Finding nests is one of those magical spring events that can sometimes lead to a sad ending. All kinds of things can go wrong in this vulnerable bird activity. But fear not: this story has a happy ending.
Juncos are sparrows, and common across North America. Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are migrants in parts of the continent, and year-round residents in other parts. Where I live in Northern California, we have both: residents and migrants. The two races look a little different, but at any rate, we have a healthy resident population who are currently nesting. (The migrants left several weeks ago.)
More info: All About Birds Dark-eyed Junco
They are ground birds, with a diet primarily of seeds, and are ground nesters.
You can imagine what kind of dangers lurk for a ground nest on a rural mountain property — snakes, raccoons, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and skunks frequently roam our hills and forest.
Last autumn there were wild amaryllis flowers, aka Naked Ladies (Amaryllis Belladonna), growing outside our kitchen sink window. They are bright pink flowers with a bubblegum scent. They grow everywhere, like weeds; found these (below) beside a trail in a park. You can see a mass of their dead leaves at the base of the flowers.
Every spring around April, after the flowers outside our kitchen window are long gone, the leaves dry out and turn yellow and we cut them back.
Except this year something different happened.
While the leaves were still green, a junco began hopping around underneath the amaryllis leaves, displaying unusual behavior. We recognized it as nesting behavior and realized the female was building a nest under there.
Slowly the amaryllis leaves began to dry out, but there was still enough foliage for completely camouflaging the nest.
About a week after that, there was more progress. Both the male and female were stealthily and industriously coming in with a worm or insect clamped in their bills. They hopped underneath the leaves, vanished for a second, then flew out; repeating this activity dozens of times in a day.
This little corner of our property is not commonly visited by humans. We use it as a shortcut, but visitors don’t…well not human visitors. It’s on a hillside with giant boulders, as you can see in this photo, and not conducive to human walking. Can you see the amaryllis leaves in the middle of the photo? Also, take note of the external pipe on the right side of the photo.
Plenty of wildlife walk through here. After 20 years at the kitchen sink, I have seen so much activity in this little corner of the world. Sure makes doing dishes fun.
This particular nest, however, was worrisome from the start. The ground nesters, in my humble opinion, are asking for trouble.
From the critter cam we know of one skunk individual who regularly waddled through here in February and March. It was part of his or her nightly routine. Suppose that skunk would like a nice, delicious midnight snack.
Now that the nest was there and a new family was on the way, the risks seemed high. I hoped the skunk had found a new routine.
Years ago this gopher snake came through. I guess it found the pipe a fun challenge. But–yikes–a gopher snake so cheeky to wrap around a household pipe must be a very successful hunter.
We commonly have rattlesnakes here too. This time of year they’re just coming out of underground hibernation. Too sad if they were to enjoy some fresh breakfast eggs.
Days went by and the feeding continued, feverishly. Apparently they still had the nestlings.
Although it was tempting to lift the leaves to investigate, we never did.
Not a good idea. Didn’t want to traumatize any of these birds. The parents were working so hard on constantly keeping their new brood fed. And the nestlings were no doubt tiny and extremely fragile.
We waited until the feeding was done and all the birds were gone. That was last week.
We never saw one baby bird, but we were sure they were under there due to all the feeding activity.
Then this past Monday, after a week of nest dormancy, we looked into the nest.
Gingerly pushing away the dead leaves, we found this beautiful grassy nest in a small depression in the ground.
They typically lay 3-5 eggs, and apparently it was a successful brood because the nest was empty except for some fecal sacs.
Whew. It could’ve turned out differently, and we certainly have witnessed plenty of unsuccessful broods. But what a relief and complete joy to know there are several new baby juncos making their way in this world.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.