First juncos of the 2013 field season!

I got back from our first bout of field work yesterday, and I can say that if things keep going the way they did, we’re going to be banding a lot of juncos this year. That is excellent: the more we band, the more we can identify individually by sight, allowing us to observe the behavior of each. It’s much more informative to be able to say “KARL chased RRAY” than “one junco chased another junco”. Too, when we band them we also take measurements and pictures, so we can relate their behavior to things like condition and size.

Male GILA. The bands on his legs are read top-left, bottom-left, top-right, bottom-right: he has Green, shrImp, Lime, Aluminum, hence GILA.

Male GILA. The bands on his legs are read top-left, bottom-left, top-right, bottom-right: he has Green, shrImp, Lime, Aluminum, hence GILA.

GILA had an unusual white feather on the back of his head.

GILA had an unusual white feather on the back of his head.

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Color bands: check

Last year, I waited to order color leg bands (for banding the juncos) until spring. This turned out to be a mistake, since everyone else ordered their leg bands at the same time, so all the good colors got backordered and I spent the first half of the field season banding my birds in just orange, lime, green, light blue, brown, and grey. If you’re wondering whether brown or grey bands show up on a junco leg: well, no, they don’t.

I learned my lesson. I’ll have a full arsenal of colors for this field season:



I think this is the least dignified photo of Limpet I have ever taken

I think this is the least dignified photo of Limpet I have ever taken

October in the mountains

The field season is mostly over. My field assistants are back in classes; my mist nets are packed away. (Many thanks to the people who kept us fed and equipped by donating a total of $1450 to this field season!) It’s grant-writing, lab work, and data analysis season now.

Well, almost. I really want to know what the juncos do when summer ends. Our working assumption is that they migrate down the mountains to escape the worst of the winter weather, but we don’t know how far they go, or when, or, really, if they do that at all. So this week I went back to look for them.

SOSA, photographed on his territory earlier this year, was nowhere to be found. Photo by M. LaBarbera.

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Non-birds of the field II: mammals

All photos in this post are by M. LaBarbera.

Belding’s ground squirrel

Stand at one of our high-elevation sites, and at any given moment, you will be under surveillance by at least two Belding’s ground squirrels.

You might not see them, but down in the grass and the flowers, they are watching.

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Non-birds of the field I: invertebrates

From most of the pictures on this blog, you might think that the only animals we saw this summer were the ones that flew into our nets. Not so!

Big red fuzzy moth

Of course, whether I can identify these non-birds is a different matter entirely. If you see anything you recognize, please comment and let me know what these exoskeleton-clad creatures are.

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Field assistants make the world go ’round

By far the biggest reason that this field season has gone as well as it has is that I have had absolutely fantastic field assistants. Field assistants do much more than simply “assisting”—although that alone is important: I could not take my color-standard photographs alone, I would have trouble setting up a mist net alone, and it would take me much longer to process each junco alone, meaning more stress for the bird.

Jennifer recording data as I measure SSOA

Anthony being a human mist net support where the ground was too hard to put stakes in

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Last chick of the season

If you get too close to a nest or a young fledgling, the parent juncos will often give a repeated, angry chip call. I don’t understand how this could possibly be adaptive—I would understand a snake-like hiss, or a tiger roar, but no one’s scared of “chip”—but as silly as it is for the parents to broadcast, effectively, “My nest is here, don’t come find it!” I do appreciate the help.

On our last trip we noticed SNAE and his unbanded mate chipping insistently.

SNAE. I photograph all the juncos I catch from several angles like this; the color standard card you see in the background lets me compare colors among pictures, to look at color differences among the juncos.

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On our last trip, finally, we managed to catch some fledglings. We had been seeing them around for weeks, but as they didn’t seem to respond to playback, and they never flew the right direction when we tried to chase them into the net, we’d caught none.

On this last trip something had changed. No longer were all of the fledglings attended by their parents; instead, they formed foraging flocks of parents, attended fledglings, and apparently-independent fledglings. Attended fledglings are hard to catch because their parents lead them away from danger. Independent fledglings, it turns out, aren’t so careful. We set up the net where we observed the flock foraging, and within ten minutes the juncos drifted back into the area and resumed foraging.

BOAR was the first fledgling we caught.


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5 bad-but-good things about field work

No food that you can’t cook by adding boiling water or wrapping it in aluminum foil and sticking it in a campfire. On the one hand, you’d be surprised what turns out to be delicious wrapped in foil and cooked in a campfire—mushrooms, tomatoes, peaches, spinach—and you get to eat a lot of s’mores and Nutella.* And you gain a real, passionate appreciation for kitchen-cooked food; my field assistants and I can spend hours rhapsodizing about the food we wish we were eating. On the other hand, we make ourselves desperately hungry for pesto and pizza and Homeroom mac&cheese, and then have to eat dehydrated black bean soup. And the food appreciation never seems to last long enough for us to appreciate it when we actually have kitchens. Case in point: I’m at home now, capable of making all sorts of delicious things that I’ve craved while in the field, and I’m having a root beer float for breakfast.

*Unless you’re doing really serious, backpacking-type field work, in which case no fresh fruits or Nutella for you! Dehydrated soup all day, every day. That’s pretty rough.

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My field work involves frequently putting up and taking down my tent. Last time I was at one of my low-elevation sites, I did as I always do: took the fly off and folded it up, knelt in the tent to pack up my thermarest and sleeping bag, put the poles and tent away. Finally just the footprint remained, the waterproof ground cloth that goes under the tent. I almost folded this up where it lay, but decided to shake it off in case there were spiders on it, as is often the case. I whisked it off the ground—and saw this:

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