A studio for bird study

Tag: pencil

Desert Peregrine

by Bryce W. Robinson

Peregrine Falcon- Falco peregrinus. 11×14″ colored pencil on bristol

At times I am asked to check on and re-assess the activity of raptor or raven nests on transmission towers here in the desert. This task requires me to sit vigil to the nest for at least a four hour period, or until I see activity in the nest. Last week I was asked to check on a Red-tailed Hawk nest in a particularly sandy and desolate section of the desert. The first hour was uneventful, until I noticed a bird sitting on the edge of the nest. I hadn’t seen the bird fly in, and so assumed it was a raven that had jumped up to stretch and take a rest from incubation. The bird was dark, and small, but when I looked through the scope, it was not a raven that sat in the nest. The unmistakable face pattern of the Peregrine falcon left me excited and confused.

For the next twenty minutes I tried wrapping my brain around why a Peregrine Falcon, a cliffside nester, would inhabit a Red-tailed Hawk nest in the middle of the desert. They have been documented using old hawk nests, but surely not in the middle of this desert, entirely out of their range. These falcons feed primarily on birds, and this portion of the desert is certainly lacking any bird activity that would sustain a single falcon, let alone a family. The only thing that made sense was that the bird made the daily trip some thirty miles east to the Colorado River to hunt. This seems highly unlikely. After fifteen minutes, the bird hunkered down into the nest. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Soon after, the bird left the nest, circling high, riding thermals, and making a straight line fly for the south east. I was perplexed. Certainly this bird was not nesting on the tower. I expect it was passing through, and took advantage of the only shaded roost for miles, only to rest. Still, what an enigma.

This mysterious bird is the only Peregrine falcon I have seen all season. It makes sense as they are not seen often in the desert, and certainly do not nest or winter in the area. It is out of their range. I love when birding presents the unexpected. As birds have wings, they certainly can turn up anywhere.

I have been meaning to illustrate this falcon for some time. Today I decided that given last weeks experience, I ought to put forth the energy towards illustrating that distinctive face that left me puzzled and surprised. The bird was very far away, so I couldn’t use my camera get a decent photo. I did make an attempt to use the scope and my phone to get a photo. Certainly there is no mistaking it. The bird was not a Prairie Falcon, a bird that frequents the area I was in. I cropped the photo substantially to make sure the bird was shown clearly.

I also thought I would include another digi-scope attempt I made as I watched a family of Burrowing Owls. These guys were a blast to watch. I only wish I could have used my camera to get some better pictures. Maybe the opportunity will present itself soon. The Burrowing Owl is such a charismatic bird. I love every chance I get to watch them and their antics.

A Study and Story of the Common Raven- Corvus corax

by Bryce W. Robinson

Common Raven- Corvus corax. 11×14″ colored pencil on bristol.

While working in the desert this past week, I came upon a roost tower for some fifty or so Common Raven. As the sun rose, the ravens set out to find themselves food and mischief. I was to conduct nest checks of a few Verdin nests to verify their activity. This requires the sit and watch approach, so sit and watch I did. While watching, I noticed a large flock of ravens in the sky at a distance to the south. It was a fairly breezy morning, and as the wind rolled across the undulating dry washes of the desert, it created rip curls of wind waves. If you have never noticed a raven play, just watch the next bird you see. The highly intelligent creatures are constantly performing acrobatic aerial maneuvers. They play. The large flock of ravens I noticed were surfing a ridge with apparent prime wind waves. The birds were mainly paired up in twos, dancing and chasing one another. Occasionally a third bird was thrown into the mix. Partners were switched, and games were played as the ravens enjoyed the morning winds. I was taken aback by the sight. A gregarious gathering of an early morning social surfing event where birds undoubtedly played and strengthened family bonds. Intelligence begets incredible behavior.

After the spectacle of the morning surf, I went along my way. While a coworker Jeff and I drove the roads to other nests, we watched for migrants and special birds. We always enjoy the morning birding we are paid to do. As we came upon an active Raven nest on an existing transmission tower, Jeff noticed a bird falling to the ground. I did not see the falling raven, but we rushed to the tower to investigate. We came upon a young raven, not nearly old enough to fledge the nest. It laid on its back rowing its feet. It was obviously severely injured. We checked the bird out and found it bleeding from its mouth, with a puncture wound on its neck. I felt that the bird had most likely broken its neck or back in the fall. It could not control its movements. The sorry young creature was about to exit a life it had only just begun. A tragic and terrible affair, but natural nonetheless.

Jeff had noticed a commotion in the nest before the bird had fallen. He describes what he saw as an adult bird flapping in the nest, what he thought to be the bird attacking the nestling. When we arrived at the nest the adult bird had left as another adult bird came  to chase it away. We do not know if the nestling was attacked by this bird, and was shoved from the nest. Our interpretation is not always fact. Multiple scenarios could have been the cause for the fallen bird, including a confusion and rush for food brought by the parent, resulting in an uncoordinated young bird making a mistake and finding itself one hundred feet below the nest taking its last breaths. Peculiar behavior that I only wish I had witnessed in full. Putting pieces of the puzzle together is more difficult when a few are missing. The day provided two dramatic raven observations, one incredible, one tragic.

I took some time today to illustrate the Common Raven. I love the look of blind contour drawings, and I thought the raven would work well as a subject for this exercise. I like what came of it, as both wire-like illustrations capture the bird in poses typical of raven character.

I also had some fun with a pen drawing of the bird. I love pen, and felt like a quick sketch would be a cool exercise. I want people to realize that although common, and often seen as a nuisance, there is a reason this bird is so successful and numerous. It is a highly intelligent creature, deserving respect from all. I encourage all to take some time and watch these dark birds as they make their way around our world, having fun and enjoying life.

A Full Bodied, Perched Merlin

by Bryce W. Robinson

Merlin- Falco columbarius. 11×14″ colored pencil on bristol

I felt the urge to try putting together a full body Merlin today. I got crazy and made an attempt at making this a really dark looking bird. I’ve never seen a Pacific or “Black” Merlin, so I don’t know how close I came.

I’m going to start illustrating the raptors as they appear in the air. I have always wanted to get into painting raptors in flight, but it has always been an intimidating task. It takes an almost obsessive compulsive attention to detail. I’m not sure if I have what it takes, but I plan to try.

Western Screech Owl

by Bryce W. Robinson

Western Screech Owl- Megascops kennicottii. 11×14″ colored pencil on bristol.

A few weekends back I had the good fortune of finding myself on an Audubon ranch in southern California. Starr Ranch is an incredible coastal forest tucked behind a large gated community in Orange County. I came to the ranch to band owls.

The night was incredible. We had a few Big Brown Bats find their way into the nets, providing me the experience of seeing these winged mammals up close. I have never seen teeth so delicate yet fierce. We did have luck with capturing owls. Our first owl of the night was a beautiful female Barn Owl. I was able to take her from the net and band her. Having this ghostly creature in hand, staring into its dark marble eyes, is an experience I will never forget.

We also had four Western Screech Owls caught in the nets. I love the small owls, and was looking forward to the chance of banding one of these birds. The small birds are so endearing. Cute fits them perfectly, they are so full of fight and life. Returning the bird to the night was spectacular. I walked to the woods and perched the bird on my fingers. It sat for a while, not certain of its ability to flee. After a minute or two, the bird took to the night air and disappeared into the dark.

Today I spent my afternoon illustrating a headshot of the Western Screech Owl. I thought it appropriate to revisit this subject, given my recent intimate interaction with the bird. Every time I finish the owl, I feel a bit dissatisfied with the outcome. For whatever reason, I can never get the owl quite right. I would have probably loved this illustration if I would have left the ear tufts tucked back. I feel I drew them a bit too long. Still the exercise was rewarding, and I’m sure I will come out with a screech owl I am happy about if I only keep trying.