Some wild weather in early autumn with stronger winds than usual brought me up close and personal with some of nature’s most incredible creations. I’m talking birds’ nests or more precisely caliology, the name given to their scientific study.
It seemed that one afternoon when high winds were rocking the trees above me on the lower slopes of Mt Wellington it was raining nests.
The large, bulky structure of a grey currawong’s nest landed at my feet on a mountain trail, I came across a Bassian thrush’s nest dislodged from the mossy roots of an ancient fallen tree and then I found what looked like the perfectly rounded nest of a pink robin among man ferns near the Silver Falls.
Luckily it was at the end of the nesting season and it appeared the nests had been long abandoned by parents and young.
Since childhood I have been fascinated by nests, engineering and architectural marvels that generally can withstand the worst that the weather – be it rain or high winds – can throw at them.
There was a time when school children, myself included, hunted for nests to collect their eggs but this practice is not only frowned upon in these more enlightened times, but outlawed.
My generation growing up in the 1950s and 1960s was possibly the last to have collections of eggs but, like previous nature lovers who had gone before us, we meant no harm. Usually we only took a single egg, which was “blown” to remove the yolk and proudly displayed in a cabinet, often along with butterflies.
I was lucky enough to find all my favourite nests this summer, both active and abandoned. These included the creation of the pink robin, which I always think looks like a bagel decorated with moss and lichens.
Another favourite nest is that of the Bassian thrush, which is a beautifully-built cup of mud and grass. It is the same type of nest commonly found in suburban gardens, built by the blackbird.
The nest of the grey fantail, which I have found in my garden, is shaped like a wine glass, with a grassy stem. The nest is suspended from a twiggy branch.
When I lived in Africa many years ago I was constantly drawn to the nests of masked weaver birds, which as their name suggests build finely-woven nests usually suspended above water. They are designed to deter snakes.
The male masked weaver builds the nest and then persuades females to inspect it. If the structure is not considered perfect, the female, like an avian building inspector, rejects it and demands the male build another. If her suitor can’t get it right, she moves on to a more skilled master builder.
Nests come in all shapes and sizes but generally are placed by caliologists in seven distinct categories which range from mounds, burrows and cavities to cups, pendant structures and spheres, or enclosed nests. There are also the simplest constructions, mere scrapes in beaches, and cases in which birds do not bother to build nests at all. The auks, for instance, lay their eggs on cliff ledges, the eggs markedly pointed at one end to ensure they do not roll off the ledge and into the sea.
King and emperor penguins have the most curious “nest” solution of all. They merely rest their eggs on their feet, with a covering of feathers on their lower legs, to keep them warm.