The fleeting beauty of the fall molt

As fledglings undergo their fall molt (the Prebasic I molt), their appearance changes from obvious-youngster to apparent-adult. In the middle of that transition, they look a little… wild. It’s a strange and fleeting look, here-today-and-gone-in-two-weeks. We’ve caught enough molting fledglings that I’ve been able to put together a series of photos showing the transition.

Fledgling juncos start out a streaky light brown, with dark bills and yellow gapes.

Young fledgling GRAS

Young fledgling GRAS

As they get older, the yellow gape shrinks.

Older fledgling KALI. Note the remnant of yellow gape at the edge of the bill.

Older fledgling KALI. Note the remnant of yellow gape at the edge of the bill.

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The nest that came back from the dead

This summer we have lost nests to logging, cows, and natural junco predators. None of those shocked me. A pinecone as death-dealer, however, was a surprise.

2013_NCB1When I took this picture, I thought that this nest was dead. The chick you see was completely motionless and stone cold. The pinecone—which was not supposed to be in the nest—had (we think) prevented the female from warming her chicks up, and without their mother’s warmth these very young, naked chicks quickly got too cold.

But when I took the pinecone out to count chick bodies, one of the bodies moved. My field assistant and I took the chicks—there were three, all as cold as the morning mountaintop air—in our warm hands. I still thought they were probably dead: recently dead things may twitch when disturbed.

But as the tiny bodies began to feel less chilly, they squirmed more and more.

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AMLE is watching you

Not that I have favorites, but AMLE (Amelie) is my new favorite junco. Most juncos get a bit dejected by the end of the banding process (don’t worry—as soon as they realize we’re letting them go, they perk up), but she was sharp the entire time. When it was time to take pictures, she glared daggers at us.

2013_AMLE5When I lowered her to get a better shot of the top of her head, she held her gaze—and her head—steady. Her body went down but her head stayed up.

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More baby pictures

Recently I found this nest, belonging to female MABY (named in honor of Arrested Development, if you’re wondering) and male ARKM.

2013_morebabiesI couldn’t see clearly how many chicks there were, so I nudged them with my finger to try to get a better look—and they all thought one of their parents was waking them up with food.

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KKRA, thunderbird

Two weeks ago, it rained on us for a solid 22 hours. (Which, I discovered, is exactly the time it takes for puddles to start forming inside my tent.) So when it got grey and thundery at the beginning of last week, I jumped: “We’ve got to process this junco quickly! Take down the nets! We have to get back to camp to cover the firewood!”

Of course, it didn’t rain. The next time it got grey and thundery, I jumped less: “Let’s take down one net and keep this one. Tell me if you see lightning.” It didn’t rain.

The third time it got grey and thundery, I didn’t jump at all. Then it actually started raining—but I really wanted another junco. So we caught a male in (very light) rain and banded him under a tree, naming him KKRA, which sounds a bit like the thunder that was rolling in the distance.

KKRA

KKRA, who has one white feather on his cheek

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Damaged feet, but still hopping

Juncos use their feet more than many birds, not just to perch but to hop about while feeding. Their legs and feet, viewed close, are a contradiction: incredibly slender and fragile-seeming, but also covered in a hard, scaly, tough surface. You hope for their sake that the fragility is the illusion and the toughness reality, but of course each is a little true.

LANK has a permanently bent toe on his right foot. When he perches, his weight rests on what should be the top of the toe, and I imagine the same is true when he stands on the ground.

LANK

LANK

The bent toe is the left-most top toe on his right foot

The bent toe is the left-most top toe on his right foot.

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View from the other side, for comparison with his healthy left foot.

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One hundredth junco

I forgot to mention in the last post: I banded my one hundredth junco a few days ago. (Well, I didn’t band him; I’m training field assistants to be able to band, so one of them banded him. But I caused him to be banded.)

Me with RROA, my hundredth junco.

Me with RROA, my hundredth junco.

We banded him RROA, which is a combination with a history: in my previous work on House Wrens, RROA was a male wren who managed to breed for three years, which was much longer than any of our other wrens. He was a bit of a celebrity. Here’s hoping that the combination brings such luck to junco RROA too.

First juncos of the 2013 field season!

I got back from our first bout of field work yesterday, and I can say that if things keep going the way they did, we’re going to be banding a lot of juncos this year. That is excellent: the more we band, the more we can identify individually by sight, allowing us to observe the behavior of each. It’s much more informative to be able to say “KARL chased RRAY” than “one junco chased another junco”. Too, when we band them we also take measurements and pictures, so we can relate their behavior to things like condition and size.

Male GILA. The bands on his legs are read top-left, bottom-left, top-right, bottom-right: he has Green, shrImp, Lime, Aluminum, hence GILA.

Male GILA. The bands on his legs are read top-left, bottom-left, top-right, bottom-right: he has Green, shrImp, Lime, Aluminum, hence GILA.

GILA had an unusual white feather on the back of his head.

GILA had an unusual white feather on the back of his head.

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