Thursday, March 31, 2011

Just a Few Favorites

People ask if I have favorites amongst all the nests that were photographed for the book. If I do the choosing from memory, without being distracted by admiring each one again, I can call up quite a few; some for my familiarity with the birds that built them; others for their unique construction techniques or their use of materials; and for a some, their rarity and what they represent for the survival of a species. 

Swainson's Thrush,  Catharus ustulatus, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology,
 California: Tehama County; Mineral 29 June 1925

What always appears first in the eye of my mind is this sturdy woven cup built by the Swainson's Thrush, a bird that provides the evening song in the forests of Washington state where I spent half of my life, and whose eggs are a deep aqua. I also think of this nest because I remember wondering about its collector Joseph Grinnell when I saw his name of the collection data, learning later that he was one of the early and infamous contributors to The Museum of Vertibrate Zoology, as well as its first director. 
Bank Swallow, Riparia riparia, The California Academy of Sciences 
California; San Francisco Co.; Ocean Beach 06 June 1960
Another favorite, this fragile pile of twigs and gull feathers, was built by a pair of Bank Swallow's. Collected from Ocean Beach in San Francisco by Betsey Cutler, it was saved from certain burial by the annual winter erosion of the cliff face that a colony of Banks Swallows still calls home, if only for  the breeding season.  

Bank Swallow chicks at Ocean Beach ready for their next insect.
I have had the joy of observing that very colony. In mid-April a couple of years ago, I witnessed the males scrape the beginnings of the burrows, and later watched the arriving females join in the tunnel excavations, nest building, and brood raising. At times the sky would be teeming with these fleet aerialists, hawking insects in mad, dipping, flights. In very short time, the young chicks were waiting at the tunnel entrances for their next meal. 

Golden-maskedTanager, Tangara larvata, Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
Costa Rica: Provincia Puntarenas: Helechales; E of Fiala1 May 1972
For pure curiosity, I love the image of a predated, then abandoned, wild honeycomb that became a nest cavity for a Golden-masked Tanager, and that still offered the scent of honey. 
Caspian Tern   Hydroprogne caspiaThe Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
Mexico: Estado de Baja California: Shell Island; Scammons Lagoon 17 June 1932
Equally interesting for what looks like pure novelty, but is actually a very instinctive use of camouflage, is the mere scrape made by a Caspian Tern in a shell-covered beach, perfect cover for those lovely speckled eggs. Fortunately for this photographer, what would have normally been a loose pile of seaweed and shells (that wouldn't have survived removal from a storage box), was (brilliantly) lifted and dropped into resin by the collector for preservation.

Verdn, Auriparus flaviceps.Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
Mexico: Estado de Chihuahua: Sierra La Mojina, 24 mi W of Gallego6 September 1961 
I still am awed by this small, thorny, well insulated fortress, built by a pair of Verdins, small insectivores that live in arid landscapes, don't get out of bed until the insects start buzzing, and that mate while tumbling through the air. 

Marbled Murrelet, Brachyramphus marmoratus, The California Academy of Sciences
USA; California; Santa Cruz Co.; Big Basin State Park; Campground J-108 August 1974

At least a few nests i honor for the conservation issues that face the species that built them. What looks like a mere depression in the moss covering a thick limb of an ancient douglas fir, and still bearing the deposits of bird excrement used to keep an egg from rolling (and a chick from falling), might be the only Marbled Murrelet nest in a museum collection. Discovered accidentally when a forester was limbing trees near a campsite, It is also the nest that led researchers to learn about their choice of old growth forests for breeding. Forest that are home to trees 200 to 2000 years old, and that bear limbs as thick as trees themselves–wide enough for a landing pad and a nesting site. 

Akekee, Loxops caeruleirostris, Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
 Hawaii: Kauai; Kokee State Park,  29 March 1970

This small cup of moss and twigs, collected in a crown of a lehua tree, was built by an Akekee, a bird found now just in the highlands of Kauai above 1800 feet. This species' ability to survive in high elevations saved it from complete decimation by the waves of malarial mosquitoes and avian pox that have caused the extinction of many other Hawaiian birds, but they are still prey to so many alien animals that have been introduced by humans since the arrival of the Polynesians. 

As I extoll these first few nests, others are appearing in the slide show of my brain; the insulated creations of the winter survivalists, the Grey Jay and the Hoary Redpoll; the riveted leaves of the Common Tailorbird; the astonishing collection of fabric scraps of the House Finch, or the skeletons of the House Wren sarcophagus. Obviously I will be called to offer another tribute, and soon, for their are too many that delighted my eye and moved my heart to list, and I frankly am having trouble naming just a few.  


  1. Sharon--I think I could close my eyes and point to pick a favorite since I love each and every one! I sat with your book last night and savored it..really wonderful.

  2. Thank you Pamela, t is hard to choose isn't it? You can imagine what it was like to discover these creations. I am just the medium for those builders, who are endlessly fascinating, at least for me.

    And what a nice image, you and the book. I hope it entertains you for a long time too.