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?
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?
I’ve heard it said that the point of a PhD is to make you the absolute world expert on one particular slice of the universe. Too many incredibly smart people work on juncos for me to hope to become the world expert on them, but my several years of thinking about juncos more-or-less constantly has left me tuned to a slightly different wavelength than the rest of the world: call it Radio Junco.
Sometimes this makes me seem like a cross between a psychic and someone who has come unhinged: my brain picks out and focuses on all junco noises, so that I will stop, cock my head, and then declare “There’s a mated pair here,” or “Fledgling in that bush!” into what clearly seems like silence to my new field assistants.
One of the biggest changes for me in being in the field, aside from the living-in-a-tent-and-smacking-mosquitos aspects, is becoming intensely aware, all the time, of sound. I’m listening for singing juncos, to know where the territories are; for quietly cheeping juncos, who are usually foraging, to read their band combinations; for angry chipping juncos, whose nests are nearby; for juncos giving what I think of as the ba-boo boo boo call, affectionately greeting their mates. We live in the midst of the juncos, so I’m always listening. And so I hear all the other birds too.
Last year, I started the field season as soon as the university spring semester ended, because my field assistants were undergraduates and needed to take their finals before heading off into the mountains. That turned out to be too late, as we found that some of the juncos had started breeding without us. So this year I found some awesome non-undergraduate volunteers and went out earlier.
But I might have started a little too early.
My tent, our first morning in the field.
We’d known it was going to rain, and I thought it had – a particularly light-sounding rain pattering on my tent throughout the night. When I woke up I thought my tent had been covered in seeds washed loose by the rain. Then I stuck my head outside.
In fact it was better than rain: drier, and still permitting us to boil water for breakfast.