Father and 14-year-old son write about rare bird
FATHER AND SON: University of Massachusetts Amherst geoscientist, Douglas Hardy and Spencer, 14, at their home in Norwich, Vt. (Photo: Alden Pellett/Associated Press)
A scholarly article on the white-winged diuca finch lists co-author Spencer P. Hardy's affiliation as Marion W. Cross School. The word "Elementary" was dropped.
But to the ornithological world, the age of now 14-year-old Spencer Hardy is irrelevant to the phenomenon he helped document on a high-altitude ice field, in a mountain range he's never visited, thousands of miles from his Vermont home: the first well-documented case in the world of a species other than penguins successfully nesting on the ice of a glacier.
"It gives you some idea of the adaptations that birds have undergone to utilize all spaces, all the niches that are out there, from living in Death Valley to living at 18,000 feet in the Andes in Peru," said Wilson Journal Editor Clait Braun, of Tucson, Ariz., who published the paper by Spencer and his scientist father in September.
It wasn't until Braun was finalizing the paper with the Hardys and he asked for the academic pedigree of Spencer that he found out the boy's age. "I was pretty well stunned," said Braun.
"We don't get very many papers from people like that," he said. He says most authors are graduate students or even older birders. Spencer's co-author was his father Douglas, a glacier specialist with the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The journal itself was founded more than a century ago by young bird enthusiasts, Braun said. But by young, Braun meant men in their late teens and early 20s.
Spencer, who's been interested in birds since he stared at flocks from his high chair, is now a ninth grader at Hanover (N.H.) High School, where he studies traditional high school science and other subjects. The birding is done outside school.
He seems unfazed by the attention his birding skills are bringing him.
"It's a neat experience. I don't have anything to compare it against," Spencer said. "Hopefully, it will be one of many to come."
His fascination with birds evolved into real-life study. At 6 or 7, he was working with established birders on local bird counts and breeding surveys.
Since he couldn't drive, his parents had to take him where he needed to go, getting his parents involved, too.
His father started visiting the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru in 2003 as part of his work to help get a long-term climate history through dust trapped over the centuries in the ice at about 18,000 feet above sea level.
It was Spencer's fascination with birds that led the elder Hardy to take pictures of every bird he saw in Peru.
After Douglas Hardy came home, Spencer would pore over the photos and use bird books to identify the species.
It was during that process that Douglas Hardy started noticing the nests on the ice. So the Hardys shared their findings with Norwich neighbor George Clark, a retired biologist from the University of Connecticut who has helped groom the young ornithologist.
Then they had to figure out which species made the nests.
"We got it down to two species, mainly from the size (of the nests) and what was around and abundant in the area," Spencer said.
A feather expert at the Smithsonian Institution made the link to the finches.
"The discovery of this is really kind of a new frontier," said Clark. "Physically, we think much of the globe has been covered... This is an area that people just haven't visited."
Two years ago, Douglas Hardy queried the Wilson Journal about a paper on the ice birds. He didn't make an effort to list Spencer as a co-author until after he spoke with professional birders, who persuaded him that given Spencer's level of input, he merited a co-author tag.
"My first step was to go to the editor and say, 'I want to be totally honest with you, he's my son, I can't see objectively about this,'" Douglas Hardy said.
But Braun said the science — and Spencer's contribution to it — was sound.
"It's just not the casual person who can pick this stuff up and turn it into scientific prose," Braun said. "Spencer deserves a lot of credit to get his Dad to get more information and then helping his Dad get it turned into a scientific paper."
When the paper was finalized there was some discussion about which of Spencer's schools should be listed. They chose the school he attended when the journal first accepted the paper, the Norwich elementary school.
Spencer's birding is done outside his school, but he says his future, without a doubt, includes the formal study of ornithology.