Ornithologi

A studio for bird study

Tag: wilderness

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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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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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.

Published in Western Birds: First Record of Eastern Phoebe Breeding in Alaska

by Bryce W. Robinson

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My latest publication, and my first in the excellent regional journal Western Birds (Western Field Ornithologist’s), details the first documentation of successful breeding of Eastern Phoebe in Alaska. You can find the pdf on my Researchgate profile. It’s short and to the point, and worth a read for anyone interested in the birdlife of North America.

Last year, while working in Alaska with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program, I caught word of an Eastern Phoebe documented near Nome. I’m very familiar with Nome, since it is where I studied the Gyrfalcon for my master’s degree. I’ve birded the area heavily in the spring and summer months. There aren’t many Eastern Phoebe records for the state, so a bird showing up in Nome on the western coast is that much more exciting. I planned to be in Nome the following month to work with Red Knots, so I crossed my fingers that the bird would stick around long enough for me to see.

Surprisingly, a second Eastern Phoebe was documented soon after. Then came documentation of nest building, followed by nesting behavior and ultimately confirmed egg-laying and incubation. On my arrival at the start of July, I joined my friend Lucas DeCicco to see the pair on the outskirts of Nome. Since July is a time when the flow of birders ebbs in Nome, no one had checked on the nest for some time.

Sure enough, we found the birds feeding nestlings. After we had photographed and observed, Luke and I resolved to return regularly to document the success or failure of the pair.

In the end, the pair was successful. It was the first documented case of the species successfully breeding in Alaska, and on top of that in a location quite inhospitable and atypical of the species. The coast of Nome is not known for mild weather.

I told Luke that I thought it important to document this novel event in a publication, and he agreed. So we resolved to report the record, and asked for the help of those that originally found the first phoebe in June.

Thanks to Luke for his help with this seemingly simple publication. It wouldn’t be so clear, simple, and clean without him. Also, a big thanks to my co-authors who first found these birds – Aaron Bowman, Scott Hauser, John Wright. Thanks for the help with cleaning up the publication, and of course documenting the birds that led to this record.

Great Gray Owl Fledglings

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Another highlight from my recent time spent on the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge was happening upon three Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) owlets that had “branched”.

In fact, these birds had hatched in a nest that was nothing more than the top of a birch snag, so far as I could tell. There were no nest structures in the area, only a plenty of broken tree snags about 5 meters tall. I believe that once they were too big to fit, the owlets fledged. Each bird was on a partly fallen truck leaning diagonally, a ramp for them to climb from the ground to relative safety from ground predators.

The first bird my friend Nick and I found sat staring at us, but with only one eye open. It appears from the photo that a Moose Fly (Tabanidae sp.) was biting its eyelid. I became very familiar with these flies during my time in the area, and felt for the poor young owlet.   The flies have pinchers on their mouth that they use to break skin, and from my experience with them it seems they do this to draw the blood and then feed. At least mosquitoes are mostly painless during their blood draws…

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We first heard the owlets begging calls while conducting a point count a few hundred meters away, but by the time we found them they had quieted down and stood extremely still, staring at us. Without a doubt we were the first humans these birds had seen. The Innoko is a very remote place, as we never saw a single person during our five-day stay in the area despite covering a distance of over 200 river miles round trip.

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I was enamored. I’ve seen very few Great Gray Owls in my life, and seeing birds at this age was a first. It has always been something I’ve wanted to see, so it was a dream realized. After getting our fill of the owlets, we began searching for an adult. We soon found a large ghost-like owl, the adult Strix nebulosa, 50 meters from the owlets. In my experience with Great Gray Owls, they’ve been extremely tame birds that tolerate your intrusion and lend themselves to photography. This birds was not tame, and unfortunately flew into the forest as we drew near. I wasn’t able to get any photos, but I managed to watch through my binoculars for a bit.

I captured a short clip of one of the nestlings (below). It’s a rather uneventful short clip, but it adequately describes the experience and the owlets tactful poise as it remained motionless as it kept eyes on Nick while I took video.

 

Here it is in full, the media from my first encounter of a Great Gray Owl family in the remote Alaskan wilderness.