First trip of the final junco field season

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?

We do not miss you. Look, why don’t you not come here, and we’ll send you a postcard maybe?

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Juncos underground

Juncos nest on the ground (usually; sometimes they will nest higher, even reusing old robins’ nests, but I’ve never seen this myself. It’s probably because I’m short). This makes their nests tricky to find, since in the first place, there is a lot of “the ground” to search, and in the second place, you have to be really careful where you step while you search.

They don’t just nest on the ground, though: they often hide their nests underneath things. Some of them are quite good at it.

YABI's nest. What do you mean, you can't see it - it's right there!

YABI’s nest. What do you mean, you can’t see it – it’s right there!

See, there it is!

See, there it is!

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Stop walking on the ground!

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.

Hear it?

Hear it?

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.

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This is what evening in the field sounds like

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.

In early evening, with the sun bright but the air beginning to chill, we hear the daytime birds still: the juncos’ songs, loud and strong but, dare I say, less than nuanced (click on the linked text, then click the forward-arrow play button, to hear the sound).

The strange, carrying complaints of the Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Red-breasted Nuthatch: such a small bird for that big noise.

Red-breasted Nuthatch: such a small bird for that big noise.

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I might have started the field season a little too early

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.

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.

Our stoves boiling water for breakfast.

Our stoves boiling water for breakfast.

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Field season 2013 moments in photos

I’ve started planning the upcoming field season in a serious way now—deciding on dates, interviewing potential field assistants. It’s made me think a lot about last field season, and about how much I haven’t yet found an opportunity to mention in this blog. So this post is just going to be a selection of memorable things that happened last field season, without any real theme but with lots of photos.

The coolest insect I've ever seen in person. It looked like a piece of enameled jewelry.

The most beautiful insect I’ve ever seen in person. It looked like a piece of enameled jewelry.

This nest had two chicks in it; when we took them out to band them, we found two unhatched eggs. The lighter one is a junco egg; the dark one is a cowbird egg. These juncos were lucky that the cowbird egg didn't hatch!

This nest had two chicks in it; when we took them out to band them, we found two unhatched eggs. The lighter one is a junco egg; the dark one is a cowbird egg. These juncos were lucky that the cowbird egg didn’t hatch!

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Banding a nest

It’s rare that I have photos of the process of banding a nest, since usually everyone is holding a chick and we don’t have any extra hands for photographic documentation. For a few nests, however, I was lucky enough to have my father with us, and boy does he like to photograph things! Thanks to him I can show you what it looks like when we band a nest.

EDIT: If you click on these (or any photos on this blog) you can see them bigger.

The nest. If you click to expand it and look closely you can see the female sitting on it.

The nest, tucked next to the clump of plants in the center. If you look closely you can see Mom sitting on it.

Me taking the chicks from the nest, with Kyle ready to catch any runners.

Me taking the chicks from the nest, with Kyle ready to catch any runners.
Photo by M. LaBarbera

Often when you approach the nest, the female will flare her tail and run around on the ground to try to draw your attention away from the nest. This is a tail-on view of Mom doing that. Photo by M. LaBarbera

Often when you approach the nest, the female will flare her tail and spread her wings and run around on the ground to try to draw your attention away from the nest. This is a tail-on view of Mom doing that.
Photo by M. LaBarbera

Mom, angrily chipping at us. Photo by M. LaBarbera

Mom, angrily chipping at us.
Photo by M. LaBarbera

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