Nests on Ice

02-01-2009 // Hannah Schardt

ON A 2003 TRIP to measure glacial melting in the Peruvian Andes, geoscientist Douglas Hardy happened upon a surprising sight: a partially intact bird’s nest. What bird would build a nest in such brutal conditions—perched atop a glacier nearly 19,000 feet above sea level? Last year, the climate researcher solved the mystery with the help of a dedicated assistant: his 14-year-old son, Spencer.

Hardy returned from that first visit with dozens of photographs of birds he had never seen—and of the remarkably placed nest. Spencer, then 9 and already an avid birder, spent hours poring over the photos and identifying species with the help of books. But the nest was always in the back of his mind.

“We realized that the nest on ice was fairly unusual,” says Spencer, who started narrowing down the species that could have built it. After looking at photographs of intact nests from his father’s subsequent trips, Spencer concluded that the bird in question was one of two species: a ground tyrant or a diuca finch. When his father returned from the site with feathers found around the nests, the Hardys got a conclusive answer from a bird expert at the Smithsonian Institution: The nests belonged to diuca finches. After further research, the father and son determined that they had found the only bird other than penguins known to nest on glacial ice. “It’s a really uncomfortable place to be,” says Douglas Hardy.

Up next for the Vermont high school freshman: applying for a grant that will allow him to make the next trip with his father to conduct some firsthand research of his own.

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