A studio for bird study

Tag: sage

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.



Mountain Bluebird- Sialia currucoides

by Bryce W. Robinson

Male and female Mountain Bluebird- Sialia currucoides, respectively. Watercolor on paper

The western United States is home to a number of blue birds. Tinted blue not by pigmentation, but the physical structure of the feathers, these species stand out against the expansive landscapes they inhabit. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I saw a number of Mountain Bluebird in the high desert sage and greasewood landscape while surveying for wintering raptors. I was taken aback by the bright blue birds against the ghostly green hew of the sage dominated flatlands. With majestic mountains and wide open skies to set the backdrop, I watched in awe at the scene that presented itself time and time again. Whatever reason or pressures drove this bird to develop blue plumage, I am certainly grateful, and will never pass up the opportunity to watch the aesthetically tantalizing image of the Mountain Bluebird against the high desert lands. If you are unfamiliar with this bird, search it out. You will likely find yourself stricken with the same feelings as I when beholding this bright blue symbol of vitality amidst a see of ghostly green.

Winter Raptor Surveys- The Third and Final Stint

by Bryce W. Robinson

My last week surveying for wintering raptors started slow. I spent the first day scanning for birds, finding a few Golden Eagles atop rock faces, and a Prairies Falcon fighting the wind while perched upon a greasewood. Windy it was, and the high desert landscape seemed to find little rest against the frigid gusts. The birds I saw were far, and there were little opportunities for photos.

It seemed the only birds present in the high desert valleys, save the occasional raptor, were numerous flocks of Horned Lark that flushed and fought the winds. On occasion I was lucky to find small groups of Sage Sparrow. Sparrows of the desert seem to be a favorite of mine. I took a minute after a scan to sketch the bird, and after reaching home, I resolved to paint a simple watercolor. Utilizing David Allen Sibley’s field guide, I found the inspiration to emulate his prolific work and begin a more diligent effort to paint birds as I see them.

Sage Sparrow- Amphispiza belli. Watercolor painting on paper.

There were a few other passerines that I found. Of course the numerous flocks of White-crowned Sparrow frequented farmlands and littered fence lines. In the high desert valley of the Wah-Wah, I was able to find a few flocks of Mountain Bluebird. These strikingly blue birds set against the pale ghostly green of the sage create a subtle beauty unique to the landscape and special to my eyes. Unexpectedly I found the other bluebird of the west, in fact, the Western Bluebird. I didn’t realize how far south I was until I saw a flock of orange breasted blue birds fluttering around a canyon stream.

The week went along with the second day as uneventful and windswept as the first. I was lucky enough to find myself headed to a more action packed area for my third day. When arriving at a field for the beginning of my survey, I was eager to see the numerous raptors that sat and watched for prey. The previous stint had yielded some twenty raptors in this one field. My first bird was a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk, however, the only other birds in the area were a solitary Bald Eagle, and a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk perched atop a power pole. The day began slow, and after traveling roads into the backcountry, I found myself in the midst of a white out that quickly covered the ground with snow. I was nervous that I might get snowed in, but continued.

Before the roads became white from snowfall, I came upon something lying directly in my path. I always get excited when I find dead animals. I do not celebrate in the loss of life, and actually mourn those that fall victim to detrimental human interactions such as being hit by a car. Still the world is wild and animals die, and if I cross paths with an unfortunate fatality, I take full advantage at the opportunity for close study of the creatures anatomy.

The dead headless Long-eared Owl- Asio otus

The bird I found in the middle of the road was of course a headless Long-eared Owl. I say of course because this bird is now the third Long-eared Owl that I have found, victim to predation from some fierce winged creature. The absence of the head, and the way the innards were obviously consumed leads to the avian culprit, however I admit that from there I am not so knowledgable as to come to a firm conclusion of who did the deed. I would guess that the Great Horned Owl is the killer. The bird is mean, and is a threat to many animals, even a fellow owl.

My final day was spent in an area of raptor abundance. Finally I had the opportunity to use my camera. I have photographed a few Ferruginous Hawks lately, but I have failed to get a photo from below that highlighted the true plumage of the bird. In my attempts to create my own personal library of raptor photos for reference, I lacked the proper photo of Buteo regalis. Finally, I remedied the problem as a light morph Ferruginous Hawk circled over head, cooperating enough for me to take some acceptable photos.

Adult light morph Ferruginous Hawk- Buteo regalis

After using Jerry Liguori’s camera the last few times I have gone to photograph raptors, it was a bit frustrating returning to my own equipment. I decided to give a go at shooting manual, and I believe it paid off. I was not able to get the quality that came from using Jerry’s camera, but I believe that I came away with some good shots.

I have shared a great deal of Rough-legged Hawk photos, and they have all been of juvenile birds. Those of you that read this and have grown tired of redundant juvenile Buteo lagopus shots, I apologize for including some more. Actually, this bird is not a juvenile. I was excited to find a few individual Roughies this time around that were not juvenile birds. The first Rough-legged Hawk I found was in fact a beautiful adult male, with multiple bands on his tail and a lighter belly band. Unfortunately I was unable to photograph the bird.

Adult Female Rough-legged Hawk- Buteo lagopus. Note the dark eye and pearl white head and breast, as opposed to the cream color of the juvenile.

I did however photograph a very cooperative adult female Roughie. I spotted the bird from afar because of the striking contrast of the dark belly band and bright white head and breast. The lightly streaked head was unlike the juveniles I had seen, and the dark eye showed that this bird was an adult. I was excited to photograph the bird in the air, showing the dark terminal tail band and dark line on the terminal edge of the remiges. These signs indicated that the bird was an adult female.

Adult Female Rough-legged Hawk- Buteo lagopus

I was very pleased with the number of birds I saw on my final day of the survey. I would say the highlight of the day was actually the first bird, an adult dark morph Harlan’s hawk. I was very disappointed at failing to get a photo of the bird, but the sight itself was rewarding enough.

As I drove towards the interstate to head home, a golden hue highlighted the frozen blue of the winter landscape. Alongside the road ahead, I noticed a large bird on the ground. It appeared to be eating a meal, and as my vehicle neared, the large bird took to the air. I fired a number of shots, and stopped to watched the bird as it circled high in hopes that I would move along. The large creature was a Golden Eagle, and the setting sunshine against its golden brown plumage created a sense of peaceful beauty in my soul. Curious at what the birds meal was, I investigated and found that I had interrupted a Golden Eagle feasting upon a wild Coyote. What a wonder and a symbol of the ferocity and harsh nature of the winter world. I have no way of knowing how the canine met its end, but regardless, the image of the eagle feasting upon another fierce carnivore, coupled with the finding the headless Long-eared Owl gave me a sense of sobering mortality.

The sun seemed to send me along my way north. As it set I pondered. It seemed to be a chapters end in my life. With the end of the winter surveys I am now to continue south to California, where I will undoubtedly find many adventures and learn more and more about the wonders of the wild world of birds.

The retreating Golden Eagle, full of Coyote flesh. A symbol of my chapters end.

Winter Raptor Surveys- The Second Stint

by Bryce W. Robinson

Winter leaves a landscape sometimes snow covered with skeleton trees and frozen waters. Many find winter dampening, depressing, and void of beauty. I however, feel otherwise. My second stint in search of wintering raptors was full of breathtaking scenery and striking beauty. The desert aesthetic is an acquired taste for some. I myself have always been drawn to the subtle beauty of the sage steppe. After this past week, I have a renewed value for winter in the high desert. Sunset casts a warm glow across the cerulean lands, creating a calm comfort for all that feel. The juxtaposition of the warm glow of the setting sun against the harshness of the winter world and the impeding night is a wonder of the natural world. Balance is ever present, and even the wild creatures know enough to take advantage of the simple pleasures in life.

I came upon the Short-eared Owl atop the wheel line, watching the sun fall into the western skyline, seemingly dazed and content with the time at hand. In retrospect, this scene speaks to me in many ways. Perhaps the wild ones feel the importance of taking advantage of the simple pleasures of life, and slowing down to enjoy when times are good. No doubt that due to the way the owl reacted to my presence, it had recently finished a meal and needed nothing but to enjoy the warmth of the sun before the frigid frosts of night.

Colors are not vibrant or particularly potent in the high desert, but they are of course present and play a dramatic role in creating the world that I love. Taking in the expansive valleys surrounded by large goliath stone mountains creates a sense of mortality, deep time, and insignificance of individual life. These feelings coupled with the spectacular images provided by the sunlight and its play on snow filled clouds moving high above the valleys provides a sensational experience. I often found myself in deep thought and feeling as I reflected upon the wonders of the Great Basin.

The beautiful but simple colors of the desert provide the perfect backdrop for the many creatures that accent the scene. Many gregarious species travel the sage and rabbitbrush in search of food. The Juniper Titmouse is perhaps a favorite, and the sage landscape’s Bushtit, but of the many sparrows and larks, bluebirds, even buntings, the lone Loggerhead shrike is a favorite. The way the bird travels and hunts is delighting. Perched atop a shrub, the shrike steadies, surveying for prey. The bird’s flight is full of swoops, and charms the eye with the contrasting black, grey, and flashing white. In winter, the Loggerhead is joined by a relative, the Northern Shrike. I was lucky to find this relative and recognize what separated it from the Loggerhead. I was, however, unlucky in capturing an acceptable photograph of the bird to contrast it against the Loggerhead.

Raptors were everywhere to be seen. From the farmlands into the desert, the birds occupied every niche. Each time I came upon a bird, I did my best with identification, to glean information the best possible particular, and photograph with every opportunity. A bird that was more present than the previous November stint was the Rough-legged Hawk of the great north. With every Rough-legged I practiced my identification, strengthening my skills and enhancing my experience with the birds.

Identifying Hawks In Flight

As the Rough-legged Hawk was more present this month, I took the opportunity to hone my identification skills down to the particulars. In flight sexing, if possible, is very difficult. With some raptors, even ageing becomes nearly impossible. With the help of the camera, I was able to make take my impressions and assumptions, review the photos, correct my mistakes, and cross reference my field guides for the most precise analysis I could muster. This approach is what I call in depth field study.

The above photos are examples of what I would so often see as I watched a bird through my binoculars. I was able to tell almost instantly the species, but narrowing my ID any further became a challenge. The bird above flew through the area quickly so an in flight ID of sex and age was not possible. After reviewing the photos I found that due to the mottled under-wing lining, obvious dark bib, and dark trailing edge to the wing, this bird is most likely an adult male. There are pitfalls to some of these criteria, but I feel fairly confident in this ID.

While photographing a Horned Lark in a high desert valley on my last survey day, I noticed a large shape growing larger in the sky. Looking up, I saw the familiar flight of another Rough-legged wandering north, perhaps in search of food. The bird flew directly overhead, giving me a great opportunity to photograph and observe at close range. The excitement kept me from making any ID on sex or age, but again I went back to the photo to see what I could tell about the hawk. The most notable feature is the nearly black belly band of the bird. This coupled with the pale wing edge and tail band indicates that the bird is a juvenile. Also, there is a faint hint of paleness to the primaries, which supports the juvenile conclusion. Still, the mottled under-wing coverts and heavily marked breast make me wonder if this could be a male. So far in my study, nothing has told that it is possible to sex a juvenile. Perhaps this particular could be basis for future research.

The Ferruginous Hawk seemed to be more present this month as well. I saw many more birds in the farmlands and desert alike. The strikingly rich colors and contrast of the Ferruginous Hawk give the bird an heir of royalty. Its fierce gaze exemplifies this royalty as well. No wonder the bird was given the epithet regalis, for its regality is unquestionable.

While surveying an area only miles from the Milford wind farm, I saw a large hawk flying across the horizon. After a quick glance through my field glasses, I knew the bird to be a Ferruginous Hawk. With a silver head and nape, rusty red coverts, pale primaries, and prime white tail, the large Buteo could be nothing else. I have since researched how to tell the difference between an adult and immature Ferruginous, and I believe the bird below is a typical adult light morph bird.

Given the rufous upper-wing and underwing coverts, rufous leggings, and the white tail lacking a terminal band, I feel fairly confident in my analysis. As with all buteos, when the varying color morphs are introduced, it can complicate things. The Ferruginous hawks I saw were all light morphs, save one. Atop a power pole only half a kilometer from the town of Minersville, I found a large dark bird watching a field for prey. I was unable to get a decent photo, but the picture below will have to do. I cannot help but share the bird.

Given the lack of a terminal tail band, I believe this bird to be an adult. There is a dark trailing edge to the remiges, but due to my mediocre camera skills, I chopped the wing in any other flight photos I took. I plan to go back to the area on my third stint to find this bird again and make another attempt to photograph it. One particularly neat aspect to this bird, and you can see clearly in this photo, is that the belly is a bit paler than the rest of the birds body. Dark morph buteos, especially in lagopus, seem to retain their plumage patterns. This makes sense as the dark plumage results from an increase in melanin in the feathers. In the case of this Ferruginous, the increase seems to be in phaeomelanin, responsible for rufous tones, and the areas where the rufous already exist seem darker than the areas that are regularly pale.

I could not believe the number of birds that occupied the areas that I travelled. Without question, the most incredible experience of the second survey stint was seeing the Short-eared Owl atop the wheel line, glowing golden from the falling sun. Content for the time being, the bird watched the warm rays as they caught fire against the frozen valley. As I watched the dazed and docile bird, I realized that for the moment, the Short-eared Owl and I shared a feeling some call heaven, some call pleasure, some call perfect. It is a feeling I live for, found so often at dusk. It is the feeling of life, and the Owl and I let the feeling pour upon us like warm water. As cars rushed by, I wondered why others would not stop to watch the sun fall. As mortal creatures, as any life is, it seems foolish to ignore such instances. I want to think that somewhere in the bird that watched the sun, there was a feeling of mortality and gratitude for the sun. Probably not so, but the bird served as a messenger to me the sentient, and drew my attention to the sun, the giver, the life provider for all.