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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

Plectrophenax Illustration Featured in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Living Bird Magazine: Complementary to an Article on the Birds of St. Matthew Island by Irby Lovette

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Plectrophenax spp., an illustration to complement the article detailing the 2018 Expedition to St. Matthew Island in Living Bird by Irby Lovette. Mckay’s Bunting (Plectrophenax hyperboreus; left), and Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis; right).

My involvement in the 2018 USFWS and USGS expedition to St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea was as a field ornithologist, tasked with conducting surveys and collecting data on the abundance and nesting ecology of Mckay’s Bunting (Plectrophenax hyperboreus) and  the Pribilof Rock Sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis ptilocnemis). Of my four companions during my time on the island, two were from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Irby Lovette and Andy Johnson. Irby came along to assist Andy in filming and recording the birdlife on the island. He was also focused on experiencing the island to eventually write an article in Living Bird magazine. This article is now available online. It is a well written treatment of our experience, and details some of the fascinating history of the island as well. Also newly released to complement the article is a video, produced by Andy Johnson, that details some of the birdlife that we encountered on the island. It also highlights the purpose of our visit, and describes very well the feeling of being on this remote Bering Sea island.

I show up a few times in this video, in two occasions of which I am field sketching and painting. When in the field, I generally spend weather days or down-time sketching. I took the opportunity on a number of occasions and greatly enjoyed painting while in such an inspiring place. Irby took notice of my skills as an illustrator, and asked about my interest to paint an illustration to complement the article for Living Bird.

My drive to integrate illustration into my time on one of the most remote locations in North America enriched my experience. It is my hope that the illustrations I worked out on the island become part of a collection of products that complement the research we conducted. I hope these products provide a point of reference, and serve as a description for our experience. I envision an eager naturalist preparing for a trip to St. Matthew Island, as removed in time as we are to Fuertes and the short visit of the Harriman Expedition, exploring the various productions that have arisen and are yet to arise from our relatively short stay on the island. It is my hope that these products stir excitement and attention for this lonely location, support its preservation, and encourage further research into the life histories of its inhabitants.

Female Mckay's Bunting painting

Female Mckay’s Bunting. This is the painting I am working on in the video. It is now under the care of Andy Johnson in Ithaca, New York.

Mckay's Bunting pair illustration

A male and female Mckay’s Bunting painted on St. Matthew Island in 2018. This painting is now under the care of Irby Lovette at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

Our month-long stay on the island was packed with incredible experiences and important discoveries. Such experiences are mentioned in Irby’s article, yet they truly only skim the surface. Over the next year or two, more products will come forward from our short stay on the island, so please stay tuned.

The Living Bird article on the birds of St. Matthew Island written by Irby Lovette can be found at the link below:

Birds of St. Matthew Island, the Most Remote Place in the United States

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Bearded Vulture Illustration for HawkWatch International Shirt Design – Support Worldwide Vulture Conservation

by Bryce W. Robinson

Bearded Vulture

I was given the opportunity to provide a t-shirt design for HawkWatch International featuring the Bearded Vulture. The design and shirt are meant to both raise awareness and support for the important conservation science work of HWI focused on Old World vultures. Old World vultures are facing a myriad of threats that are impacting populations, to the point that most face extinction. Please, learn more about the work of HawkWatch International and consider helping in any way you can. Visit their website to read about the vulture work, and more.  

Click on the photo below to purchase a shirt, and support vulture conservation.

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game 2019 Conservation Stamp Featuring The Golden Eagle – Aquila chrysaetos

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Support the conservation of Alaska’s wildlife through the purchase of the 2019 Alaska Department of Fish & Game Conservation Stamp!

I had the pleasure of creating this years conservation stamp, highlighting one of Alaska’s most important avian predators, the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Biologists with ADF&G, such as Travis Booms, are currently working on research that aims to learn more about Alaska’s eagle populations and the threats they face, to ensure that this captivating species remains a fixture of Alaska’s wilderness.

To purchase a stamp, and learn more about the various conservation research conducted by Alaska Department of Fish & Game, visit their website.