Scouting: snow, fog, and little red spiders

I’m switching up my field sites a bit this year, using some from 2012 but also adding new ones. I’ve known the general area where they would go, but this week I went scouting the area to figure out exactly where I’ll be observing juncos this summer. Here are the highlights, in photograph form. (The quality of the animal photos isn’t great because I brought my taking-pictures-of-mountains camera instead of my taking-pictures-of-birds camera.)


At the highest elevations there was lots of snow, but it was clearly losing ground. Meltwater drip-drip-dripped from tree branches and rushed down the mountain in spirited little streams.


scout_streamWhile driving, I saw a brown shape with that distinctive rolling mustelid gate lope across the road.

scout_marten1What is it?

scout_marten2It’s an American Marten!


He played peek-a-boo with me among the rocks for a while, then ran back across the road and disappeared. Mustelids are extremely secretive and hard to see in the wild, so it was wonderful to see this guy. (Plus, I just really love mustelids!)

But fear not: I didn’t forget who I was scouting for. I saw lots of single juncos, then found a pair foraging by a stream.

scout_junco_pairA small lake was just emerging from snow, and a pair of Mallards were scouting the area too.



Some plants weren’t going to wait for the snow to melt.

Then the fog crept in.


The fog was gone the next morning, and a raucous gang of Stellar’s Jays watched me eat breakfast. One of them had bright patches on the front of his crest, which I’d never seen before. My guide book suggests that that is common in the more interior populations of the species—anyone know anything about this?

scout_jayI stopped at one of my 2012 field sites so see if I could spot any of the juncos I banded there last year. I still don’t know if they return to the same place every year, and I’d like to find out.

I played a male junco song to goad the local territory-holder out into the open. I was in what had been ELEA’s territory, but an unbanded male responded instead—very angrily: he ran right up to the speaker. Once I’d gotten a good look at his legs I turned off the playback so he could relax, but he didn’t: he proceeded to sing from progressively higher and higher branches, all exactly above the spot where the speaker had been, just in case anyone had any doubt whose territory this was.


I continued to look for banded juncos, but all I found was another unbanded male.


The lowest-elevation sites were quite different from the high- and mid- ones. Not only was there no snow, but it was dry and hot—and everything was covered in tiny red spiders.

scout_spiders1scout_spiders2I am not at all an arachnophobe, but I got a little creeped out by their sheer density.

In that same area there was a No Shooting sign that had, predictably, been shot.

scout_no_shootingYou might think that this was just someone’s idea of really great wit, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it is actually the only remaining sign of a heroic gunslinger’s last, doomed effort to hold off the little red spiders.


scout_lizardI recently learned that there are beekeepers with trucks of hives who roam, nomadic, wherever bees are needed. Apparently bees were needed here. (To the beekeeper who I creepily took pictures of: I’m sorry.)


scout_bees2I’m excited about my new field sites. I think they will let me dig into the meat of my research questions, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re beautiful either.

Even much of the drive to get there is beautiful, over undulating, cow-dotted land. I grew up with a large poster of the Sierra foothills—golden hills, dark trees—hanging over the kitchen table, but it was only a few months ago that I connected it to the habitat I’ve been driving through. For all that it’s disturbed, cow-grazed land, it’s still lovely, with Western Meadowlarks on the fenceposts and Yellow-billed Magpies dangling their long tails from the telephone wires.

scout_foothillsNow I just have to wait impatiently for my field assistants to finish taking their finals, and then we can start banding!

6 thoughts on “Scouting: snow, fog, and little red spiders

  1. That poster you mention was probably from the early 1970s, a painting by Don Irwin, 1933-1998. Your last photo really does remind me of it!

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