While the thunderstorms and fog kept every other bird subdued, one species sang out boldly through the Smoky Mountain forests: my friend the junco. In North Carolina these juncos were not the birds I did my PhD work on, however; those were in the Oregon Junco group, with chestnut backs and sides and dark hoods, while these were in the Slate-colored Junco group, as all-over grey as their name implies. I was extremely excited when one of these new juncos decided to fly into our net so that I could take a closer look and hold a new subspecies of junco.
We head for the Smoky Mountains full of confidence: the Kentucky Warblers may have proved to be elusive, but every source suggests that our new quarry will be more forthcoming. The Canada Warbler is known to be a particularly aggressive bird, likely to respond quickly to our calls; the American Redstart is a common and easy-to-find species. We will catch them easily while enduring less moisture and fewer mosquitos than before.
We were targeting Kentucky Warblers in Howell Woods, but a few other species seem to have missed that memo. Perhaps they wanted us to study their migratory routes, too.
We have ten days in North Carolina to get DNA samples from three species breeding there. Our target for the first five days is the Kentucky Warbler, a golden bird with a black mask whose population is declining. It is a highly local bird, meaning that we can’t just find them anywhere within the shaded region of a large-scale range map: we need specific location information. We get this information from eBird, following birders’ reported sightings to a place about an hour south of Raleigh called Howell Woods.
“How did y’all find us?” asks the manager of Howell Woods. “There’s folks on our road that don’t know we exist, but somehow we get birders from Europe asking about Kentucky Warbler and Mississippi Kite. I never understand it.”
You’ve gone to peek at a nest. For a moment, all the little feathered heads regard you with large, dark eyes—and then in a flurry and a tumble they are out of the nest, running every which way along the ground, and their parents are scolding you and swooping among their babies in apparent panic. Oh no! Will the babies be okay?
This is possibly the question I am asked most frequently. Sometimes the inquirer has managed to catch a few of the babies and replace them in the nest, only for the babies to promptly hop back out. Other times the babies have swiftly vanished, and the inquirer—often someone who has watched the nest over the course of weeks, growing attached to their fluffy neighbors—is left, quite suddenly, with silence and absence and a gnawing guilt.
And that reason is that I am a hoarder. But that turns out to be fortunate, because I’ve become involved in a project that just so happens to need someone to go sample some birds for them, and I already have all the tools.
In a few weeks a co-conspirator and I will head off to North Carolina and West Virginia to chase three target species:
Readers who have been with me a while will remember “Buddy,” the white-spotted male junco who lived near my workplace for years. Unusually-colored juncos aren’t as rare as, say, the recently-spotted yellow cardinal, but they aren’t common either. (In my field work in the Sierras we banded ~500 juncos, and only one had a color abnormality.) As a lover of both rare birds and juncos, I get pretty excited about them when I find them.
This particular junco flashed up out of a bush as I was walking past. The size, tail, and movement pattern all said “junco”—but when the bird landed in a tree and I got a good look, my brain’s bird-ID function got confused: “Big chickadee!” it suggested. “Small kestrel! Big-small-chickadee-kestrel-junco!”