Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Monday, June 16, 2014

Baby Juncos!

A young junco plays with a pine needle.

It had originally been my intention to make a post at the end of this month covering all the new birds I've photographed, the best recent photos of birds I've photographed before, and photos of all the baby birds that have appeared in the yard in recent weeks. However, the level of juvenile Oregon junco activity has been so high and the pictures I've taken (more than 100 yesterday alone!) are so cute that I decided the little juncos needed their own post before the month ends.

"What's this?!" asks Abbey, alerting me to the presence of baby birds on June 4th.

I was hopeful that we'd get a baby junco in the yard again this year after being charmed by last year's little junco, whose appearance was my primary impetus for photographing birds and for wanting a telephoto lens that would allow me to get good shots of birds from far enough away not to startle them. I was pleased, therefore, when one day Abbey plunged her head into the shrubs, tail wagging, and I heard a little rustling something flee from her. Juncos nest on or near the ground and the babies may leave those nests a few days before they fledge (i.e., grow feathers strong enough for flight), which is why I got a picture of a junco still sporting baby down last year. Even though they may no longer be confined to the nest, they still can't fly beyond some spurting hops and therefore keep under cover. I kept Abbey away from the shrubs, but the behavior of the adult juncos as well as Abbey's new preoccupation with sounds or smells detectable only to her led me to believe that there was a baby junco whose primary territory was under our deck. On June 9th, I got my first glimpse of a baby as it darted to the fringe of the bushes lining our deck to be fed by an adult. After that, I was on full alert, watching the behavior of the adults and familiarizing myself with the junco feeding call. As soon as the first junco youngster got old enough to venture beyond the protective cover of the shrubs, I was able to get a photograph. I was delighted when I figured out that there wasn't just one baby, but perhaps as many as four based around our yard. I've found it highly entertaining to watch as they've grown strong enough to fly short distances up into the trees, then to follow their parents out of the yard, and as they are starting to clumsily learn the skill of foraging for themselves.

Our various banks of viburnums make a great habitat for little juncos to hide in while getting big enough and strong enough to fly.

First baby junco photo of the season! June 11, 2014.

I had been watching an adult fly in and out of these bushes to feed what I presumed was one baby that would dart just beyond the edge of the overhanging leaves when the parent left. I was delighted when I looked at my photos on the computer and saw a second baby in the shadows!

I think there was some variation in age among the little ones: this young junco was flying around with its parent on the same day that I photographed the two who were still in the phase of hiding under cover, though they did change locations: later that day, they moved from the viburnums to the shelter of a hydrangea out in the yard.

Having achieved my first goal of simply photographing a juvenile junco, my next goal was to photograph a juvenile junco being fed. This proved much more difficult, as the abundant cover that makes our yard so attractive for raising junco babies also means it isn't easy to catch a little one being fed out in the open. Also, the feedings are FAST. In this photo, I've just missed the moment.

At last! I managed to capture a male junco feeding his offspring at just the right moment AND the photo is in focus!

The baby junco immediately demanded more.

The young juncos quickly got better at flying around--this one is sitting on limb up in a large tree while adults forage in the vicinity.

They got bolder, too. A little junco looks in the through the sliding glass door after being fed on the open expanse of our deck. 

This was the first day (the 14th) that I saw the little juncos mimicking their elders and attempting to forage. I counted three juveniles hanging out in the leaf litter under these evergreen shrubs; you can see how well camouflaged they are!

I have yet to get another decent feeding photo, though in this one (where my camera decided to focus one inch in front of the male junco) you can see that the adult has something like an earwig in its beak that the baby is rushing over eat.

Raising a baby junco seems to be the work of more than just two parents, with various other adults keeping watch from high perches, though I could find no information supporting the idea that other flock members not raising young might assist in this manner. Perhaps all the young frequenting our yard are from different breeding pairs, but the ratio of adults in the vicinity of the little ones usually seems higher than simply 2-to-1. Incidentally, the males seem to do almost all if not all of the feeding. Sometimes, the adult males will fight, especially if one gets too close to the other's youngster, and I got to see one pair of males engage in a ritualized battle (right) where they puffed up their plumage and shrilled at one another.

Young juncos reach full independence between three and four weeks after leaving the nest, and since it has been at least one week for those around my house, the little juncos, in addition to practicing their foraging skills, are now spending more time exposed and alone. Yesterday, a youngster hopped up on one of the deck benches while his father made use of our bench-top birdbath. The adult then flew away, but the little one stayed and explored its surroundings for quite some time. It's possible that the bird's parents were watching from the roof or some other high perch, but there were no adults on the ground or in the shrubs nearby. At any rate, the baby junco seemed to have a good time and my family had a very good time watching the little junco!

"Is this something I can eat?"
The little one picked up and played with several pine needles, likely attracted by their worm-like shape.

"What happens if I peck at this plant?"

"What happens if I pull on this leaf?"

"Let me stretch this wing...

...and that wing."

"Standing up tall and looking like a goofball!"


"Is this pebble edible?"

"What's up there?"

"Scratchin' myself..."

"I'll stretch my wings!"

"I'm a beautiful, juvenile dark-eyed junco of the Oregon race!" 

There will undoubtably be more junco photos as the babies grow up, but these images should give you a sense of all the activity going on in our yard right now. Stir in some juvenile robins, jays, crows, starlings, nuthatches, and chickadees, to name a few, and you'll start to understand why I'm spending large chunks of each day sitting in the kitchen doorway or out on the back deck, enjoying the sights and sounds of baby birds growing up. And stay tuned: the end of the month post, with photos of all of the above, should be a fun one!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Dogs Old and New

In my previous post about birds, I mentioned that the photos were taken during a three-week stint looking after the collie, Mr. Gorgeous. While birds were my primary photographic preoccupation during that time, my lens occasionally strayed over to where Mr. Gorgeous was relaxing in the grass, as he was often my companion during my hours spent staring intently at the trees. His coat is in prime condition right now, fully grown in after his yearly summer shave, so he always looked very regal. I have hundreds of photos of Mr. Gorgeous looking gorgeous, but I can never resist taking a few more...

While he remains as attractive as ever, there is no doubt that Mr. Gorgeous is getting old. Twelve is an advanced age for a dog of his size (he's much larger than your average collie). He spends most of his time sleeping, has lost interest in games, and while his arthritis isn't as bad when the weather is warm, it became clear during my time with him that his back legs are no longer getting full information from his nervous system. His balance is increasingly affected, jumping or climbing stairs is nearly impossible, but most worrisome of all, sometimes he'll knuckle under--that is, step on the top of his back paws instead of the bottom. It means he no longer knows how his paws are oriented in space. Hopefully, any further progression of this breakdown in communication will be slow, but there's no getting around the fact that my good collie friend is on the decline.

He still is pretty, though.

Collie in the grass.

He's barking his fool head off at something in this photo. Most likely, it's the threat posed by the robins.

One day he settled himself in the verdant greenery by the pond while I was taking pictures.

Occasionally, he does look a bit disheveled, especially when first waking up from a nap.

And every now and then, he manages to look ridiculous, like when he valiantly chased off some towhees.

Most of the time, he looks like this. He remains capable of running vigorously in his sleep.

I always like the way he appears to float atop the lawn.

While not overly interested in much these days, he still liked to be more or less in my vicinity.

Fortunately, age has done nothing to diminish his regal appearance.

In other old dog news, I was saddened but not surprised to learn that the dear old dog I've referred to as Lady passed away this winter. (Lady is not to be confused with my other golden retriever client, Goldie, who I take care of more regularly.) Lady was fifteen years old and had lived a long life that brought much joy to those who knew her. When I first met her, she was thirteen and still spunky enough to go swimming and on vigorous walks. The last time I cared for her, she was almost fifteen, badly hobbled by arthritis, and could only go for short walks. She no longer played with her toys, though she still liked to have a ball near her. It was clear that her life was winding down, so, as I said, it was not a surprise to learn that she'd passed away. Lady was a very sweet soul--playful, watchful, and benevolent--and very much missed by her owner. It was a lucky day for everyone when I fell into conversation with her owner while walking Mr. Gorgeous at the park and mentioned that I was a dog-sitter! I may not have cared for her as frequently as some of my other clients, but I'm very glad to have been part of her life.

This is one of my favorite photos of Lady.

She'd watch the world go by through the front windows from the comfort of her bed.

She was capable of great silliness and loved rolling around on her toys even after she was too old to chase them.

She was a beautiful, loving soul.

Dogs on the decline have been a bit of a theme, so I'd like to introduce you to a dog I'll call Smoky, who belongs to the woman who cuts my hair. He's seventeen and is down to his final days or even hours, so I offered to take some photographs of him before he passed. I took some shots both indoors and outdoors so his loving family will have some special images to remember him by after he's gone. (And, thanks to Photoshop, they will not have to remember the thick green snot that he has been producing in great quantities during his final illness.) I've made memorial photo books for Sweetheart, Lady, and the Ancient Kitty's families; I love that my camera can help keep the memories of a beloved pet alive after it's gone.

Indoor Smoky with backdrop. He's actually had that grizzled muzzle since he was a puppy!

Smoky on the lawn.

So, I've had a lot to say about old dogs in this post. The next dog is old, too: at the age of nine, he's considered geriatric. But he's also new, as in a new client! I've long joked that my dog-sitting business should be called C's Large Geriatric Dog-Sitting Service because other than Cutie the Pyrenees, who is large and young, everyone is currently eleven or older. I haven't planned it that way, it's just what life has tossed in my direction. Goldie has been my smallest client, and while she's on the petite side for a golden retriever, she hardly qualifies as a small dog! I was actually a little trepidatious about taking on a small dog because I'm not always all that keen on them. I dislike yappy dogs, and dogs with super-runny eyes (especially that stain the fur), and I don't care for the appearance of a number of long-haired small dog breeds, like yorkies or shih tzus. I also don't like it when people allow or even encourage their small dogs to act in an aggressive manner because they think it's cute. 

Fortunately, my new client, a King Charles spaniel that I'll call Little Buddy, has none of these issues! He seldom barks, doesn't have goopy eyes (Goldie's are much worse!), his super-soft fur is trimmed short so as to not to collect debris in the yard as he goes in and out of his dog door (best invention ever!), and is sweet as pie. Thanks to the doggy door and a disinclination toward long walks, my primary responsibility was to simply spend time with him. So that's what we did: we hung out together, which mainly consisted of him sleeping somewhere in my vicinity while I read or used my laptop or watched TV or slept. He'd come to me advertised as a lap dog, which I was eager to try, as I've had cats on my lap but never dogs, but as much as he enjoyed my company, it took him a few days to be ready to settle on my lap for a snooze. Of course, it also took me a few days to get the hang of picking up a small dog! But other than the lap dog learning curve, Little Buddy proved to be cute, sweet, and easy. I particularly liked to give him an extensive ear massage, which he'd then repay by carefully and thoroughly licking my hands. It's a very different thing to be licked by a little dog than a big, slobbery dog like Sweetheart! I did find myself falling a bit into the I-must-baby-the-small-dog mindset: I was far more reluctant to leave him for more than a few hours than I am my other clients. He just seemed be out there alone in this big world. But he always survived those short periods when I left him and was very merry upon my return before settling back into snorting and snoring sleep. I very much hope to see Little Buddy again!

I have to say, I thought he looked pretty cute when he slept, as he often did, with his head between his front paws and his flowing ears draped over them.

After sleeping in the sun, he'd cool down by sprawling on the cool tiles of the hearth.

Little Buddy sniffs the wind...

...and then settles in a sunbeam just his size.

There was something very charming and doll-like about him, which extended to his personality!

He loves people and is eager to meet anyone and everyone.

A soundly sleeping Little Buddy.

His snub nose profile.

And how has my own geriatric dog felt about all of this dog-sitting and dog-photographing and dog-passing? It's made her ready for a nap!