed. We had a Harlan’s fly in close to provide me the opportunity at my first close range photo shoot of my favorite flyer of late.

This young Harlan’s is a favorite of another Utah birder. Tim Avery constantly posts his images of the point of the mountain Harlan’s. He met up with us after a while and was right alongside me when the bird came in for the shot. According to Tim, the photos he took were the best Harlan’s he has to date. I must admit, I like his shots better than mine.

The young Harlan’s was actually not the most exciting bird of the day. As Jerry and I drove south on the freeway before reaching the basin, I told him of my lack in confidence for identifying a light-morph Harlan’s, and how much I would love to see one in the field. I feel that some of Jerry’s self proclaimed luck then rubbed off on me, or perhaps I was just lucky enough to be with him, but one of the first birds we saw as we came to the basin was in fact an adult light-morph Harlan’s. Regrettably our luck only went so far, and I never reached a close distance in order to photograph the bird. Jerry, with his great lens, actually caught the bird from behind as it landed on a post. The tail was perfectly spread, exposing a silver-ish base fading to a nice reddish tone. A few feathers even had some slight banding. A perfect Harlan’s tail, and a beautiful bird.

There were a total of three Harlan’s at the basin that day. I photographed two, both of which were juveniles. The second bird displays perfectly an aspect of my fascination. The white breast is peculiar, and sets it apart from the other young bird we saw later. I love the variation, and I can’t get enough of studying these birds.

Juvenile "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawk with a white breast

It was delightful to watch the numerous birds interact with each other. Near the peak of the mountain five birds flew, toying with one another. As it appeared, the birds seemed to be enjoying the sun, with full crops and playful spirits. As I watched, I noticed that one of the birds was in fact a Rough-legged Hawk. The interaction did not appear aggressive, which made the sight much more peculiar. Seeing the Buteo’s fly together reminded me of a bird found last year in the mid-west. It appeared to be a hybrid between a Red-tailed Hawk and a Rough-legged. When breeding season comes, and birds have trouble finding a mate, it can happen that two birds of different species pair up in desperation to procreate. I have even heard of Ferruginous Red-tailed Hawk hybrids.

One of the reasons I am so intrigued by Buteo jamaicensis is the variable plumages that exist. The Western Red-tailed Hawks that were present provided a great look at the variety present in even the more common strain. From juvenile to typical adult, all were there. I would have liked close up photos of all of the birds that day, but birds are only so cooperative, or better said, I am only lucky to a point. Still, I came away with great shots of a number of birds.

Rufous morph Western Red-tailed Hawk

Adult Western Red-tailed Hawk with a white throat

Typical adult Western Red-tailed Hawk

Jerry mentioned an interesting point after seeing an adult western bird with a white throat. Apparently some years back it was common knowledge that western RT’s lacked a white throat, like the typical bird above. This fact was cited in many guide books for the hawks of America. I found this interesting because it illustrates a point that Jerry has really tried to engrain in me, or so it seems. Facts about birds depend upon research, some research more thorough than others. We as birders, or those enthralled enough to give a damn about the particulars, need to be comfortable with getting things wrong, making mistakes, information changing, and especially saying “I don’t know”, from time to time. I respect Jerry’s humility, and his concern for passing that on to me and others who share his passion.

The fact is that with a bird so diverse in plumage as the Red-tailed Hawk, there is going to be some overlap and interbreeding between regional “subspecies”. What results are birds that show characteristics of one strain, but overall resemble another. I found a bird a few weeks back that was a dark morph western Red-Tailed Hawk, yet it had a heavily banded tail that faded from a cream color at its base to a nice orange at the terminal end. At first glance I was excited at the possibility of a Harlan’s, however when I reviewed my photos, I found the bird to be a nice chocolate brown with rufous highlighting. After consulting Jerry, I learned of the importance of leaving some birds a mystery. The bird could have been an intergrade of some sort, or something else more mysterious and exciting. For now I have no conclusion, but I have come to terms with that and moved along. In the future, I may find another bird that shares the same traits, and may be armed with the knowledge and resources to discover where the bird is from and why it is so peculiar.

Juvenile light morph Western Red-tailed Hawk

Juvenile light morph Western Red-tailed Hawk. Note the light colored eye typical of a young bird.

Juvenile light morph Western Red-tailed Hawk

It was nice to see a variety of Red-tailed Hawks, but what made the day even better was when the Roughies were thrown into the mix. Because I conduct winter raptor surveys, I find myself with plenty of opportunities to photograph these arctic birds, but with Jerry’s help, I believe I came a way with my best photos to date of Buteo lagopus. They are at least in a close tie with those photographed last week using the same camera and lens.

Juvenile Rough-legged Hawk- Buteo lagopus

It seems that I only find Juvenile Rough-legged Hawks this year. What that fact is attributed to I can only wonder, but perhaps it is tied to wintering ecology, perhaps not. While we watched two Rough-legged Hawks soar together, Jerry and I heard the high pitch call of the birds. This was the first time the call of Buteo lagopus settled upon my ears. I did not take it for granted, and I will not forget the sound.

Juvenile Rough-legged Hawk

Although the point of the mountain is frequented with large, loud, and stinking trucks, it is a special place to gain a glimpse into the wild world. It stands as an inevitability that the area will soon be crowded with humanity, and there will no longer be a place for these wintering birds. They will undoubtedly find fortress someplace else, and we birders will follow. Still, how wonderful it would be to see these birds respected, and their winter home set aside from the expanding suffocation of the human world. I see no reality in the idea, as Utah County continues to grow faster than an adolescent boy, but may the seed be planted and pondered on. If you love raptors, make a point to visit this area. If you are respectful of the birds, and the truck drivers that pass, you will certainly have the best day of raptor watching you could ever ask for.

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.

More Raptors, of Course

by Bryce W. Robinson

I have come to terms with my condition. I have CROD….Chronic Raptor Obsession Disorder. In my opinion it is wrongly termed a disorder. Sure, I will admit that it is odd and certainly passes the threshold of obsession, but it does me no harm… I hope. All in jest, there is no such thing as CROD, but I am beginning to realize my extreme “interest” in raptors.

Christmas weekend was full of countryside raptor watching. I even finally found my Christmas owl. I took my sister out with me and she insisted we pull over to check out some road kill that she claimed was a bird. I was skeptical, insisting it was likely a skunk or rabbit.  In response to her foolish older brother,  she fired back a snide and witty response atypical of a ten year old, “Bryce, is a skunk brown, and do they have tail feathers?!” I quickly U-turned, telling her that if I was turning around for some smashed rodent, she would be in a deal of hot water. Sure enough, I was humbled.

The large bird alongside the road was in fact a Great Horned Owl. The poor creature was victim of contact with a speeding automobile. It was largely intact, and I took the time to examine the incredible predator. I am at a loss for words when describing what intricacies and natural artwork the bird world holds. I was very pleased with my young sister and her insistence on stopping. I have resolved to listen to her more. She is a smart girl, much farther along than I was at her age. I hope the experience with the owl was as special to her as it was to me.

I found I great deal of birds in Sanpete valley, but before I even reached my parents, I had met a raptor near my brothers place in Orem. A juvenile Coopers Hawk sat high in a leafless Ash above the road.

Cooper's Hawk, Accipiter cooperii, Juvenile.

These birds always seem to glare at me as they pose. I love every opportunity to watch and interact with them. My younger brother Camden was with me, and it was he that I had to convince to stop the car and allow me to see the bird. As a sports fan, he doesn’t really identify with my bird obsession. He seemed to really love the bird, and was pleased with the opportunity to see something he normally wouldn’t pay attention to.

Not necessarily a quality photo, but a bit striking nonetheless.

On Christmas day I went for a drive around the northern end of Sanpete Valley. It was a clear afternoon as the sun began to fall towards the western mountains, pouring orange radiance and long shadows that served my mellow mood. The birds in the valley at this time of year are everywhere. Bald Eagles decorated the large trees of the valley, much like ornaments celebrating the season. With a keen eye, other not so noticeable birds also come to view in the tree tops. Merlins can be found all over the valley. I found three in the few hours I was out. My first was a Prairie Merlin, most likely a female, sitting atop a large cottonwood simply enjoying the sun.

The merlin is a very cute raptor. This may be a bit bold to say, but I can’t help but calling these killers cute. Kestrels fall right in line, and although I constantly see them ripping mice and voles apart, I still find them adorable.

I do not often see the Ferruginous Hawk in Sanpete Valley. In fact, until this year I never have. Christmas weekend provided me with close views at two birds. Analyzing the photos, I can’t help but think that the two birds are the same bird. After all, I found them only some five kilometers apart. Still, it is always exciting to see Buteo regalis, and even more exciting when I can get some photos.

Ferruginous Hawk, Buteo regalis, adult. Christmas day bird.

I was very happy when I captured the bird in flight. The sun shone from the opposite way, so the plumage was not highlighted to my liking. The bird does have some aesthetic, as the edges shine gold from the late afternoon sun. I was happy with this photo until I found the second bird the next day. This time around, I was able to get closer to the bird and take some pictures at a closer distance and in better lighting.

Note the bluish coloring on the scapulars. Such a visually striking species.

The bird then flew south and I was able to get a few shots before it vanished into the horizon. I am hoping to get out and find this bird again. Ferruginous Hawks are a favorite. I am so intrigued by their interesting plumage. As an artist, the bird satisfies my need for a tickling and tantalizing visual.

As we moved east through the farmlands, my sister and I found a very dark Red-Tailed Hawk in a grove of trees near the San Pitch River. I always get excited about dark morphs, and the possibility of the Harlan’s Hawk. At first, I snapped photos of the bird thinking it was indeed a Harlan’s. The bird took to the air and circled me, giving me ample opportunities to capture photos at all angles. After reviewing the pictures, my confidence was shaken. I now feel that the bird is probably a dark morph, but the tail has some very interesting characteristics. I have decided not to share the photos until I come to a confident conclusion of what I saw, if I ever do.

The Northern Harrier is always fun to watch. They are very common in agricultural and riparian areas across Utah. It has been my recent goal to strengthen my identification skills with the bird. I am beginning to get a handle on differentiating juveniles from females, and always can tell the males apart. The bird I found along the San Pitch, in a horse field, causes some intrigue.

Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus. Surely and adult due to the apparent molted and replaced retrices. No dark wing tips and brown plumage indicates a female.

I love finding birds that have interesting or peculiar characteristics. This bird has molted its inner tail feathers. The bird seems a bit male like due to the grayish tones of the new tail feathers and wings. I am a bit perplexed and may seek some insight.

Typical adult light morph Red-tailed Hawks are not uncommon, even plentiful, around the farmlands of Sanpete County. Still, I am always taking the time to stop and watch. They can be so diverse, and I love to see the differences each individual presents. I found a bird above a farmhouse, in a large tree surrounded by a menagerie of Starlings, sparrows, and doves. That in itself was intriguing, so I stopped and photographed the bird. The lighting was spectacular, and I am very satisfied with the image.

Buteo jamaicensis, adult light morph western Red-tailed Hawk

I spent a lot of time along the San Pitch River because I have seen a number of Belted Kingfishers on branches that overhang the water. No luck with finding any, in fact there was an overall absence of anything non raptor, especially passerines, save the ever-present Starling and House Sparrow populations. Magpies and Ravens were also a plenty, but I never seem to find any that are willing to be photographed.

Lastly, I would like to include a poor photo of a bird that visited my feeder a few days ago. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is not so common, but oh so delightful to see. As cute as the Merlin and Kestrel are, the Kinglets take the cake.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula