My field work involves frequently putting up and taking down my tent. Last time I was at one of my low-elevation sites, I did as I always do: took the fly off and folded it up, knelt in the tent to pack up my thermarest and sleeping bag, put the poles and tent away. Finally just the footprint remained, the waterproof ground cloth that goes under the tent. I almost folded this up where it lay, but decided to shake it off in case there were spiders on it, as is often the case. I whisked it off the ground—and saw this:

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Hoping for no more than moderate success

For this next trip, I’m in the strange position of having to hope not to catch more than 23 juncos.

This has to do with those colored leg bands we put on the juncos in order to tell them apart. It seems that there is a general shortage of these: many colors are either entirely unavailable or backordered for an unknown amount of time. For the field season so far I have been limited to fewer colors than I expected, and I have been catching juncos faster than anticipated. By the end of our last trip, I was nearly out of color bands, not to mention distinguishable color combinations.

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Golden bycatch

There’s one species that we’ve been hoping to accidentally catch since we noticed it in our field sites.

(Well, we hope to accidentally catch pretty much every bird we see in our field sites, because we love having an excuse to handle birds. But this one has been especially fantasized about.)

We didn’t actually expect to catch this bird, though. It stays very high in the trees, much higher than our nets. I still don’t understand how we caught this bird, but we did! This one was not, to be totally honest, our absolute dream bird—that would be the male of this species, since the male is even brighter—but she was still very dreamy.

Click through to see her.

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Junco-induced bipolarity

So far this season we’ve caught at least one bird every day. Most days we catch two or three; our best days have been our three five-junco days. This season is going really well.

Yet, at least every other day I find myself thinking, “This is it—the beginning of the juncos’ ceasing to respond to us, the moment where we lose our mist netting mojo.” It’s amazing how crushing it can be to go hours not catching a bird. Never mind how many you caught yesterday—this is the turning point, the day it all stopped working.

Then you catch a junco, finally, and everything is great!

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Brood patches: birds bare their midriffs

Almost all birds incubate their eggs: keeping them warm while the embryo develops into a chick. In order to transfer heat better from their body to the eggs, many birds develop brood patches (a.k.a. incubation patches). The bird loses feathers from her belly, and the bare skin becomes wrinkly and swollen with fluid. In juncos only the female develops a brood patch, since she does all the incubating, but in species where males also incubate, males can develop brood patches too.

White-crowned Sparrow with a brood patch that is beginning to show edema

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Meet LAGG (Lime – Aluminum – Green – Green).


He lives a good 30-minute walk from a campground off Highway 120, far from any other junco territory, as seems to be the rule in our low-elevation sites. We did not see a mate with him—which is strange, to me, because from my subjective human perspective I think he is the handsomest male junco we have caught so far. His head is stark black, no brown feather edges; his back is a rusty red-brown; his tail feathers have lots of white. But of course, there’s no reason to think that female juncos have the same taste in male juncos that I do—and that’s one of the things I’m hoping to find out: what aspects of junco appearance matter to female juncos?

So handsome!