Juncos nest on the ground (usually; sometimes they will nest higher, even reusing old robins’ nests, but I’ve never seen this myself. It’s probably because I’m short). This makes their nests tricky to find, since in the first place, there is a lot of “the ground” to search, and in the second place, you have to be really careful where you step while you search.
They don’t just nest on the ground, though: they often hide their nests underneath things. Some of them are quite good at it.
Some of them… aren’t so good at it.
This unpredictability—will the nest be hidden? Will it be out in the open waiting to be stepped on?—makes nest searching difficult, but exciting.
When we can, we like to cut down on our work by letting the juncos show us where the nest is. We back away from the general area and hide, and if we’re lucky, the junco parents go down to the nest to feed their chicks and/or make sure the scary humans didn’t eat everyone. Then we look for the nest in the spot where the parents went. Usually this works well.
Recently we employed this trick while trying to locate BALI’s nest.
Two of us, from two different directions, saw him go down to the nest. With our two perspectives combined, we should have had no problem finding the nest: the intersection of two lines is a point; plus, I now have three years’ experience doing this!
We could not find the nest. It was not a large area; it was not complex habitat. It was the ground, with some grass. There was nowhere to hide, and yet… nothing.
Finally, by pure luck, I knelt down in the right spot and saw it: hidden in a tunnel, the opening of which was only visible from a very specific angle. If you weren’t kneeling right where I happened to be, all you saw was bare ground. It was brilliant.
When we returned later to band the chicks, they were clearly getting ready to leave their tunnel.
When we’re banding chicks, we keep the ones we aren’t actively working with in a cloth bag (or, sometimes, my hat). In theory this keeps them calm, shielded from the scary sight of us. In practice, well, that cloth bag does a lot of rustling and cheeping.
Kudos to BALI for raising some very energetic chicks in his secret tunnel nest.
Tunnels aren’t always a great idea, though. We also recently found this nest, belonging to ROSA:
In a tunnel! What could be wrong with that? Well… it’s not actually a tunnel, it’s the hoofprint left by a cow walking through mud. In fact it’s smack in the middle of what is basically a cow highway.
Now, the juncos are always surprising me and I don’t like to pretend that I know more than they do about how to be a junco, because I don’t, but: ROSA, this seems like a poor choice.