A studio for bird study

Tag: study

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

Plectrophenax - StM

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

2018-07-07 23.48.32



Just Published in Marine Ornithology: Unusual Foraging Observations Associated with Seabird Die-offs in Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson


Above is a short video that I produced to supplement a paper I, along with colleagues at US Fish and Wildlife Service and USGS, just published in the journal Marine Ornithology. The video shows behaviors that we describe in the paper, and will hopefully help the reader visualize what we experienced ourselves.

The Bering Sea region is changing in many ways, but among the most sobering are the mass die-off events that are impacting the regions birdlife. These die-offs continue into this year. Since we put together this publication of the observations that I and colleagues made in 2016 and 2017, the trend has continued and is likely to continue into the future. Furthermore, on my most recent trip to the region I documented further evidence of the ongoing change that is occurring across the bering sea ecosystem. There is and will continue to be more to report.

Some of the change, such as the evidence of starving and ill affected storm-petrels that are the subject of our publication, is sobering and concerning. It hits hard on the hearts of those of us who so passionately pay attention to bird life across the globe. We care deeply about the well being of these creatures that fascinate us so much.

Some of the change, such as some of my most recent observations in the region, are exciting and stoke curiosity, as the birdlife of the region responds to the impacts of ecosystem disruption.

Ultimately, there will be winners and losers as life navigates anthropogenic driven change throughout the world. Mass die-off events will become the norm for some species, until their populations can no longer sustain such losses and they are eventually lost to our world. Others will adapt in ways we cannot yet imagine. Such adaptations will undoubtedly open our minds to processes and function in ecosystems that we are yet to understand.

Yes, climate change is a problem. It is a problem that still is not unanimously recognized. It will change our world, our way of life, and probably not for the better. But, as we experience the change, we can document what is happening for the future inhabitants of our perturbed ecosystems. We can make record of the oddities, the aberrations, so that we leave a paper trail of first observations that will help us understand when things started, and how they developed. Hopefully, as these records build the evidence of change will become insurmountable to the point that the overwhelming majority of our society cannot and will not deny that the world is impacted by our daily choices and we ourselves need to change. And when we do, hopefully it will not be too late.

This is why I want to publish notes such as this, to make a record that will add to the evidence of an increasingly disrupted world. More to come…

You can find the paper detailing our observations of odd foraging behaviors here:

Click to access 46_2_149-153.pdf

Avian Keratin Disorder (AKD), Bill Deformities in Birds and Recent Breakthroughs

by Bryce W. Robinson


Photo 1. Female Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapilla) with bill deformity.

I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days with my friend Rachel Richardson of USGS trapping birds in the Eagle River Valley of south-central Alaska. We captured a few species such as Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees (Poecile atricapilla and P. hudsonicus, respectively), and Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). USGS has been trapping in these areas for years with the main focus of monitoring bill deformities, the prevalence of Avian Keratin Disorder, and the prevailing causes of a new found virus, Poecivirus.

The Alaska Science Center of USGS in Anchorage is part of a team of researchers, including the California Academy of Sciences, and the University of California San Francisco that have been investigating the causes of Avian Keratin Disorder for over ten years. Avian Keratin Disorder was first documented in Alaska in the 1990’s by Colleen Handel of USGS who leads the research team at the Alaska Science Center. In an article in Molecular Biology that came out in July 2016 (Zylberberg 2016), the team reports on the discovery of a new virus they termed Poecivirus, which may be responsible for the bill deformities.

Appropriately, the discovery is receiving a good deal of press. Below are a few links to national and international articles that detail the work and the discovery. All are worth a read (or a watch):

A new article by the Associated Press

Science Daily’s article

National Geographic article detailing the work effort

Alaska Daily News Article

An APN video on USA Today


Photo 2. Rachel Richardson of the USGS Alaska Science Center holding a female Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapilla) with a bill deformity.

On the day I spent with Rachel in the field trapping birds, we only had one Black-capped Chickadee show up with a deformity. However, the one bird had an interesting story. This female (Photo 1) was first captured in 2015 and had no signs of any deformity. This year she obviously has a developing deformity. Her bill grew 5.1 mm in one year, a 70% increase in length. Whether or not this developing deformity will impact her ability to forage, preen, or even breed and provision young is yet to be determined. There are reports of deformed birds successfully rearing offspring, however it is without question that the deformities present a handicap that will ultimately reduce the individuals fitness.

It is important to track the rates and severity of deformities across the world. Because of this, the Alaska Science Center has developed a submission form for anyone to report their sightings of deformities. Please contribute to this effort and submit details of any sightings of elongated bills, including photos and location along with any other evidence for Avian Keratin Disorder at the following website:

Beak Deformity Observation Record Report


Photo 3. Female Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapilla) with bill deformity.

Below are additional examples of AKD in Chickadees that have been captured as part of the Alaska Science Center’s efforts near Anchorage. These individuals unfortunately have more developed deformities than the chickadee we caught while I was tagging along.


Photo 4. Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) with bill deformity. Photo copyright Rachel M. Richardson.

Black-capped Chickadee2_Richardson.jpeg

Photo 5. Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) with bill deformity. Photo copyright Rachel M. Richardson.


Photo 6. Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapilla) with bill deformity. Photo copyright Rachel M. Richardson.

It’s excellent to have a breakthrough and a step forward. However, the problem still remains as well as the daunting task of discovering the correlation between Poecivirus and bill deformities, the causes of both, and what role humanity plays in the prevalence and transmission of either. I’d like to tip my hat to those who have done so much great work on this issue thus far. Keep up the good work.

Referenced Literature
  1. Maxine Zylberberg, Caroline Van Hemert, John P. Dumbacher, Colleen M. Handel, Tarik Tihan and Joseph L. DeRisi. Novel Picornavirus Associated with Avian Keratin Disorder in Alaskan BirdsmBio, July 2016 DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00874-16

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Calidris acuminata) on the Alaska Peninsula

by Bryce W. Robinson


The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Calidris acuminata) breeds in eastern Siberia and winters in the south Pacific, but a large portion of the juvenile cohort pass through western Alaska on their first fall migration. While I was on the Alaska Peninsula waiting for Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica) in September, I got to see a few late moving juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpipers mixed in with massive Dunlin (Calidris alpina) flocks.


At high tide each day our group would hide in the elymus grass and watch shorebirds come into the high rack line to roost. On one occasion, I noticed the opportunity to photograph a juvenile sharpie, so crept on my belly towards the roosted flock. Once I was close enough to take quality photos, I raised my camera. At the same time the flock took to the air and my chance seemed ruined. I thought it odd though, because the roosting Dunlin are usually tolerant if you are careful and move slowly. I looked around and saw a Bald Eagle passing overhead, which was certainly the reason for the panic. I cursed a bit and looked around to see when the flock might return to roost. As I scanned around, I noticed a lone bird still roosted in the rack line. It was the sharpie, which hadn’t pushed to the air with the Dunlin flock. It’s an interesting note, and something I’ve observed with the few Rock Sandpipers that were associating with the Dunlin flocks as well. On few occasions, the other species opted to stay put despite the flock erupting into flight.


I’d love the opportunity to get to know Sharp-tailed Sandpipers better. Like other birds of the region, the juveniles represent one of the excellent species along the migratory route of the west coast of Alaska that make the place so unique and alluring.