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.
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.
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.
Our stoves boiling water for breakfast.
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 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!
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, 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.
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
This summer we have lost nests to logging, cows, and natural junco predators. None of those shocked me. A pinecone as death-dealer, however, was a surprise.
When I took this picture, I thought that this nest was dead. The chick you see was completely motionless and stone cold. The pinecone—which was not supposed to be in the nest—had (we think) prevented the female from warming her chicks up, and without their mother’s warmth these very young, naked chicks quickly got too cold.
But when I took the pinecone out to count chick bodies, one of the bodies moved. My field assistant and I took the chicks—there were three, all as cold as the morning mountaintop air—in our warm hands. I still thought they were probably dead: recently dead things may twitch when disturbed.
But as the tiny bodies began to feel less chilly, they squirmed more and more.
On our last trip, we had two very different encounters with baby mammals. The first happened when we were searching for nests in some rather strange habitat: the area had been previously logged, then—like all of my sites, rather unfortunately—used for cattle pasture. The cattle presence here had been so intense that the area not only was covered in cow pies, but smelled distinctly like cow. (Ah, nature!) The corn lilies there, usually lush tall green plants, were ragged and brown.And the whole place was hopping with tiny tree frogs.
YSSA is the two hundredth junco to be banded as part of my junco research. She (or he) is a young fledgling: out of the nest, but not very good at flying yet.
Two weeks ago, it rained on us for a solid 22 hours. (Which, I discovered, is exactly the time it takes for puddles to start forming inside my tent.) So when it got grey and thundery at the beginning of last week, I jumped: “We’ve got to process this junco quickly! Take down the nets! We have to get back to camp to cover the firewood!”
Of course, it didn’t rain. The next time it got grey and thundery, I jumped less: “Let’s take down one net and keep this one. Tell me if you see lightning.” It didn’t rain.
The third time it got grey and thundery, I didn’t jump at all. Then it actually started raining—but I really wanted another junco. So we caught a male in (very light) rain and banded him under a tree, naming him KKRA, which sounds a bit like the thunder that was rolling in the distance.
KKRA, who has one white feather on his cheek
I forgot to mention in the last post: I banded my one hundredth junco a few days ago. (Well, I didn’t band him; I’m training field assistants to be able to band, so one of them banded him. But I caused him to be banded.)
Me with RROA, my hundredth junco.
We banded him RROA, which is a combination with a history: in my previous work on House Wrens, RROA was a male wren who managed to breed for three years, which was much longer than any of our other wrens. He was a bit of a celebrity. Here’s hoping that the combination brings such luck to junco RROA too.