Ornithologi

A studio for bird study

Tag: nesting

Published in Western Birds: First Record of Eastern Phoebe Breeding in Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

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My latest publication, and my first in the excellent regional journal Western Birds (Western Field Ornithologist’s), details the first documentation of successful breeding of Eastern Phoebe in Alaska. You can find the pdf on my Researchgate profile. It’s short and to the point, and worth a read for anyone interested in the birdlife of North America.

Last year, while working in Alaska with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program, I caught word of an Eastern Phoebe documented near Nome. I’m very familiar with Nome, since it is where I studied the Gyrfalcon for my master’s degree. I’ve birded the area heavily in the spring and summer months. There aren’t many Eastern Phoebe records for the state, so a bird showing up in Nome on the western coast is that much more exciting. I planned to be in Nome the following month to work with Red Knots, so I crossed my fingers that the bird would stick around long enough for me to see.

Surprisingly, a second Eastern Phoebe was documented soon after. Then came documentation of nest building, followed by nesting behavior and ultimately confirmed egg-laying and incubation. On my arrival at the start of July, I joined my friend Lucas DeCicco to see the pair on the outskirts of Nome. Since July is a time when the flow of birders ebbs in Nome, no one had checked on the nest for some time.

Sure enough, we found the birds feeding nestlings. After we had photographed and observed, Luke and I resolved to return regularly to document the success or failure of the pair.

In the end, the pair was successful. It was the first documented case of the species successfully breeding in Alaska, and on top of that in a location quite inhospitable and atypical of the species. The coast of Nome is not known for mild weather.

I told Luke that I thought it important to document this novel event in a publication, and he agreed. So we resolved to report the record, and asked for the help of those that originally found the first phoebe in June.

Thanks to Luke for his help with this seemingly simple publication. It wouldn’t be so clear, simple, and clean without him. Also, a big thanks to my co-authors who first found these birds – Aaron Bowman, Scott Hauser, John Wright. Thanks for the help with cleaning up the publication, and of course documenting the birds that led to this record.

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White Wagtail Breeding in Teller, Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

 

Working again in Nome this summer, although for a relatively short time, provided me with the opportunity to attempt to see some of the birds of the region that I had missed in previous years. One such bird was the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Before traveling to Nome, my friend Luke had informed me that he had already seen the species in a lagoon near the Red Knot camp, so my chances were promising.

Red Knot work was in full swing when I reached Nome, which limited the chance to try for the wagtails. In the meantime came a report of a White Wagtail AND a Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) in Teller some 40 miles from our camp. On 5 July, a day of rain and weather, we took advantage of the inability to work with Knots and headed to Teller to try for both birds.

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An alarm calling adult White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) in Teller, Alaska.

When we reached Teller we began the search, more focused on the plover than the wagtail as the bird was a lifer for most in the group and the wagtail was not. After 20 minutes of fruitless plover searching Luke spotted our other target, a wagtail at the north end of the village. Luke and I both set out to photograph and film the bird and soon realized it was carrying food. Another adult appeared, also with food, and our minds tipped to the possibility that these birds bred in the area. Jim (head of the Red Knot project) watched the food carrying adult and followed it back to an electricity box on the side of a nearby building. The bird entered the utility box, and exited without the food. We quickly backed the truck up below the box to gain access and check for nestlings. Sure enough a grass nest sat in the corner of the box containing small nestlings.

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Electricity box containing a White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) nest. Teller, Alaska.

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) nest. Teller, Alaska.

After quickly documenting the nesting situation we left and let the adults return to provisioning the young. At the end of the day we left Teller with an excellent experience with White Wagtail, but unfortunately no Common Ringed Plover. Such is birding.

A few weeks later on 22 July, Luke and I returned to Teller on another poor weather day to check on the success of the brood. We soon found multiple juvenile wagtails chasing the adults, begging for food. Luke mentioned that White Wagtail had bred in Teller in years past, but I was left feeling like I had just struck oil – My first White Wagtails, breeding at that!

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Juvenile White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Teller, Alaska.

The experienced left me excited. I’ve found that the best way to deal with the hangover excitement of a great birding experience is to illustrate, so after the initial sighting of the adults in early July I took advantage of the next day of weather and painted a White Wagtail on the inset of my Nome 2016 sketch journal.

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) in the inset of a 2016 field season sketch book for birds of the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. 

Seeing a bird species for the first time, and one that is quite uncommon in North America at that, is the best of birding. Especially if it feels like its been a long time coming. To see the bird and gain a first hand account of its breeding habits, well that is something else. It has a context, and context is what makes my experiences fruitful. I love life histories of birds, especially regarding breeding. I consider this experience to be the example of the what I seek when I step out the door aimed at observing birdlife.

July 2016 in Nome, Alaska had some magic, or something. But it seems that it was a continuation of a theme that started in early May. I bet that if you were to ask anyone that traveled to Nome, AK in the summer of 2016 they would agree. It was special summer, and I can’t wait to hear reports of what the fall brings in the region.

Banding Nestling Gyrfalcons in Western Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

Gyrfalcon Nestlings

Photo 1. Gyrfalcon nestlings just after seeing their very first human being. One nestling is attempting to hide, while the other looks boldly into the eyes of the onlooking researcher.

The best part of working on a project focused on nesting Gyrfalcons is interacting with the nestlings. I can’t help but spend a moment or two to admire them each time I get one in my hands. They are young, yet full of personality and intelligence. I lose the ability to articulate the experience of dropping into a nest, and being the first human these nestlings have ever seen. Their response is remarkable, as they recognize me as an intruder and prepare to fight. There is, however, a certain degree of curiosity in their eyes. What impresses me most is their confidence, seen in their posture and stare.

Female Gyrfalcon Nestling

Photo 2. A tenacious young female Gyrfalcon, age 25 days. She is full of fight and intelligence. This attitude will serve her well after she leaves the nest and needs to learn to hunt and kill to survive.

We schedule our second round of nest entries when the nestlings are 25 days old. At this point their legs have fully developed, so we can outfit them with aluminum USGS leg bands. These bands give them a unique identification number, so that if the bird is caught or found researchers can tell where the bird came from, and where it went.

Banding Gyrfalcon Nestlings

Photo 3. Crimping the “lock-on” band. Most Gyrfalcons take band size 7B. We put bands on the right leg, and crimp a metal fold-over to ensure this piece of leg jewelry stays with the bird for its entire life.

As the nestlings grow, they begin to realize the tools that evolution has provided them to hunt, kill, and defend themselves. When we enter the nests to band, the nestlings have developed into fighters. They bite, rip, and use their talons to lash at intruding researchers. Because of this newly developed tenacity, working with them takes its toll.

Part of the Work

Photo 4. A hand weathered by tenacious Gyrfalcon nestlings. This is part of the work. The young are held in a way that they are unable to bite the hands of the researcher, but they are intelligent and talented. Often, they figure a way to make us pay for the important data we collect.

It’s great to see youngsters that have so much fight. This aggressiveness will translate into behaviors necessary for their survival. Although the most aggressive young are not the most enjoyable to handle, it means the birds have what it takes to be a large falcon in the Arctic.

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Photo 5. Weighing a young Gyrfalcon. We weigh the nestlings to help calculate a general age, if unknown. Weight also helps us determine the health of the nestling.

Apart from banding, we have a number of other tasks to complete while handling the young. We take DNA samples, weights, wing and tail measurements to estimate age, and check for parasites. After each nestling receives its treatment, we switch out batteries and memory card in the nest camera. We will not come back to the nest until the young have left, so it’s important to make sure the camera continues taking data until the end.

So far, we’ve been to three of our twelve nests. Our hands have a lot more abuse ahead of them, but we are excited to continue nonetheless. More pictures and stories to come.

Thanks to Ellen Whittle for the photos of the work