Birds build nests in a remarkable variety of places and an even more remarkable variety of styles and sizes. Some are nearly impossible to see, while others are right out in the open, in places that will leave you scratching your head. When I come upon a nest, my first thought is usually, “What type of bird made this?” My next question is, “Why here?” Finally, I get to the big one: “Is it active?” Whether hidden deep in the underbrush, high in a tree, or in the wreath on your front door, bird nests all serve the same purpose. They are a place for birds to raise their young. They are also fun to watch. Watching a nest site can be an educational and rewarding experience.
For the past few weeks, I have been watching Canada Geese build nests, lay eggs, and hatch young. To see how fast these young birds go from hatchling to fledgling always leaves me amazed.
If you want to watch an active nest site, providing a nest box for birds to use is an easy way to start. Pick a low traffic area that is easy to see from a window or porch. I have a nest box about forty feet from my kitchen window that I am watching. No activity yet. That’s okay. I have nests in the wild to watch as well.
Over time I’ve developed some strategies and picked up tips from my fellow bird people that have helped me in my quest for answers. First you need to find a nest. This can be accomplished by watching the birds. If you see a bird picking up grass, or straw, or leaves, chances are it is building a nest. Watch to see where it goes, trying not to be obvious. The birds are constantly checking their surroundings to see who or what is watching. Try not to stare. We already look like predators with our two big front facing eyes; no need to act like one. Squint a little or wear sunglasses to hide your eyes. Maybe look around some. Who knows? You might find something else of interest, or maybe you have already found a nest you want to watch. Several birds reuse sites that have been successful in previous seasons. Some even have multiple broods within a season.
When you find a nest site in the wild that you wish to study, you first need to mark its location. Hang a ribbon from a nearby tree, or make use of a landmark. Then look for observation points that offer a reasonably clear field of view. Whenever possible, observe from a distance using binoculars or a camera with a long lens. I’m currently watching a woodpecker nest from the second guardrail post across the road, about thirty yards away.
It’s always tempting to try to get an up close view, but there are hazards. Just as we are viewing nature, it is important to remember that nature is also viewing us. You don’t want to lead a predator to the site by showing too much interest. It’s easy to leave a trail for the local stray to follow if we’re not careful. And of course, some birds will defend their nest site aggressively (think blue jay).
On the other hand, if the nest site is in the wreath on the front door, or on the light fixture on the front porch, the rules change a little. In that case, try to minimize the foot traffic near the nest. Too much can scare off the parents. Use the back door for a while, and watch the nest from a window. After all, if there was a lot of traffic to begin with, the bird would have selected a different spot.
Some birds make it easy. Others make it a challenge. Either way, watching a nest site is educational and inspiring. I invite you to give it a try. You will be amazed by what you see!
–Jim Scout, Volunteer Naturalist