A studio for bird study

Tag: ocean

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.

 

Beatnik Birding: Sea Watching on the Pacific Coast

by Bryce W. Robinson

Surf Scoter- Melanitta perspicillata migrating north

Surf Scoter- Melanitta perspicillata migrating north

Well, it has happened once again, I’ve lapsed in my blogging. I’ve been through Utah, Nevada, and back to California again. There have been great birds along the way. I’d love to share some of the photos I’ve gathered along the way, but I want to share an experience I had yesterday. It was new and exciting for me, and carries potential for a whole new avenue of learning in my bird study.

I’ve yet to venture into the ocean to bird. I’ve only made it to the coast. Seabirds fascinate me, and I plan to make a pelagic tour soon enough. Until then I am standing on solid ground, watching what I can. I’m not seeing any true seabirds such as the Black-footed Albatross or Wilson’s Storm-petrel, but I am seeing unfamiliar birds passing over the ocean at a distance. My hawk watching instincts have kicked in on a whole new group of birds.

Pacific Loon- Gavia pacifica

Pacific Loon- Gavia pacifica

All the training I’ve had with raptors comes into play with passing sea migrants. There are particular field marks to pay attention to, but after enough exposure, I am sure I will be making my ID’s from shape, form, and flight style.

While watching for a few hours yesterday, I saw a massive loon migration. Every few minutes, a group averaging ten birds would come through, low over the ocean. It was a chore to check my field guides and learn what to look for with identifying passing loons. I started getting a handle on separating breeding plumage Pacific from Red-throated and Common, as there are some obvious in flight plumage differences. In the afternoon sun, however, I began to realize that lighting was confusing things.

Pacific Loon- Gavia pacifica

Pacific Loon- Gavia pacifica

A field mark for identifying Pacific Loons in flight is two prominent white lines on their scapulars, coupled with a dark throat. It seemed to me that every passing group was a Pacific, even the birds that resembled Red-throated Loons in shape. After some thought, I realized that the harsh sun was likely giving a glare off of the other dark backed loons, making it appear to have the white scapular markings.

Red-throated Loon- Gavia stellata

Red-throated Loon- Gavia stellata

There were other passing migrants, and shore dwellers. I had two Whimbrel fly through, a good number of Pigeon Guillemot, and of course many many gulls. I admit, I have not spent the amount of time studying gulls as I should, but I am working on it. What a daunting task.

 

A first winer in its first pre basic molt Glaucous-winged Gull- Larus glaucescens

A first winer in its first pre-basic molt Glaucous-winged Gull- Larus glaucescens

I’ll be interacting with the ocean quite regularly for the next few months. I hope to find the time to share everything interesting and exciting that I come across. And the road continues ever onward.

 

 

Birding the Beach- A Winters Day in Sunny SoCal

by Bryce W. Robinson

Brown Pelican- Pelecanus occidentalis

Brown Pelican- Pelecanus occidentalis

Over the weekend, I found myself once again at the end of the continent, facing the expansive Pacific Ocean. Something about the ocean draws my spirit, and I feel the desire to answer and explore its waters. There will be a day when I make the journey aboard a boat, and explore what can be found above and below the sea, but for now I find myself satisfied with what lives along its shores.

Years had passed since I last saw the ocean, and I could tell. I watched the waters as if I had never known the sight. The excitement of the bird life that I could see riding the waves and flying about gave me the familiar giddiness that birding often brings. I was in a new place, with new birds, and I was happy.

Previous trips to the beach had no focus on birding. I was a young member of a rowdy crowd of miscreants who focused more on the simple fun that the waters bring. This trip was different, as I found myself solely focused on finding birds and testing my knowledge. As it is in the depths of winter, the crowds were minimal and the birds were active. This provided the perfect setting for photographing the birds and learning the new species that I found.

The shores of southern California house many wintering birds. As I scanned the waters with my binoculars, I was delighted to see the large groups of Western and Clark’s Grebes. Scattered about I found a few members of a bird that is new to me, The Red-throated Loon. I did not expect to see the bird, and at first sight I celebrated with a few strange noises of excitement. Loons wear drab basic plumage, and it is often difficult to identify specific to the species. Still, the Red-throated Loon is distinctive and I feel confident with my ID. I was unable to photograph the loons due to their distance from the shores. I was fairly disappointed, but there will surely be a time and opportunity for me to photograph the bird in the future.

Another bird that I saw but was unable to photograph was a bird that I originally set out to find. I am, of course, a raptor enthusiast, and I had never seen the White-tailed Kite before. In the distance I saw a hovering kite hunting. It was incredible to watch it dance through the air with rhythmic wing beats as it looked for food. Other raptors engage this technique, but the kite is king as its form is unmatched. I will make it a point to find the bird again and photograph the scene of the hunting kite, but for now perhaps a painting will have to suffice.

Overall the birds were friendly and I was able to have many enjoyable photo shoots with numerous birds. I would rather let the pictures speak for the birds than summarize the experience with each species. The delicate detail of life is incredible, and I encourage you to take the opportunity and time to truly experience the birds by engaging the photos, zooming in and exploring the detail. The birds are photographed as one would see them, and many are acting in behaviors precisely as the guidebooks describe.

I hope these photos communicate the beauty of the birds, and encourage you to get out to enjoy and appreciate them as I do.

Long-billed  Curlew- Numenius americanus

Long-billed Curlew- Numenius americanus

Long-billed Curlew- Numenius americanus

Long-billed Curlew- Numenius americanus. Note the closed Nictitating Membrane shielding the eye.

Willet- Tringa semipalmata

Willet- Tringa semipalmata. Adult in basic plumage

Willet- Tringa semipalmata. Adult in basic plumage

Willet- Tringa semipalmata. Adult in basic plumage

Willet- Tringa semipalmata. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Marbled Godwit- Limosa fedoa. Adult in basic plumage

Black-bellied Plover- Pluvialis squatarola

Black-bellied Plover- Pluvialis squatarola in basic plumage

Black-bellied Plover- Pluvialis squatarola in basic plumage

Black-bellied Plover- Pluvialis squatarola in basic plumage

Sanderling- Calidris alba

Sanderling- Calidris alba. Adult in basic plumage

Sanderling- Calidris alba. Adults in basic plumage

Heerman’s Gull- Larus heermanni

Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Juvenile and Adult Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Juvenile Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Yawning juvenile Heermann's Gull- Larus heermanni

Ring-billed Gull- Larus delawarensis

Ring-billed Gull- Larus delawarensis

Ring-billed Gull- Larus delawarensis

"1st winter" Ring-billed Gull- Larus delawarensis