For the past 2 months, I have been working on an ongoing research project in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona studying life history and development of birds nesting near the Mogollon Rim. This has been an excellent experience for me so far, and the intimacy with avian life history has been truly eye-opening. Another huge bonus: I get to deal with some really cool western birds in a pretty unique habitat for 7 days a week! Our study site is at the perfect intersection of the southernmost breeding range of Orange-crowned Warblers and approaching the northern limits of Red-faced Warbler breeding range, not to mention a healthy dose of nesting Williamson’s Sapsuckers, Virginia’s Warblers, and Pygmy Nuthatches. On top of that, if the birds are successful enough to lay eggs, incubate, and hatch nestlings without their nest being destroyed, abandoned, or predated (occurrences that are far more frequent than I ever thought), then I also get to monitor loads of tiny, featherless, pot-bellied baby birds. What could be better?
Tracking the development of nestlings before fledge is fantastic. Each species develops a little differently, and comparing ground nesters (such as Red-faced Warbler or junco) to cavity nesting species (woodpeckers, chickadees, etc) is super interesting given the amount of time ‘exposed’ species will take to get feathers and leave the nest compared to the comfy cozy world of a cavity nester.
Finding the ground nests can be quite the challenge, and some species are way more cryptic than others, despite the fact that their preferred nesting sites are almost identical. Dark-eyed Juncos (Gray-headed) will give you more clues to their nest sites and allow for closer approach during observation, while Virginia’s Warblers will make you sign a release form and put you on a 12 day waiting list before you get to see their nest (a mild exaggeration, but damn those little beauties are tricky to track to nest). However, the experience of monitoring a female warbler standing vigil during incubation is a worthwhile reward despite the frustrating search.
So far, the coolest nest we have been able to track has been the Acorn Woodpecker. This species usually nests high up in cavities that are unreachable and tough to monitor, but recently me and my coworker Sofia discovered a very low nest no more than 5 meters off the ground. Using ladders and a tiny saw, we were able to peer into the world of this incredible bird and lo and behold – NESTLINGS! We have been monitoring and measuring these little guys for 23 days now, and they continue to be healthy and developing at an excellent rate. Below are some cool looks at these adorably unusual baby birds.