A studio for bird study

Tag: mountain

A Personal Photo First: The Hairy Woodpecker

by Bryce W. Robinson


Not too many mornings ago, I found myself in a mountain home, overlooking a mountain valley, admiring the mountain birds. The home had a large window array on its back end, providing healthy viewing of flitting and such from a host of active birds. Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees sped from tree to tree, about their business. A group of Pine Siskin came and went, and came again. Red-breasted Nuthatches twitched about, nervously checking needles and limbs for food. It was a mountain morning, full of light and life.

The arrival of a woodpecker is always celebrated. Watching from the windows, I saw a black and white bird traveling the trees. This bird was the Downy Woodpecker, a common, but celebrated sight. While watching the small woodpecker, I noticed another. Larger, and about its own business, was the Hairy Woodpecker. Having both in my view was of value. Seemingly identical, it is helpful to watch both at once, bouncing back and forth, analyzing minute differences that set each apart. After you know each bird well, the identification becomes second nature, and the large, long billed Hairy is unmistakable.

This Hairy stayed with me a while. It was intent upon chiseling at the trees to uncover its morning meal. Recognizing a relatively stationary subject among the hustle and bustle of the mountain passerines, I grabbed my camera and went to work,documenting the activity of the Hairy. One thing that has always puzzled me is the mechanics of the drumming woodpecker. How does it prevent damaging its brain while it taps and slams at trees? While pondering this I did notice something, not really remarkable, and rather obvious. Still, I find it neat. Every time the bird strikes the tree it closes its nictitating membrane, shielding its eye from wood shavings.

IMG_4940 copy

The Hairy Woodpecker kept about for minutes. I kept at it with my camera as well. It traveled from tree to tree, checking here, picking there, searching and finding and then back at the search again. At times it would check about for any watchers or threats. At these times I caught endearing images of an inquisitive but very serious bird.

Minutes passed and the Hairy Woodpecker flew from view. I then turned back to watch the other birds about their business. I envy those of that mountain home. They have the view, with a back deck overlooking the mountainside. Surrounded by trees, there is no shortage of birds that flit about. I had a terribly fun morning watching, and taking my camera to whatever I saw.

The experience with the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, foraging side by side, gave me an Idea for an illustration. I have actually felt the desire to do many illustrations comparing like species such as these two Picids. Perhaps soon I will begin a series to highlight like species and discuss similarities and differences between the two. It would surely help me learn many things.



Views of Migration- An Update From the Goshutes

by Bryce W. Robinson

Immature Northern Goshawk- Accipiter gentilis

Progressively, the daily totals are rising. After a month of counting, the season total has already surpassed 3000. I’ve left the mountain for a day, so I would like to take the opportunity to make a brief report of the season to date. I haven’t the energy or the time to put much into the writing of this post, so I hope poor grammar and diction can be overlooked. Pay attention to the images, as I attempt to convey some of the images of the ridge top raptor migration at the Goshutes.

Broad-winged Hawk- Buteo platypterus


The highlight of the season thus far has been the Broad-winged Hawks. Six have flown through, and the above photo is the first of the season. This bird is actually a first for me. I had never seen a Broad-winged before. When I noticed the bird, and knew what it was, I could hardly contain my excitement. Hooting and hollering ensued, and I celebrated for minutes following. The western migration of Buteo platypterus was a thing of rumor in the past. It was thought that the bird did not migrate through the inter-west, and did not pass by the Goshutes migration sight. Jerry Liguori was the first to discover that the bird did indeed use the flight line, and many have been counted in the years since his revolutionary discovery. I hope to see many more to come, and am holding high hopes for a dark morph bird in close proximity to the observation point.

Red-tailed Hawk- Buteo jamaicensis

I’ve been able to get some amazing photographs from passing birds, many very close and detailed. I am saving the best for a future project, so for now I would like to present some photos that show what it is really like at the sight. Mainly, while watching the migration, the observer gets distant views at birds. Identifying the birds to species, sex, or age can be extremely difficult at times. Jerry Liguori has written two books to aid the observer in this task, illustrating a vast amount of tips and tricks to gleaning positive Identifications from distant specs. These books have become invaluable in my study.


Sharp-shinned Hawk- Accipiter striatus

Even better, Jerry has joined me many times at the sight this season. It has been great to have one of the best raptor experts, and arguably the best migration counter, on the ridge to teach me and aid me in becoming a better and more effective counter. I am in intense study of raptor migration, and I am neither overwhelmed or exhausted by this fact. It has been remarkable. My only complaint is that the season will end too soon.

Osprey- Pandion haliaetus

One of my favorite passers-by is Pandion haliaetus, the Osprey. We usually see a few a day, each bird a delight. I have heard of the bird carrying with it a fish, a next meal. I look forward to the day I witness this peculiar behavior myself. Hopefully it is soon, and I am able to get photos.

Male American Kestrel- Falco sparverius

The evenings on the ridge are dramatic, to phrase it lightly. The long light casts shadows across the mountains, highlighting hills contrasted against dark canyons. Often birds will catch light streaming through deep canyons, lighting up agains the dark hillside. The beauty is indescribable, and so often leaves me with a feeling of peace as my soul settles and I fall upon thoughts of comfort. I am in the right place, doing the best thing, feeling no anxiety, and having zero complaints. I am fulfilled, and for the first time in a long time, I have found a home.




Mountain Bluebird- Sialia currucoides

by Bryce W. Robinson

Male and female Mountain Bluebird- Sialia currucoides, respectively. Watercolor on paper

The western United States is home to a number of blue birds. Tinted blue not by pigmentation, but the physical structure of the feathers, these species stand out against the expansive landscapes they inhabit. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I saw a number of Mountain Bluebird in the high desert sage and greasewood landscape while surveying for wintering raptors. I was taken aback by the bright blue birds against the ghostly green hew of the sage dominated flatlands. With majestic mountains and wide open skies to set the backdrop, I watched in awe at the scene that presented itself time and time again. Whatever reason or pressures drove this bird to develop blue plumage, I am certainly grateful, and will never pass up the opportunity to watch the aesthetically tantalizing image of the Mountain Bluebird against the high desert lands. If you are unfamiliar with this bird, search it out. You will likely find yourself stricken with the same feelings as I when beholding this bright blue symbol of vitality amidst a see of ghostly green.

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.