Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Ovenbird is a Phantom in the Woods
May 30, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     The last week of May is a good time to look for nighthawks in the evening sky. Their long, pointed wings show a white stripe near the outer end. They have a diagnostic “peent” call that they often utter as they move overhead. 

     The songbird migration is well past peak as we near the end of May. The flycatchers are among the last to move through and there still are a few warblers straggling through, including the usual late mourning warblers. Some of the summer resident warblers, including yellow, blue-winged and chestnut-sided warblers are singing on their breeding territory and many have already started nesting.

     One of those warblers that reside here in the summer is the non-warbler-like ovenbird. This bird of the woodlands spends much of its time walking along the floor of the forest, foraging for food. Their oven-shaped nest with its opening on the side (from whence the ovenbird was named)is built on the ground. It has a big song for such a small bird, as Doug Chickering of Groveland points out in relating his recent encounter with an ovenbird on Plum Island:

     “Lois and I were driving slowly north from the Hellcat area on Plum Island. We were going through our usual mid-May routine; looking for activity in the trees and the bushes along the roadside. The previous days had been very active and today was a little quieter; but there were warblers and others about…

     “We were just starting into the S curves when I caught a quick movement at the ocean side of the road. A very small bird had darted to the edge of the pavement; paused to take a nip of grit and then darted back into the thickets. Small and quick, it seemed to be a Warbler but it could have been something else. I stopped the car and caught sight of the bird in the leaf litter.

     “Ovenbird,” I said to Lois. Right down there, real close. So close I had trouble focusing it in with my ancient Zeiss 10x40s. She got right on it; her first good look at an Ovenbird this spring. I had seen one in the S curves a couple of weeks ago and two in the Grove at Salisbury the previous Friday, but this one was the best so far; and it was a thrill.

     “Of course it’s not like Ovenbird is a rarity; or even uncommon for that matter. Drive down a woodland street in Essex County and you can hear them calling from deep in the woods. A tiny phantom with a loud ringing call. I often wonder what my non-birder neighbors think what is making that clear Teacher!Teacher!Teacher! noise. 

     “From out of the deep forest the Pewee and Veery and Ovenbird seem to be magical spirits with strange and exotic calls. Lois and I always listen carefully for the first song of the Ovenbird every spring. And we always try to see one as well. This is decidedly more difficult. But this one; right at the side of the road was most cooperative and quite enchanting. 

     “It made its way carefully and deliberately across the dead oak leaves and picked its way past twigs with a light step; occasionally stopping to snap up an invisible bug or to look around alert to both food and danger. It was striking in a miniature way. The big innocent eye looking all the larger by the bright eye-ring and the sharp streaking over the breast a nice subtle contrast to the plain back and the orange stripe over the crown. Lois and I quietly took in the subtle scene, grateful for our luck.

     “It seems that a good look at an Ovenbird occurs every year. Sometimes more than once. I was once privileged to observe an Ovenbird give me a very convincing broken-wing display which is bright in my memory even today. Just another of those special moments that congregate throughout the month of May.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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