A studio for bird study

Tag: pacific

Published in Marine Ornithology: Potential Northward Expansion of the Breeding Range of Red-legged Kittiwake Rissa brevirostris

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla; left) and Red-legged Kittiwake (Rissa brevirostris; right).

In a new paper published in Marine Ornithology, we report on an important result from the 2018 expedition to St. Matthew Island – documentation of previously unrecorded breeding activities for a Beringean endemic, the Red-legged Kittiwake (Rissa brevirostris). Our trip to St. Matthew was focused on Mckay’s Bunting (Plectrophenax hyperboreus) and Pribilof Rock Sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis ptilocnemis), where we both censused the populations of each and conducted a fine scale nesting study. While conducting this work, we opportunistically catalogued species presence and abundance, which led to the discovery of a large number of Red-legged Kittiwake occupying large cliffs on the northwest side of the island.

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Red-legged Kittiwake sitting on a nest (center) amidst Black-legged Kittiwake. This is one of ~50 individuals present at location B mentioned in the article.

Our paper in Marine Ornithology details what we found and where we found it, and also discusses the status of the species in the region. We discuss behaviors that we observed that indicated the birds likely attempted to breed on the island in 2018, although we were unable to confirm eggs or nestlings before we left in early July. Regardless, our observations of a few hundred Red-legged Kittiwake on St. Matthew is at least notable because it differs from past records that list only a handful of records of single individuals seen in waters near the island. Both the numbers and behaviors we observed indicate that the species has shifted its breeding range northward to include St. Matthew Island. Such a large latitudinal shift (~400 km) at a time of substantial change in the Bering Sea raises many questions, especially considering the status of populations at the core of the species breeding distribution, the Pribilof Islands.

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Figure 1. from the published report in Marine Ornithology 47(2). I was able to include a Red-legged Kitiwake illustration to elegantly communicate the distribution and relative size of Red-legged Kittiwake colonies, including the newly discovered colony on St. Matthew Island.

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Figures 2 and 3 from the report in Marine Ornithology 47(2). These figures describe the locations where birds were found, and their assortment on the cliffs relative to Black-legged Kittiwake.

As distributions of important food resources for seabirds shift, caused by aberrations in factors such as sea temperature, we expect to see distributions of seabirds that depend on these resources to shift as well (in the best case scenario). Currently, there seems to be ongoing massive starvation and die-off events of many seabirds in this region that are likely the result of an inability to respond to these changes in prey distributions. A northward shift in breeding distribution is promising for a Beringean Endemic, because it shows some plasticity in response to changes in resources. However,  we understand aspects of the Red-legged Kittiwake diet that partly explain why it holds a restricted range. Although a relatively small number of these birds have moved north to breed, characteristics of the habitat at and around St. Matthew Island may limit their success to produce enough offspring to maintain population stability. The story is ongoing.

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This shift in Red-legged Kittiwake distribution presents an opportunity to study species responses to climate change as they are occurring. Such study will not only further enlighten us on Red-legged Kittiwake life history strategies, but also on how species may or may not adapt to rapid fluctuations in food resources and climate caused by global anthropogenic activities. We need to stay focused on this region and these species, because they are telling us an important story.

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*Because of our observations in 2018, in summer 2019 (late July-August) USFWS returned to St. Matthew Island to conduct a comprehensive seabird survey of cliff nesting habitat and check for nesting Red-legged Kittiwake. They observed similar numbers at the same locations as our observations in 2018, and confirmed both eggs and nestlings. These observations confirm that the Red-legged Kittiwake now breeds on St. Matthew Island (at least in some years), and extends the breeding distribution for the species northward by nearly 400 km. 

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eBird checklists that document the 2018 Red-legged Kittiwake observations:

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47170141

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47199741

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47170187

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47170740

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47170322

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47170354

Pacific Loon, a Load of Feathers

by Bryce W. Robinson

PALO

I’ve seen Pacific Loon in all states of plumage. I’ve always been impressed by a loons looks, but this summer I had the chance to get very close to many Pacific Loons, and really gain an appreciation for their feather composition.

I think that most consider tropical birds to be among the most decorated, and striking in plumage. Colors that come from the tropical regions of the world are truly unique, but I consider some birds of the northern hemisphere to be equally exotic, and equally striking.

The Pacific Loon in full breeding plumage is breathtaking. At close proximity, you notice the velvet appearance of the throat, and its iridescent qualities enhanced. Purple, on an Arctic bird, is awe inspiring. The ghostly grey of the head and nape always leaves me mesmerized. I think that the numerous, dense, and fine quality of the feathers gives the bird a shape and form unlike any other feathered creature. In fact, the form does not even seem feathered at all.

The patterns of the loon are of note, as they are unlike any pattern I’ve ever seen in a creature. The fine lines and stripes are neat, organized, and crisp. This sharp appearance matches well with the behaviors of the bird. It holds its head high, glances about with confidence, and dives with absolute grace. In fact, the regality of the Pacific Loon impresses me, as I admire all creatures who frequent this world in confidence and style.

In winter, it interests me that the bird seems more sleek, and thin. I’ve yet to get close to a wintering Pacific Loon. When I do, I hope to study the difference in feathers and shape, and compare and contrast the two looks of the same bird. It fascinates me, that evolutionarily, two molts have evolved for this bird, and the two resulting plumages are dramatically different.

I can’t explain my fascination with the bird any further. As I’m scheduled to frequent the Arctic summer again for the next two years, I’ll be seeing breeding loons once more. At every opportunity, I’ll record the behaviors and appearance of each individual, and communicate their beauty the best I can. As I’ll be in Western Alaska, there is a great chance I’ll happen upon the Arctic Loon. It will be fascinating to compare my images between the Arctic and the Pacific, two birds that are very similar. I suppose I’ll have to wait and see what comes about, but when it does, I’ll be sharing.

 

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