A studio for bird study

Tag: passerine

California Gnatcatcher – Polioptila californica

by Bryce W. Robinson


This month I found myself fortunate to have the opportunity of illustrating a “Coastal” California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica californica). I was asked to do an illustration for Sea and Sage Audubon in southern California, and I decided to illustrate the California Gnatcatcher because it is perhaps the most pressing avian conservation issue facing southern California.

A few decades of rapid urban development in southern California’s coastal sage scrub habitat has left California Gnatcatcher’s with shrinking suitable habitat and a fragmented range. These pressures have taken their toll on the United State’s only California Gnatcatcher populations, to a point that in 1993 the gnatcatcher received threatened status.

Today it seems that the California Gnatcatcher’s presence and future in the coastal sage scrub is that of small fragmented populations. In essence, the damage has been done, and efforts now focus on preserving what quality habitat is left and ensuring that the small populations remain.

My choice to illustrate this bird was founded on 1. maintaining awareness for the plight of this incredible bird, 2. supporting a feeling of identity for those that live in the area and invoking the California Gnatcatcher as an important part of that identity, and 3. a reminder that these birds act as a symbol for the broad impacts human development has to the ecosystem, a symbol that goes well beyond single species conservation.

For more information on the history of the conservation effort for this species, and to stay updated on current action visit:

The USFWS’s Environmental Conservation Online System page for the Coastal California Gnatcatcher.



Singing Sagebrush Sparrow

by Bryce W. Robinson

I took this clip the other day in the Sagebrush strewn landscape of southwestern Idaho. I recorded the video by digiscoping using my ZEISS Diascope 65 T* FL. Normally, Sagebrush Sparrows are busy singers and will generally tolerate you in the area so long as you don’t pay them too much attention. But for whatever reason, no matter how far I was the sparrows on this morning were extra timid. On top of that, the wind wasn’t helping. Due to the wind and the distance from the bird, you can’t really hear the singing. To add one more difficulty to getting the song recorded, there was a lone bull nearby that was constantly growling. I didn’t know bulls growl… So, there is room for improvement for recording video of a singing Sagebrush Sparrow.

Anyway, I’m still pleased with the outcome. I do think I need an external, directional microphone for recording singing birds. Digiscoping really caters to sparrows and other passerines that are more flighty, but it doesn’t capture the song well. Still, It’s really nice to have quality glass to help with the effort. I’m really excited to apply the technique to some of Alaska’s more timid birds this summer, such as the singing Arctic Warbler and displaying Bluethroat.

Alaska Birds are Gathering for Growth

by Bryce W. Robinson

Wilson's Warbler - Cardellina pusilla

In early July, Alaska birds are gathering for growth. I’ve been very focused on Gyrfalcon diet lately, but it too reflects the general trend of the season here. My eyes have been turning to the thickets lately, as the passerine nests have hatched out in large part. In the past week I have rarely found a passerine without a mouthful of assorted small insects.  The feeding frenzy is in full swing as hungry nestlings require massive amounts of food to fuel their rapid growth.

I appreciate the fast change here in the extreme north west of North America. It’s a great dynamic because it forces you to focus on the moment, as everything is fleeting. Soon, the adults will be joined by an abundance of juvenile birds to watch and study. I sure look forward to that!

Female Lapland Longspur- Calcarius lapponicus

by Bryce W. Robinson

IMG_5955 copy

If you understand tundra topography, then you’ll know what I’m speaking of when I refer to polygons. As everything in the tundra is a ground hugger, photography has presented a challenge. If you look at the other photos of shorebirds I’ve posted so far, you’ll notice the overwhelming presence of grass. I’ve resorted to lying on my belly, elbows on the ground, to get the low angle of the birds that creates the image I most desire. A problem has arisen, as I get low, the grass between me and my subject obscures the image. Frustrating…

I do have one ally, in polygons. The polygons are caused by water freezing and thawing on the surface soil of the tundra. When the water collects and freezes, it splits the soil, causing interesting patterns all across the tundra. Each time it thaws, the result is water troughs surrounding small, risen, dry land. Polygons… Each time the process happens, it increases the polygon effect. When I fly out of the area, I’ll try and take a photo of the polygons from above. It is an interesting sight.

There is an area near one of my survey plots that lacks the thick layer of grass typical of the tundra. It is mostly bare soil, with lichens and moss as ground cover, and some flowers. It is a beautiful area, but the main reason I like it is the deep polygon troughs that the lack of vegetation has allowed. The bare ground also allows a clear view between me and my subjects.

Today I was making my way through this area, and I came upon a group of Lapland Longspurs. The birds were very vocal, and excited. Soon I found the reason, a small but able fledgling, doing its best to avoid me. With the female nearby and very attentive, I took my opportunity and utilized the low troughs of the polygons to my advantage. The result was a collection of the best female longspur photos I have to date.

I’ve been trying for decent male longspur photos, but I keep coming away empty handed. Hopefully soon.