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Northern Minnesota phenology report: May 2012

Mid-May brings the return of the ovenbird. A diminutive non-descript forest dweller, the ovenbird migrates at night and announces his arrival on the breeding territory with a loud proclamation of “teacher, teacher, teacher.” (You can hear it here.) So loud that it is possible to hear this fellow from the open window of a passing car. Despite its loud call finding this bird can occupy large portions of a person’s day. They remain relatively motionless while singing and blend well with their surroundings.

CC-licensed photo by Ken Schneider. Click for a larger version.

Those surroundings are mature hardwood forests. Ovenbirds prefer large uninterrupted forests even though they defend a relatively small home territory. Shady glens may be home to several pairs of ovenbirds, and you might hear them defending their chosen places from rivals.

If you’re lucky enough to see an ovenbird you’ll discover a sparrow-sized bird with an olive green back and a white breast marked with black streaks. The eye is ringed with white and the top of the head has two dark lines. In the hand you’d notice a bright orange patch of feathers outlined by the two bold black lines on the top of the head. I’ve seen a few ovenbirds in the forest and the orange patch has never been apparent.

The ovenbird makes a ground nest and adds a lid of leaves and grasses to aid in concealment. It is this unusual nest that gives the ovenbird its name. The early naturalists were reminded of a Dutch oven when they encountered these nests. I’ve never actually stumbled across an ovenbird’s nest. And “stumbled across” is the right expression since they are disguised and very difficult to locate. Almost everyone who has discovered a nest has done so by nearly stepping upon it, causing its occupant to flee. Like the killdeer she may pretend to have a broken wing and try to lead you away from her home. Don’t be fooled, concentrate on the spot you first saw the bird, perhaps you’ll find her nest.

CC-licensed photo by K.P. McFarland. Click for larger version.

When ovenbirds move about on the ground they walk with style. They move across the forest floor with aplomb, stepping high, head bobbing, tail often raised. Like a dancer, their movements are measured and graceful. Pausing to assess their terrain they disrupt this image of pomposity by bobbing their tail. The scientific name for their genus is Seiurus and it means, “to wave the tail”.

One feature of the ovenbird remains mysterious. That is the so- called “flight song”. John Burroughs describes it as follows. “Wait till the inspiration of the flight song is upon it. What a change! Up it goes through the branches of the trees, leaping from limb to limb, faster and faster, till it shoots from the tree-tops fifty or more feet in the air above them, and bursts into an ecstasy of song, rapid, ringing, lyrical; no more like its habitual song than a match is like a rocket…” Quite a description and the change is so complete that it left Thoreau baffled. He mentions hearing the song of the “night warbler” at least fifteen times in his journals. He became so obsessed with trying to identify the bird doing the singing that his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson cautioned him that he should stop trying to find out what bird it was lest he make the discovery and thereafter lose all interest in life.

I have yet to become obsessed with the flight song of the ovenbird, but I will certainly be listening dawn and dusk to see if I can pick it out from among all the other birds certain to be singing in the month of May.

John Latimer is well known throughout northern Minnesota for his phenology work.  John appears weekly on KAXE radio in Grand Rapids, and audio and twitter archives are available here. We hope his work will be a frequent feature on MyMinnesotaWoods.  This article also appeared in the Duluth Senior Journal.  It is printed with the author’s permission.

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