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In Quest of Nests

John Musina

The scene: a wildlife ranch on the foothills of Mount Kenya--sprawling open country dotted with acacia woodlands in a mosaic of gently rolling hills and expansive plains. On the eastern horizon, the multiple peaks of Mount Kenya, their snow caps glistening. The morning sun is already hot, and I am sitting under a sturdy acacia tree (which doesn't really provide much shade), watching our study species at their nests. In the distance I hear elephants breaking trees and the occasional roar of a lion.

These are memories from my first participation in nest observation research--assisting Professor Steve Emlen, of Cornell University, study family structure in the Grey-capped Social Weaver, a small brown bird of open dry country that breeds cooperatively.

And now, the scene changes to the cool, moist coastal scrub at PRBO's Palomarin Field Station. My mission here is to find nests of Wrentits, Western Scrub-Jays, Song Sparrows, and White-crowned Sparrows.

On my first day on the study plot, armed with binoculars, stop watch, and data sheets, I was initiated to several modes of nest finding. Being new to California's birds, my most important lesson was how to identify birds by their calls and songs. Initially, the early morning mix of sounds was like some jumbled-up, unfinished symphony played backwards: the challenge ahead was profound. A tip that Bewick's Wrens usually make "angry-sounding" calls was useful in separating them from the rest. Song Sparrows, on the other hand, have a "melodious" song. For the task at hand, it was pertinent to learn these songs, and subsequently to find nests of these joyful singers.
John Musina at PRBO's Palomarin study area. Photo by Chad Witko/PRBO

Beginning nest searching made me feel like Alice in Wonderland... in the wink of an eye the surroundings would change. How would I read the color bands of these tiny songbirds skulking from one poison oak bush to the next and then disappearing--let alone find their nests? For a moment, my passion for birds of prey was reaffirmed: they are big, easy to see, often sit in one spot for long time, and they build big nests!

It took me a while to find my first Wrentit nest. I kept looking without knowing exactly what I was looking for. But the moment of enlightenment came when I learned the essential tip: a scolding Wrentit signals a nearby nest. Finding Wrentits' nests might be nearly impossible if they lost their 'scolding-near-nest' genes. Those cup-shaped nests blend so well with the sagebrush that one would easily miss them, even just a few feet away.
One object of the author's interest: a color-banded Wrentit. Photo by Eric Preston/PRBO

I bushwhacked through the thickest of bushes, searched the most promising places, and tried "thinking like a Wrentit," but, at the end of the day, no nest. Subsequently, I did find the nest--not in the thick bush I had searched the day before but well concealed in California sagebrush that was fairly in the open. I guess I'd been looking too hard.

Over time, my skills improved, and nest searching became a fun and rewarding challenge. The whole experience of observing parent birds build a nest, lay eggs, incubate them until they hatched into naked young, and faithfully feed

chicks until they grew feathers and flew away to join the rest of the population was so unifying. Along with the science behind my experience, these are memoirs worth sharing with my colleagues back in Kenya, where such information is inadequate or lacking for most bird species. I am glad to have learned these methods.