While the thunderstorms and fog kept every other bird subdued, one species sang out boldly through the Smoky Mountain forests: my friend the junco. In North Carolina these juncos were not the birds I did my PhD work on, however; those were in the Oregon Junco group, with chestnut backs and sides and dark hoods, while these were in the Slate-colored Junco group, as all-over grey as their name implies. I was extremely excited when one of these new juncos decided to fly into our net so that I could take a closer look and hold a new subspecies of junco.
We were targeting Kentucky Warblers in Howell Woods, but a few other species seem to have missed that memo. Perhaps they wanted us to study their migratory routes, too.
We have ten days in North Carolina to get DNA samples from three species breeding there. Our target for the first five days is the Kentucky Warbler, a golden bird with a black mask whose population is declining. It is a highly local bird, meaning that we can’t just find them anywhere within the shaded region of a large-scale range map: we need specific location information. We get this information from eBird, following birders’ reported sightings to a place about an hour south of Raleigh called Howell Woods.
“How did y’all find us?” asks the manager of Howell Woods. “There’s folks on our road that don’t know we exist, but somehow we get birders from Europe asking about Kentucky Warbler and Mississippi Kite. I never understand it.”
I was supposed to be done with field work after summer 2015, but you know how it is. The birds call. You realize that a few more blood samples would put the patterns you’re seeing in context in an illuminating way. You miss those feathery little dudes.
The small amount of field work I did this year took place much earlier than my usual field work because I was sampling juncos at a much lower elevation. Down here, the juncos are breeding in mid-March. Up at my usual sites, they wait until late May. That early start happened to be convenient for me, since I needed to analyze any data I got in time to file my dissertation in mid-May.
There has been surprisingly little bycatch this year: we’re more than halfway through the field season and so far we’ve only had two non-juncos fly into our nets. As usual, we took some photos of them and then released them.
I just noticed that I forgot to post the last bycatch of the season. Whoops! Here it is—only about three months late.
Adult Green-tailed Towhee
When I saw my first Green-tailed Towhee, I had only just moved to California and was not at all familiar with western birds. I remember looking through my binoculars at the bird singing from the top of a tuft of sagebrush, memorizing traits in order to look it up in my bird guide, and thinking “No way am I going to find this. This is going to be one of those birds that I’m seeing in a weird light so that I’ll never be able to ID it, and I’ll tell people, ‘I swear it was green with a red cap!’ and they’ll never believe me.” But then there it was in my Sibley’s: green with a red cap. I love these birds.
After I made such a fuss about catching a sapsucker and a hummingbird early in the season, of course, we caught another sapsucker and another hummingbird. These guys are no longer quite so unprecedented—although they were novel species for me—but they are still awesome.
Male Williamson’s Sapsucker
It’s fledgling season, and not just for juncos. The other week we ran into this guy:
In fact we nearly stepped on him. We picked him up to put him in a nearby bush, where he might be safer, but he had other plans: he hopped right back to the ground.
He then fluttered and scrambled his way over sticks and even a fallen log to the base of a tree, which he crept up like the Brown Creeper he was—although much more slowly than an adult. Still, it was an impressive thing to watch from such a young bird.
Recently we caught, as bycatch, two birds from two orders that we had never caught before. (Order being a high hierarchical level of organization of species relatedness, as in kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species.) Both were simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, although for different reasons.
Female Calliope Hummingbird (I think?)
This beautiful bird was terrifying to catch because hummingbirds are very fragile. We don’t expect to catch them in our nets—the mesh size is large enough that in most cases a hummingbird could zoom right through—and in fact we hope not to catch them, since they can be especially stressy little creatures. They are also strange birds to handle, not permitting any of the usual bird grips: bander’s grip, a very secure and safe grip, puts your fingers around a bird’s neck, but hummingbirds have too-tiny necks for it; photographer’s grip relies on grasping the bird’s thighs, and hummingbirds’ thighs are much too short.
Fortunately I was able to quickly extract our hummingbird from the net. She rested on my palm for about thirty seconds, then—just after this next picture was taken—zoomed off high into the canopy.