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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #17: Ovenbird

When we think of warblers, we tend to think of small, brightly-colored birds like the Yellow Warbler or American Redstart. Even most of the drab warblers have some sign of bright yellow or green about them. Yet there are some warblers that are almost all brown, almost looking like thrushes. Several of these are in the genus Seiurus: Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Waterthrush, and Ovenbird. For today's post, by subject will be the last of these.

I saw my first ovenbird a little more than two years ago, during my first real spring migration. I was walking the trail from the Nature Center down to the picnic areas when I heard a loud, two-syllable song coming from the left side of the trail - teacher! teacher! teacher!. At the time I was just starting to learn bird songs, and I recognized this as a possible ovenbird song. Knowing that ovenbirds tend to forage on the ground, I searched for it there. Well, my search of the ground turned up no ovenbird. As I was going to leave in frustration, some movement caught my eye, and I spotted a small, brown bird perched on a bare branch at about eye-level.

Ovenbird / Photo by Steve Maslowski (USFWS)

Sure enough, it matched my ovenbird illustrations: brown back, white breast spotted with brown, big white eye-ring, and orange crown. (This last is the "aurocapillus" of its species name.) The eye-ring and lack of white eyebrows will distinguish an ovenbird from both waterthrushes. Having played hard-to-get, it then obliged with several renditions of its song while I watched through my binoculars at reasonably close range. (Slow movement and standing perfectly still has its benefits.)

Ovenbirds are fairly common in the Mid-Atlantic from the middle of spring through early fall. In Maryland they have been found breeding in all counties and geological provinces. Their nest is a small "oven" of twigs and leaves built on the ground. (See nest illustrations here and here.) While widespread, the ovenbird is confined to forests with sufficient understory to hide a nest. Forest size is important as well, since ovenbirds prefer larger tracts where they are less likely to fall victim to brown-headed cowbirds and various nest predators.

I will leave with the thoughts of Robert Frost, who wrote a poem on The Oven Bird:

THERE is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten. 5
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all. 10
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

(Thanks to NY State Bird Songs for the link.)

Note: Ovenbirds in North America are wood warblers. They are not related to the ovenbird family of Central and South America.

Crossposted at A DC Birding Blog and Blue Ridge Gazette.



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