I just wrapped up what I think will be my last field work on the juncos for my dissertation. It was quite the eventful trip; I saw a few things I’ve never seen before – but more on that in a future post.
We were trying to catch an unbanded male. He was interested in our playback, but had escaped from the net once already, meaning he was likely to be wary of the net now. When he flew into the net the second time, I ran for him quickly, wanting to get to him before he managed to escape again.
…Or I started to run. Then I failed to clear a large rotting log and went down.
“Are you okay?” one of my field assistants asked.
“I’m not sure,” I answered honestly, from the ground. “Get the bird!”
Juncos love to nest near corn lilies. Usually this means they nest near the base of the corn lily, using the thick stalk and broad leaves as cover. SEAL, however, decided that his nest didn’t need to be near an upright corn lily—and I have to admit that it’s not a bad idea: it took me an extra little while to find this nest, just because it didn’t look like a conventional junco nest location.
In the field, I become especially attentive to temperature. Is it too cold to catch birds? Are my hands warm enough to not chill a bird when I hold it? Recently, a friend very kindly let me take his FLIR ONE to the field: this is a device that fits over your phone and lets you take photos of heat. (Normal photos are of visible light.) Warmer objects show up as yellows and whites; colder objects are blue and black. The photos it takes aren’t of absolute temperature—that is, 40 degrees F isn’t always the exact same color—but rather of relative temperature: within the same photo, you can use the colors to compare temperatures, but you can’t compare across photos.
This was a lot of fun to use in the field, especially since the weather so generously gave us lots of temperatures to observe by snowing on us. Did you know that snow is cold, and humans are warmer than snow?
Now you do!
As endless as PhDs may seem to those in the thick of them, they do end. I am now almost exactly one year out from my planned graduation date, which means that I need to transition from collecting my data to analyzing and disseminating my results. Practically, this means that I can’t spend the whole summer out in the mountains tracking juncos, like the last three years. I need to also spend the summer running analyses, writing, and presenting at conferences.
Of course, I can go out to the mountains sometimes. Just to see what the juncos are up to. They would probably miss me otherwise, right? I’ll just collect a little more data…
We do not miss you. Look, why don’t you not come here, and we’ll send you a postcard maybe?
This is the strangest nest placement I have seen from my juncos so far. The setting is a meadow with scattered corn lilies, an area favored by the cattle that sometimes graze in my field sites. The holes you see in the dirt are footprints left by cow hooves in the soft ground.
Before I studied juncos in California, I studied House Wrens in New York. Most days in the spring and summer I biked from my basement apartment to my field site, which had the no-nonsense label Unit One. The bike ride was an adventure in itself: I prepped for the field season by relearning how to stay on a bike, which I hadn’t done since childhood. (Contrary to the popular saying, it appears I can forget how to ride a bike.) On my way to Unit One I often came upon large snapping turtles stumping deliberately across the road, on the turtle-slow prowl for places to lay their eggs.
Unit One was primarily a field site for studying Tree Swallows. The front half of it was short grass broken up by regular rectangular ponds, over which the swallows stooped and swirled. House Wren territory lay past the manicured domain of the swallows, in forest dense with brush and mosquitoes. At the start of the field season I feared getting lost in it: the paths were overgrown, and I have a poor natural sense of direction.
This well-hidden nest took us a long time to find, even after we knew approximately where it should be. While we were searching, a man came to set up for a bike race and moved a port-o-potty right into the area where we thought the nest was, despite my protests. We worried that the parents of the nest would be too disturbed by the looming port-o-potty and the crowd of cyclists to feed the chicks, but fortunately that was not the case: the chicks grew up and fledged successfully.
Juncos nest on the ground, which might seem dangerous: ground nests are more accessible to predators than nests in trees. However, a nest in a tree is certain to be, well, somewhere in a tree; a nest on the ground could be anywhere. The ground of a forest or meadow or even a campground is a complex surface, with lots and lots of places where a junco nest could be, only a very tiny fraction of which actually contain a junco nest.
In this series of “Find the nest” posts, I’m going to try to share with you the challenge of looking at a habitat and guessing where a junco nest might be, and the excitement of finding a well-hidden nest. Each post will have a slide show of photos, beginning with a zoomed-out image of a fairly large area, and progressively zooming in to eventually reveal the junco nest. All of the photos are from my field work and are of real wild junco nests.
Use the back and forward arrows and the pause button to navigate the slide show.
Alma Schrage is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and a research assistant in the Bowie lab in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Over several years I have watched her become an ornithologist. In this interview she discusses her research on bird song and how it has been affected—or not—by being partially deaf.
Alma in the field. Photo courtesy of Alma Schrage.
Why study bird song?
It’s interesting on several different levels. If you’re interested in cognition and behavior, bird song provides so many different things to study. You can also study how vocalizations tie in with genetics, morphology and such to help provide a fuller picture of the bird, or you can study the factors that drive development of bird song such as different acoustic environments, and selective forces on calls and songs.
California is in the middle of a severe drought. Winter is the rainy season here, and the last two winters weren’t rainy. The drought’s major human impact has been agriculture-related: California grows a hefty portion of the US’s fruits, vegetables, and livestock, all of which require water. The drive to my field sites takes me through the agriculture-heavy Central Valley, and the drought was clearly apparent this summer. The fields were all cracked dry earth and yellow grass, with the rare irrigated green square standing out like artificial turf. One afternoon late in the field season, a light rain sprinkled as we drove through the valley, and we rolled down the windows and cheered.
The Central Valley is thirsty.
Concerns over agriculture affect everyone; but beyond them, and more personally, I can’t help seeing the drought through the lens of a field biologist.
I have colleagues who slip and slosh through mud all summer to study Black Rails—or who hope that there will be mud to slosh through, anyway, because the small, secretive Black Rail relies on the existence of marshes in which to hide from predators and hatch its comically large-footed chicks. Less rain means fewer and smaller marshes for the Black Rails.