Last summer, I set out with our Smithsonian research team to find as many bird nests as I could for my first season collecting data. We focused on two species: horned larks (Eremophila alpestris), which are abundant on prairie dog towns, and chestnut-collared longspurs (Calcarius ornatus), which are found near prairie dogs and in taller grasses. The best strategy for these songbirds is to pick a well-camouflaged location and to keep their nest hidden. The last thing they want is for a predator (or researcher) to find their nest. Birds will even switch to a new spot if they realize they’ve been discovered building a nest.
Searching for nests is patience-testing work. It demands long hours following birds across the hot summer prairie without any shade. This work doesn’t require much technology: only binoculars, a handheld GPS unit, a field notebook and willpower. After training my binoculars on a female bird for 30 minutes straight, my hands would cramp and my eyes would ache. But seeing her scurry to her nest would make all the hardship melt away with the thrill of a well-earned victory.