Over the last three years, suddenly and shockingly, I've developed a curiosity about the Dark-eyed Junco complex of subspecies. I'm trying to pinpoint exactly when that switch was flipped. It must of been some terrible moment of physical duress that led to reduced mental fortitude that led to deeper entrenchment into the depths of birding minutia. Ahh...got it! It most certainly had to have been that Big Sit! back in October of '09. I sat for hours by myself in the Boise foothills, in the dark, freezing to death and seeing hardly any birds. Well, except for that flock of juncos. And there was that one junco that was dark all over, not like all the rest sporting charcoal heads with shades of brown and gray. A "Slate-colored" hanging out with a bunch of "Oregon" juncos. Cool! That's when I finally appreciated a subspecies of any kind and took that giant step into BirdNerd-dom.
Lest I forget, my first ever sighting of a Dark-eyed Junco as a bona fide birdwatcher who cared about keeping track of such trivial things occurred at the Colcord Ridge Campground at 7600' between Payson and Heber, Arizona. It was a beautiful weekend in early May during a father-and-son campout. I had crept out of my tent before anyone else was awake to answer the call of nature. While relieving myself behind a tree, as men are accustomed to do in the woods, I spied a little bird feeding on the ground nearby, seemingly oblivious to my presence. I studied it for some time keeping detailed mental notes, then dashed for my truck and my Sibley guide. Its prominent and well-defined rust-colored mantle clinched the i.d.. A "Gray-headed" Dark-eyed Junco. So even early on in my birding life, I positively identified a subspecies. Still, it was just a junco and another new tick on my rapidly growing life list. I didn't care about what sub-group it had been assigned to. That level of detail was for the nutty birders in tweed jackets, not for me.
Side note: Beyond Biology 110 and a few years of reading a lot about birds, I'm ignorant of the finer details of taxonomic classification. What in the heck is the difference, if any, between subspecies, group, complex, and race among birds?
Now eBird has sightings maps viewable by subspecies, so please make an effort to enter subspecies that you can identify as it fascinates weirdos like me. NatGeo6 has awesome range maps in the back of the field guide for those birds with readily identifiable subspecies. More fuel to feed this burgeoning interest of my feeble mind. When it comes to the junco complex, pretty much all of the field guides discuss and display the junco groups. Are you like me, hopeful for future species splits and armchair ticks?!
Anyway...While birding my lunch-hour patch recently I saw these two juncos that looked a little different than the rest of the "Oregon" juncos that I normally see in Utah and Idaho:
|This bird really stood out from the other juncos it was with as it was much paler and the flanks much more colored. Female "Oregon" juncos are more washed out than their male companions, but this one was even lighter than the females nearby.|
|And this junco seemed a bit extra dark, but still not as dark on the flanks as the "Slate-colored" juncos I saw back in the eastern states in late Fall of 2010. Maybe a cross between Slate-colored and Oregon?|
Last year winter I had this Junco at my Utah backyard feeder for a week or so:
I include this last photo, simply because the brown racing stripe on the head and nape were interesting. Indication of a 1st year bird perhaps?
Finally, a previously posted couple of close-ups of what I consider a classic "Oregon" junco with the dark charcoal head and narrower orange-brown flank coloration.
Oh, the variety of Juncos...a complex complex. Yet another reason why Birding is Fun!
By the way, Dark-eyed Junco was my First-of-Year (FOY), and thus my totem bird for the year. What was yours?