Non-birds of the field II: mammals

All photos in this post are by M. LaBarbera.

Belding’s ground squirrel

Stand at one of our high-elevation sites, and at any given moment, you will be under surveillance by at least two Belding’s ground squirrels.

You might not see them, but down in the grass and the flowers, they are watching.

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Non-birds of the field I: invertebrates

From most of the pictures on this blog, you might think that the only animals we saw this summer were the ones that flew into our nets. Not so!

Big red fuzzy moth

Of course, whether I can identify these non-birds is a different matter entirely. If you see anything you recognize, please comment and let me know what these exoskeleton-clad creatures are.

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What the chickadees are saying behind your back

Black-capped Chickadees may be the easiest birds to identify by ear. Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, they sing, telling you exactly who they are. (I’ve heard that towhees do this too, but the towhees I’ve heard always seem to be saying twee or taree, from which I would not be able to get “towhee” unassisted.)

Don’t you know who I am? I’m Chick-a-dee-dee!
[A Mountain Chickadee, not a black-cap, but I don’t have any photos of black-caps.]

Of course, the chick-a-dee sounds like a vocal nametag to us only because someone had the good sense to name chickadees after their call. But it serves as an identifier among the chickadees too. The “chick-a-dee call complex” consists of four note types (the A, B, C, and D notes in a row might be transcribed as chick-k-ka-dee) that can be given in various combinations. Each note type itself can vary in frequency and duration. The chickadees thus have a lot of potential variation to work with, and they do. The D (dee) notes alone indicate both the identity of the individual bird calling, and the flock it belongs too—rather the same way that an Englishman saying “Hello, my name is George,” might indicate to compatriots both his own identity (George) and, in his accent, the region he is affiliated with. When captive chickadees are put into new flocks, the calls of the new flock members change, converging on each other, to indicate their new flock membership.

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White gloves, strange rooms

One of the things I like about what I do is the strangeness of my everyday situations. There’s more of the boring old Sitting At A Computer Situation than I would like, but the Measuring Baby Birds On A Mountaintop Situation helps make up for that.

Now that field work is (mostly) over for the season, my situations are different, but not really less strange.

Strange Room #1

In order to look at the genetics of the juncos, I’ve been doing lab work in the Museum’s Evolutionary Genetics Lab. Lab work was my introduction to ornithology as an undergrad, and I’ve always liked it, despite the bleach and the potentially-toxic chemicals and the way my nose always itches and I can’t scratch it because I’ve got latex gloves on. The colors, noises, and vocabulary of lab work are specialized and surreal: the stacks of plastic racks in bright red, yellow, blue; the whirr of centrifuges starting up, like tiny revving plane engines; aliquot, vortex, elution buffer. I like the contrariness of refrigerators and microwaves with NO FOOD scolded across them. The concentration required to pipette the right amounts of the right reagents into the right tubes again and again and again makes it a kind of meditation.

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Field assistants make the world go ’round

By far the biggest reason that this field season has gone as well as it has is that I have had absolutely fantastic field assistants. Field assistants do much more than simply “assisting”—although that alone is important: I could not take my color-standard photographs alone, I would have trouble setting up a mist net alone, and it would take me much longer to process each junco alone, meaning more stress for the bird.

Jennifer recording data as I measure SSOA

Anthony being a human mist net support where the ground was too hard to put stakes in

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Bycatch catch-up

I’m quite behind in my bycatch* posts! All of the birds in this post were caught several trips ago.

*Bycatch: birds that fly into our nets while we are trying to catch juncos. We extract them from the net, take a few photos, and release them.

Female Brewer’s Blackbird:

I am too zen to be bothered by you, giant pink monster

Actually, not

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Last chick of the season

If you get too close to a nest or a young fledgling, the parent juncos will often give a repeated, angry chip call. I don’t understand how this could possibly be adaptive—I would understand a snake-like hiss, or a tiger roar, but no one’s scared of “chip”—but as silly as it is for the parents to broadcast, effectively, “My nest is here, don’t come find it!” I do appreciate the help.

On our last trip we noticed SNAE and his unbanded mate chipping insistently.

SNAE. I photograph all the juncos I catch from several angles like this; the color standard card you see in the background lets me compare colors among pictures, to look at color differences among the juncos.

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On our last trip, finally, we managed to catch some fledglings. We had been seeing them around for weeks, but as they didn’t seem to respond to playback, and they never flew the right direction when we tried to chase them into the net, we’d caught none.

On this last trip something had changed. No longer were all of the fledglings attended by their parents; instead, they formed foraging flocks of parents, attended fledglings, and apparently-independent fledglings. Attended fledglings are hard to catch because their parents lead them away from danger. Independent fledglings, it turns out, aren’t so careful. We set up the net where we observed the flock foraging, and within ten minutes the juncos drifted back into the area and resumed foraging.

BOAR was the first fledgling we caught.


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