Sunday, June 26, 2011

Junco nest

The view from near the summit of Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This high altitude knob straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, and rises to 6,643 feet - the highest point in the Smokies. Red spruce, Picea rubens, and Fraser Fir, Abies fraseri, form the dominant plant community but all is not well in coniferland. All of those dead snags are fir that have been attacked and killed by balsam woolly adelgid, Adelges piceae, an introduced insect pest.

Removal of the mature fir has wrought lots of changes in these mountain forests' ecology, including bird life. Nonetheless, many boreal breeders still thrive on Clingman's Dome, including Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos are one of America's best known birds, due to their frequency at winterime backyard feeding stations throughout much of the country. For instance, last winter in my state of Ohio, the Dark-eyed Junco was the second most frequently reported species tallied as part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch.

Yet only a tiny percentage of all of the people who buy seed and ogle juncos probably know the bird on its nesting grounds. These sparrows breed primarily in coniferous boreal forests, far to the north of the vast majority of folks who feed them in the winter. So, we'll go have a look at how little juncos are made.

At the end of the road leading to Clingman Dome's summit, there is a parking lot and then a steep half-mile trail to the absolute peak and an interesting observation tower. I made this trek both days that I was in the Smokies, hoping for clear skies and grand vistas for photography. It wasn't to be; both times clounds were thick and all-enveloping, allowing only the occasional misty portal into the mountains beyond.

The hikes were hardly a waste of time, though. Many interesting plants, birds and other animals will be seen as one lumbers up and stumbles down the mountainside. On Hike One I noticed an adult Dark-eyed Junco perched near the trail, bill stuffed with a large and scrumptious insect morsel. Obviously a nest was close at hand, complete with young, so I backed off and waited for Mrs. Junco to give up the lair.

And that she did, flitting down to a small well-vegetated opening and into a well-hidden alcove largely masked by plants. It's that small brownish opening dead center in the photo. She was in there for just a moment, and from my perch I could hear the young juncos' wheezy cries reach a fevered pitch as they sought her attention and the insect.

I have found a number of junco nests over the years, and they all pretty much have resembled this one in regards to site characteristics, although the composition of plant species varies. I will take a risk by breaking new etymological ground, and coin a new word for junco nests: phytotroglodytean (phyto = of plants; troglodyte = of caves; cave-dwelling).

Whatever you call a junco nest, it's almost certain to be well hidden. Scads of people walk within ten feet of this nest, every day, and I doubt that hardly any of them noticed it. Nor would I, had I not seen the adult junco with a mouthful of fresh food.

Right after the adult junco departed after a feeding, I found the right angle, and zoomed the camera into the junco's cave hoping that the youngsters would be visible. And one of them was; the others  - three, most likely - remained hidden in the nest cave's darker recesses. Their's is a neat little hiding spot, and juncos excel at creating such nurseries. They must know what they are doing - this species is one of the most common birds in North America.

The next morning, I was pleased to see Senora Junco once again busily delivering insects to the juniors and cramming them down their throats, as the nonstop parade of touristos huffed by up the hill, oblivious to the production of the little "snowbirds". Many of the passersby undoubtedly spend money to purchase seed that fuel wintering juncos, and only know these charismatic little birds from their frosty wintertime backyards.


nina said... works for me.
And, although the view may not have turned out to be spectacular, it sounds as if the journey certainly was.
I wonder how many returned to their cars mumbling, "nothing to see."

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog. I didn't know Junco's nested in the Smokey Mountains. Thanks Jim.

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Nina,

Always lots to see in the mountains, as you know - just have to know where to look. I've got lots more cool stuff from the Smokies, if it doesn't get preempted by new stuff...

Glad you like the blog, Anon!