Ornithologi

A studio for bird study

Tag: surveys

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

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The five inhabitants of St. Matthew Island in summer 2018. Left to right: Rachel M. Richardson, Steph Walden, Bryce W. Robinson, Irby J. Lovette, and Andy S. Johnson.

 

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Orange-breasted Falcon Plucking Prey

by Bryce W. Robinson

 

For the Orange-breasted Falcon whose diet consists primarily of avian prey, to eat requires a great deal of work. First, the birds must capture a food item. They specialize in above canopy surprise and pursuit capture, a technique that blends a bit of skill and luck. When the two align and the bird finally captures a meal, they then must prepare it. Falcons prefer to ingest little amounts of feather from their prey items, and thus need to efficiently remove the extraneous feathers to access the muscle. To remove these feathers, they pluck their prey nearly clean. Plucking can be beautiful, as I found with the Orange-breasted Falcon in the video above as it prepared a Great-tailed Grackle. Perched on a limb high overlooking a deep river valley, the bird plucks. The observer can easily recognize the bird’s technique of rip and flick, as it efficiently carries out its daily ritual and feathers calmly drift away in the hot Central American air.

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

by Bryce W. Robinson

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fork-tailed Storm Petrel (Oceanodrama furcata) Foraging on Tidal Flats: Part 1

by Bryce W. Robinson

Video 1. Dan Ruthrauff photographs passing Fork-tailed Storm Petrel as the tide comes in. Bristol Bay coast, Alaska. September 2016.

Over my time on the Bristol Bay coast near the village of Egegik on the Alaska Peninsula, I was privy to one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had with birdlife. The experience is captured in video 1, which shows Dan Ruthrauff kneeling on tidal flats at low tide photographing passing Fork-tailed Storm Petrels at close range. I’d never heard of anything like this for any pelagic bird. It turned out to be a regular occurrence, but still appears quite novel so far as we understand Fork-tailed Storm Petrel foraging behaviors.

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Photo 1. Fork-tailed Storm Petrel arcing down amidst a dynamic soar in high winds. This photo was taken from the shoreline at high tide. Bristol Bay coast, Alaska. September 2016.

Typical experiences with Fork-tailed Storm Petrels are like the image above: A dynamic soaring Hydrobatid at relatively close range. It’s very exciting, but nothing like walking through tidal flats surrounded by the birds.

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Photo 2. Fork-tailed Storm Petrel at rest on the water. I was standing in ankle deep water when this photo was taken. Bristol Bay coast, Alaska. September 2016

Other more typical experiences can provide observations such as the above photo, where calm water and resting birds near a boat might provide great views. Photo 2 is a bird that I stood near in ankle deep water. This bird was taking a moment to rest from foraging and seemed non-plussed by me. I’ve never heard of anything like it.

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Photo 3. Fork-tailed Storm Petrel (Oceanodrama furcata) dabbing on water. I was lying on my belly when this photo was taken. Bristol Bay coast, Alaska. September 2016

The experiences continued for the entire two weeks I was on the Bristol Bay coast. After reading through the literature, the behavior seems undocumented and may warrant publication as a note. I’m excited to organize, avail myself of the literature, and share this experience with a crowd more knowledgeable and literate than myself. For me, experiences like these make field ornithology one of the best things about life.