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.
The chickarees have gone crazy. They spent the summer curious but shy, often fleeing us and then scolding from the safety of a tree. Now they seem to have no fear. They run under our table as we eat breakfast. They jump on top of our tents while we are inside. Sometimes they sneak in under the tent fly and look right at us, giant mammals separated from them only by some tent mesh, then saunter off unimpressed. As I was sitting with my back against a tree, one of them went up the other side of the trunk and then crept around to my side, at eye-level, until our faces were a bare few inches apart.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this new friendliness. On the one hand, they’re cute.
Photo by M. LaBarbera
On the other hand, when we call them “plague squirrels,” it’s not just a term of endearment.
And then there’s the fact that they seem to be planning to steal my car.
It was well past dark when I first heard it: around 2 in the morning, it woke me in my tent. I lay awake for what felt like a long time, listening, trying—and failing—to classify the noise definitively as not a danger so I could go back to sleep. At the same time, I tried to think of what it sounded like, so that I could describe it the next morning. A large animal roar. A metal chair scraping across the floor. A death-metal chord. A train whistle.
Whatever it was, it neglected to devour me that night, and in the morning I was relieved to find that one of my field assistants had also been woken by the noise and shared my bewilderment. We agreed that it was primarily a cross between the bellow of some large mammal and the scrape of something mechanical, and so it was dubbed “the robot bear.”
The robot bear
The robot bear called most nights after that. Sometimes I thought it must be a noise of pain, or maybe rage—the tearing roughness in it sounded like strong emotion. Sometimes I was sure it was distant machinery; but we were surrounded by forest, and why would anyone be running machinery in the middle of the night?