A studio for bird study

Tag: ocean

Just Published in Marine Ornithology: Unusual Foraging Observations Associated with Seabird Die-offs in Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson


Above is a short video that I produced to supplement a paper I, along with colleagues at US Fish and Wildlife Service and USGS, just published in the journal Marine Ornithology. The video shows behaviors that we describe in the paper, and will hopefully help the reader visualize what we experienced ourselves.

The Bering Sea region is changing in many ways, but among the most sobering are the mass die-off events that are impacting the regions birdlife. These die-offs continue into this year. Since we put together this publication of the observations that I and colleagues made in 2016 and 2017, the trend has continued and is likely to continue into the future. Furthermore, on my most recent trip to the region I documented further evidence of the ongoing change that is occurring across the bering sea ecosystem. There is and will continue to be more to report.

Some of the change, such as the evidence of starving and ill affected storm-petrels that are the subject of our publication, is sobering and concerning. It hits hard on the hearts of those of us who so passionately pay attention to bird life across the globe. We care deeply about the well being of these creatures that fascinate us so much.

Some of the change, such as some of my most recent observations in the region, are exciting and stoke curiosity, as the birdlife of the region responds to the impacts of ecosystem disruption.

Ultimately, there will be winners and losers as life navigates anthropogenic driven change throughout the world. Mass die-off events will become the norm for some species, until their populations can no longer sustain such losses and they are eventually lost to our world. Others will adapt in ways we cannot yet imagine. Such adaptations will undoubtedly open our minds to processes and function in ecosystems that we are yet to understand.

Yes, climate change is a problem. It is a problem that still is not unanimously recognized. It will change our world, our way of life, and probably not for the better. But, as we experience the change, we can document what is happening for the future inhabitants of our perturbed ecosystems. We can make record of the oddities, the aberrations, so that we leave a paper trail of first observations that will help us understand when things started, and how they developed. Hopefully, as these records build the evidence of change will become insurmountable to the point that the overwhelming majority of our society cannot and will not deny that the world is impacted by our daily choices and we ourselves need to change. And when we do, hopefully it will not be too late.

This is why I want to publish notes such as this, to make a record that will add to the evidence of an increasingly disrupted world. More to come…

You can find the paper detailing our observations of odd foraging behaviors here:



Short-tailed Shearwater

by Bryce W. Robinson

I’ve seen a lot of North America’s birdlife, but there are certain bird groups where my exposure is lacking. One area is birds of the sea, or what we refer to as pelagic species. I haven’t seen many of these birds, particularly those that belong to the order Procellariiformes. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of species from this group that I’ve seen. So understandably I’d be interested in gaining more exposure in any way.

The other day I was birding the western Alaska coastline with my friends Neil Paprocki and Ellen Whittle. We were paying a lot of attention to the sea because we were looking to see puffins and a few loon species. I myself have spent a great deal of time watching the sea from the Alaskan coast, and I’ve never seen anything from the order Procellariiformes. On this day I had a first. We noticed a dark bird floating along the shoreline, maybe 100 m out. After scoping the bird, I knew that it was a Short-tailed Shearwater, a lifer for me and a long awaited bird. I was, to understate it entirely, excited.

The sight raised one thought in my mind, that the bird was obviously ill in some manner. It seemed to be sleepy, unconcerned by our presence, and very near shore (uncommon among these types of birds). So, something was likely wrong with the bird. Still, I took the proper satisfaction from studying the bird and enjoying its subdued behaviors.

I took some video (above) using my Zeiss Victory Diascope 65 F* TL that show the bird at a peak in its activity while we were watching. Notice the bird take a drink at the end of the video. If we drank seawater we’d in effect die of dehydration due to the high salt concentration. But, seabirds can drink saltwater. They excrete the excess salt through their nostrils. Observing this bird drinking the saltwater, and recalling their adaption for surviving life on the ocean was another moment where I saw something in real time that I had read about previously. Such an incredible experience, and behavior birding at its best.

Brant Feeding Behavior

by Bryce W. Robinson

I captured this clip two springs ago along the Washington coast. The short clip shows the feeding behavior of an immature Black Brant – Branta bernicla nigrigans. I find it interesting because it portrays the feeding behavior, but also shows one example of what a sea goose eats.

I felt confident that this bird was taking a break from some direct migration. It was with an adult bird who was resting on the rocks just out of view of the camera. One bird seemed distracted by fatigue, the other by the need to feed. I did take advantage of that fact, and captured what I believe is an enlightening clip that can be referenced by others in the future.

An Arctic Ocean Alcid: The Black Guillemot

by Bryce W. Robinson

photo-6 copy

I’ve seen little of the worlds Alcids. Perhaps my lack of exposure is the reason for my heightened fascination with this bird group. While on the shores of the Arctic Ocean this summer, I knew I had one bird to see, Cepphus grylle, the Black Guillemot. Guillemots are not uncommon in coastal ecosystems, but they are delightful birds in my opinion. Their red flesh, in the mouth especially, is what really draws me to them. The common and very close relative the the Black Guillemot is the Pigeon Guillemot. Superficially the birds are identical, except for a few key features. My task was not only to find the Black Guillemot and get some great photos, but to document the differences that separate the bird from the Pigeon Guilly. In doing so, I would learn the difference for myself.

The area around Prudhoe Bay lacks any coastal cliffs, so I knew I’d be out of luck finding a nest colony. I  had to muster my patience for the guillemots to show up when the sea ice had melted sufficiently. Luckily, the intense nesting season of the shorebirds kept me busy and entertained enough to keep the itch to see the Black Guilly at bay. In early July, the ice was gone, and I began to look for the bird.

There is a drill pad sitting in the middle of the bay, accessible by road. They call the pad Endicott. Imagine a monstrous monolith sitting in the Arctic Ocean. A large steel structure, an emblem of the beauty of human advancement and industry, entirely appropriate of the name ENDICOTT. Lucky for me, the shores of Endicott are gravel covered, and in some areas the shore is comprised of concrete barrier blocks. I believe this adequately imitates coastal cliff regions, which draw in alcids such as the Black Guillemot. One afternoon I finally found the birds at Endicott, very close to shore, chasing snow buntings and feeding on the shore bottoms. At the time, I could only look, but resolved to return.

When I finally did return, I was escorting a bird man named Richard Crossley around the oilfields ( A story in and of itself). I remember walking along the slanted concrete blocks with a few friends, rediscovering the black and white alcids, and sitting patiently, waiting for them to wander closer to our lenses.

There I sat with my friends, Crossley, Jie Kim, and Caitlin Davis, watching the Arctic Ocean and the Black Guillemots. Finally a bird came near, and we let our shutters fly. I was certainly pleased with the experience. After a few minutes of shutter clicks and giggles, the bird became wise to the human admires, and fled. While it fled, I photographed, and caught one telling feature that separates the Black from the Pigeon Guillemot, the white underwing.

IMG_7313_original copyThe white underwing of the Black Guillemot separates it from the gray or dark underwing of the Pigeon. Of course, at this point I would love to supplement the photo with a photo of the Pigeon’s underwing, but I didn’t do my duty of photographing the bird extensively when I was watching hoards of them along the pacific, earlier this year. Jerry Liguori has told me countless times that I should photograph everything all the time, just in case, and I’m just starting to see the negative impacts of not heeding his advice. Well, I’m learning…. I’m beginning to think I’ll always say that.