In 2016, after the excitement of spring migration died down, I decided that I really wanted to find some nests and get decent pictures of birds raising their young. As many birders know, the summertime can be slow on the birding front. Rather than hanging up your binoculars, the other option is to observe the birds doing what birds do in the months of April-August.
Ethical Code of Conduct for Nest-watching
Before I even get into the details of nest watching, it’s important to remember that birds are particularly vulnerable when they’re raising young. You need to be careful not to disturb the birds during any stage of their nesting process. As a rule, if I find a nest I keep the location quiet. From my experience, some birds are more nervous than others and you can pretty quickly judge how tolerant they are to you standing there.
If I’m observing a nest, I only stay for a short period of time (in most cases no more than 5-10 minutes), keep my distance and try to hide behind a tree or other obstacle while observing the nest. There is always a risk that the birds might abandon the nest if they feel they are in too much danger. Your presence could also alert predators to the nest’s location You really don’t want that!
I would also advise extreme caution with any species that is threatened or endangered (or better yet, avoid those species all together!). In some countries you need a license to photograph nesting endangered species. Do your research beforehand!
Ethical Nest Watching Resources
I would recommend reading both of these articles before heading out in the field:
NestWatch’s code of conduct
Audubon’s Do’s and Don’t of Nest Photography
Finding The Nest
Aside from the ethical considerations, the first big challenge of birding during nesting season is actually finding a nest! Most birds purposefully build their nests in hidden spots. Often if they see you standing near their nest, they will take a round-about way to get there, or wait until you’ve left before returning to it.
I managed to find about 10 different bird nests last year, some of which were found by pure luck. Others I found because I observed a bird carrying nesting materials and followed it right to the spot. Larger birds’ nests are easier to find as they are often in really obvious places. Ospreys, for example, build huge nests on top of large purpose-built platforms so these nests are hard to miss!
My only real piece of advice for nest-finding is to really observe birds’ behaviour from the end of April onward. The majority of birds will either be in the process of building a nest or have a nest somewhere already built. If you watch them closely, they may lead you right to it. You can also listen and look for males singing to mark their territory – this will at least narrow down the area where a nest likely is. Once you start looking for nests, you will start finding them! This might sound obvious, but it takes a particular level of awareness to remember to keep watching for where nests could be! Hint: they’re right before your eyes!
This video of an American Redstart building her nest captured one of the most amazing birding experiences I’ve ever had. You NEED to see this 🙂 ↓
Once you’ve found a nest, hurrah! then the fun begins. I like to quickly figure out what stage the nest is in. Are the eggs still being incubated? Have the babies hatched? If so, how big are they?
A friend gave me a reference book with great information about the nesting habits of 670 North American species. This book is an excellent resource for finding out how long a particular species will incubate its eggs and when the nestlings are likely to fledge. It’s available on Amazon for $27: Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds
This book is also available in Canada.
Now For the Difficult Part…
You’ve really paid attention and found various nests to monitor, great! You will now unfortunately quickly face the reality that not all nests are successful. This can be difficult. I had my first reality check last year while I was staying with my parents. A House Sparrow brought her 2 youngsters to their backyard to feed them. I was excited that this newly formed family had come to me! I went to find my camera and when I looked back outside I caught a glimpse of a Common Grackle snatching one of the babies and dragging it across the yard. It happened so quickly, I thought maybe I’d been mistaken.
At that point in time I naively thought that only larger birds of prey ate baby birds. A quick Google search confirmed what I’d witnessed in the yard – Grackles, Blue Jays, Crows and many other species prey on young birds. In this instance, the Grackle wasn’t actually interested in eating the young House Sparrow, it was more a crime of opportunity. He did it because he could.
Why it’s Still Worth It
The backyard Grackle trauma didn’t stop me trying to observe more baby birds. Of the ten nests that I found, all were successful except for a Cedar Waxwing nest. When I found the nest there were 4 nestlings in it and two days later the nest was empty 🙁
The other 9 nests I found were fascinating to observe and I learned so much more than just reading about the birds in a field guide. Here are some highlights:
One of the most exciting and successful nests I found was an American Redstart nest deep in the forest. I discovered it by watching the female carrying nesting materials to the nest and finish building it (see video above). I was then able to observe the entire nesting process over a few weeks until the babies fledged. One of the most fascinating aspects was how active both the male and the female were at feeding the young. They would both take turns to guard the nest while the other was out catching insects. I feel like I have a better and more meaningful understanding of Redstarts now – I’ve been there, I’ve seen how it all works!
Birds who lay their eggs in tree cavities are also interesting ones to watch – and in some ways easier as they don’t seem as bothered by people observing them. I saw a Wood Duck fly into a Pileated Woodpecker’s nest cavity and stay in there until it was driven out. I later read that Wood Ducks compete with Pileated Woodpeckers for cavity space so Wood Ducks can attempt to drive the Pileated and their young out. In this case, the Wood Duck wasn’t successful and the woodpeckers were able to raise three fledglings.
On the flip side, I also observed a mother Wood Duck swimming with 10 babies following her, including three young Hooded Mergansers! I thought that seemed a bit strange, but then I read that Hooded Mergansers lay their eggs in Wood Duck nest cavities and then leave the Wood Ducks to raise their young. Sounds ideal! What’s even more interesting is that Hooded Mergansers are diving ducks, but Wood Ducks aren’t. The young hoodies were able to learn to dive by instinct!
I also found and observed a Northern Flicker‘s nest cavity that yielded two successful fledglings.
Ironically, one of the first nests I observed this season was a Common Grackle’s nest. Their babies are cute in an ugly kind of way. They look like little aliens! The nest was deep in some reeds beside the path at a suburban marsh and the adults wouldn’t go near it if I was close. If you’re observing a nest with nestlings and the adults haven’t visited it for awhile, this is your cue to either leave the area or stand at a much greater distance from the nest. It’s likely the adults want to feed their young, but they are nervous to do so with a possible predator (you) standing so close!
This nest was successful and I showed up one afternoon and the babies had fledged and were crying out from various places around the marsh. The adults were rushing around trying to keep track of them all.
Nest cams are a great opportunity to get up close and personal with birds’ nesting habits with minimal impact on the birds. My parents live in Florida for the winter and my Mother told me about a Bald Eagle nest camera in Fort Myers that has a huge number of people who watch and follow along during the eagles’ nesting season.
When the camera was first installed in 2002, the parent eagles were fondly named Ozzie and Harriet and observers were able to see them raise 2 eaglets from birth to fledge. People began to form an emotional attachment to the eagles and in the following years, things didn’t always so as smoothly and observers were devastated when, for example, an eaglet died. The organizers decided to stop using human names for the eagles’ fledglings, but instead now use a more scientific E1, E2, E3 etc. The website also carries the following disclaimer:
Eagles are wild birds and anything can happen in the wild. The Southwest Florida Eagle Camera does not interfere or intervene and allows nature to take its course. You will see life and you might see death, but this is nature at her finest.
I couldn’t have said it better! This really is at the heart of nest-watching – you are seeing nature in the raw and you have to take the bad with the good.
I can’t wait for this season!
Despite some aspects of nesting not being for the faint of heart, I believe that the overall experience is richly rewarding. In a way, it’s almost not enough for me now just to see a bird in the wild, I want to be there and see how it nests and raises its young. I learned so much last year and, despite the risk of seeing difficult things, I am already looking forward to finding and observing more nests this season!