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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A mossy gym sock in a tree

Photo: California Academy of Sciences

Many years ago when I was in junior high school the California Academy of Sciences had a diorama of nesting bushtits. The nest was a fine work of animal architecture that looked as soft as a wool sock. The engineers were tiny bits of bird fluff perched in the nest's domed entrance and on a nearby twig.

I never failed to pay a visit to that diorama and other favorites on Saturday excursions to the academy, but I never managed to find a bushtit's nest, which is probably just as well.

The bird-nest-collecting phase of my youth ended abruptly one August day when my family returned home from summer vacation. When we entered the house our legs started to itch. The itching quickly spread upwards, and soon we were all scratching wildly. We were feeding thousands of hungry fleas.

My mother immediately concluded that my bird nest collection was the cause and unceremoniously consigned it to the garbage can. I felt it was an unfair rush to judgement. I mean, we DID have a dog and dog bedding in the house. However, if a bushtit nest had been among those discarded treasures, I might still be in therapy.

My appreciation of bushtit nests lay dormant for nearly a half century, but when we returned to California, I was thrilled again to watch these self-absorbed bits of fluff foraging in the oaks around the house.

 I knew something was up two weeks ago when on two consecutive days I encountered a pair in the vicinity of a particular canyon live oak.

 Then I discovered a "mossy gym sock", their unmistakable feat of engineering--dangling 8 feet above my head.

The next day I drove a post into the ground under the nest. It was no small feat getting the camera trap into position.

Gauging the position of the motion sensor in relation to the nest hole was a trying experience, because the camera was at the end of 4 lengths of interconnecting square tubing.

Then I discovered that the limbs and the bird nest changed position almost daily!

Apparently the wind caused the branches to interlock differently at times. I finally resorted to three guy lines to adjust the camera's position on a daily basis.

The bushtits overcame their fear of the camera on the third visit.

Then they disappeared down the hole, and the nest alternately vibrated and bulged here and there as they lined the inside with plant down.

The next day the 1 gigabyte memory stick was filled to capacity with pictures of the oak leaves lashing the camera. Spring breezes had triggered the camera every 4-12 seconds.

Now I understood why bushtits make nests shaped like socks.

Two days later, I got a few superb shots of the bushtits in the still of the morning, but I lost the files due to sloppy computer technique.

Finally, after two weeks of twice-daily visits I got the pictures I was seeking--the male and the female (with the silver eyes) in the nest hole--just as I remembered them from the Cal Academy in the late 1950s.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Library Assistant Karren Elsbernd for scanning the image of the bushtit diorama, and the California Academy of Sciences for permission to reproduce it here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, there, Codger!
My niece has been researching Bushtits since some have been pecking at a window at her mother's house in southern California. She excitedly told me about having read about bushtit nests on a blog by a guy who called himself some kind of "Codger"--guess who? I told her I follow your blog and hope to finally take your class at the Sierra Nevada Field Station this year!
Great effort documenting this nest! Can't wait to meet you!
JoEllen Arnold