The Adventure of the Empty House

Text & photography by Sharon Beals

Taragana Pyjarama – Lo Ng
Lo Ng (2012)

With a childhood spent ranging with a tribe of neighbourhood kids in the remnants of wild at the outskirts of Seattle, the odds were high that my photographic vision would eventually cross paths with bird’s nests. But this instinct didn’t find its trajectory until 10 years ago, after reading Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind, Across the Hemisphere with Migrating Birds. In this fascinating book, he explains how birds find their way—navigating by the stars, magnetic fields, polarized light, or even might be inherited instinct. But besides the science of migration, he also describes what they encounter along the way, and at the beginning and end of what for many are journeys of thousands of miles.

Adventure Of The Empty House3

Small Ground Finch, Geospiza fuliginosa

With great luck I was granted access to the collection of nests and eggs at The California Academy of Sciences, an experience of a lifetime. Arranged in cabinets in what seemed at the time to be an arcane and mysterious order were at least a thousand nests, from nearly all over the world, many with yellowed collection tags identifying its builder in century old script. My first eager survey found so many different methods of construction and use of materials that I was propelled into a tunnel of obsession, trying to document the most visually interesting, and also as many nests of endangered birds that I could find. Smitten by each one in turn, the very first nest to endear me was a fragile handful of gull feathers and twigs that turned out to have been built by a pair of Bank Swallows right here at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, cliff dwellers that build nests at the end of a tunnel they dig anew in the Spring when they return from winters in South America.

Adventure Of The Empty House

California Quail Eggs, Mendocino County

*Collecting nests is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Many of those illegally collected nests have been returned to the wild or donated to the California Academy Of Sciences for use in the nature education programs.

Read more in N°4: Flight.