A studio for bird study

Tag: west

Singing Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella breweri) on Sagebrush

by Bryce W. Robinson


Singing Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella brewer) on sagebrush. Gouache on watercolor paper.

One of the best parts of spring in the Sagebrush landscape of western North America are it’s singing inhabitants. The Brewer’s Sparrow may be my favorite, because of its subdued but beautiful plumage and distinct trill song. On a spring morning at sunrise, one can walk through a healthy stand of sagebrush, songs erupting all around, as multiple males sing atop their sagebrush posts.

Brewer’s Sparrows have a distinct buzzing song, that sounds superficially simple and distinct. But, their songs can be variable and have multiple types as described in Rich (2002). See the figure below to gain a familiarity with the variability.


Song types of the Brewer’s Sparrow, long (A) and short (B). Figure taken from Birds of North America Online, adapted from Rich (2002). 

Rich (2002) found that the variability seen above seems to follow no geographic trend or isolation, nor does there seem to be any song sharing among neighbors. High turnover among territories and potential for natal dispersal could limit the development of local dialects, etc. Interesting stuff…

If you’re unfamiliar with the sound of a singing Brewer’s Sparrow, be sure to visit Xeno-Canto and explore.

My friend Eli is wrapping up some research investigating the impacts of anthropogenic noise on sagebrush inhabitants in southwest Idaho. Breeding Brewer’s Sparrows were among a few focal species of her study. She’s currently working through the publication process, and when her work comes to surface in print, I’ll be sure to share. I expect that anthropogenic noise has some masking impacts on a Brewer’s Sparrow song, and in turn could potentially change the dynamics of song structure under anthropogenic noise blankets, etc. More research and time will tell.

Here is a short clip of a singing Brewer’s Sparrow in Idaho that I took through my Zeiss scope. The song is barely audible because of how distant I was from the singing bird:

Referenced Literature:

Rich, T. D. 2002. The short song of Brewer’s Sparrow: individual and geographic variation in southern Idaho. Western North American Naturalist 62(3): 288-299.


Short-eared Owl Wing-clap Flight Display

by Bryce W. Robinson

Breeding flight displays in birds are a blend of the bizarre and the fantastic, a show of a birds talent and specialty in communicating it’s unique ability to portray fitness. The Short-eared Owl is no exception, as a low consistent hoot softly settles on the sky, while the bird flies with deep, moth-like wingbeats. Then, as if in suspense, the bird begins to clap its primaries in rapid motion, falling from the sky. After multiple claps and an appreciable loss of altitude the bird spreads its wings and continues its deep wing beats as before. The wing-clap is displayed in seeming desperation, as if the bird is throwing all caution to the wind to produce the most excellent round of claps for onlooking (or listening) females, and intruding males.

I rarely post videos back to back, but I’m making an exception this time because in the same evening I was privy to both Long-billed Curlew and Short-eared Owl flight displays. Both were “on my list” of behaviors to capture on video, and my excitement for capturing both in one evening is too difficult to quell. So I share…

This bird flew tirelessly. For near an hour, the owl flew in the sky performing wing clap after wing clap, all the while letting out a low consistent hooting barely audible to my ears. What a scene, and such a scene that I encourage anyone in the area of breeding Short-eared Owls to search out the chance to observe this behavior in real time. It’s bizarre, but it is at the top of the list for must see in behavior birding, and for good reason.

In the future I’ll be refining my camera skills and upgrading my lens, all in hopes of getting a more clear documentation of this behavior. For better video quality, click through the video link and watch on Vimeo in HD.

Black Turnstone Feeding Behavior

by Bryce W. Robinson


It is a great experience to see behaviors that obviously gave rise to a creature’s name. The Black Turnstone – Arenaria melanocephala is black, and feeds in the most interesting way as its name implies. It frequents rocky shorelines and turns stones to find food. I was lucky enough to find two birds staging along a tidal pool in western Alaska. The birds were living up to their namesake, turning stones vigorously in search of food.

Another aspect of observation that gives me satisfaction is recognizing a behaviors role in shaping morphology. The turnstone has a unique bill shape, adapted to gain leverage and flip stones in an effortless manner. What I’d like to investigate is the difference in muscle morphology in the neck and back between other close relatives that do not engage in this behavior.

“Behavior birding” holds a treasure trove of opportunities to ask questions and learn great lessons that further understanding of the bird world.


Intermountain Bird Observatory’s Long-billed Curlew Study

by Bryce W. Robinson


I was fortunate to tag along with Jay Carlisle and the IBO crew yesterday afternoon to trap and outfit a female Long-billed Curlew- Numenius americana, with a GPS transmitter. IBO has been tracking Curlews for a little over a year now, with the focus of understanding their movements and why there has been a general population decline.

This is a great project, headed by a great institution. I encourage everyone to take a moment to learn about the effort and consider supporting the work of IBO.

The Long-billed Curlew is an exceptional bird. Let’s do our part to make sure it has a future in the changing west.

LEARN MORE, and CONTRIBUTE! Do so on IBO’s Curlew Homepage  

Long-billed Curlew nest

Long-billed Curlew nest