Last week, I discussed the worm-eating warbler, which is one of the more drab warblers in terms of appearance. I think that must have started a trend, because so far this migration season has been dominated by some of the less colorful — but still very interesting — warblers. The opening days of September brought with them the annual fall parade of migrating warblers. As usual, this yearly opportunity to view visiting warblers began as a trickle of species but has picked up in intensity as each day passed.
By Sunday, Sept. 11, I had already observed close to a dozen species of warblers, including hooded warbler, black-throated green warbler, Northern waterthrush, ovenbird, magnolia warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black-and-white warbler, Tennessee warbler, and American redstart.
One of the first warblers to arrive at my home this spring was the enigmatic ovenbird. With its loud, ringing song — “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” — it’s impossible not to notice the arrival of this warbler. Why describe this warbler as enigmatic? For starters, ovenbirds do not easily permit even stealthy birders to glimpse them. I have gotten good looks at ovenbirds throughout the years, but they are still difficult to observe. They are one of the warblers more easily heard than seen. When they are observed, it’s usually no more than a fleeting look before the bird dives back into heavy cover. That’s not always the case, however.
I’ve actually seen three different ovenbirds this fall, with increasingly good looks at this warbler each time I have encountered it. The ovenbird is not one of the brightly colored warblers, such as black-throated blue warbler or yellow warbler. The ovenbird is a small brown bird with a white breast with dark streaking — an appearance that bears a superficial resemblance to the larger thrushes that share the same woodland habitat. The only hint of color is an orange crown bordered by dark stripes atop the bird’s head. Even this orange crown patch is not easily seen. When agitated, an ovenbird may raise its head feathers, which makes this orange mark easier to detect. The ovenbirds I’ve observed recently have all shown off that orange crown patch to great effect. The ovenbird also has a distinct white ring around its eyes, as well as pink legs and a pinkish bill.
The ovenbird, unlike many warblers, is not named for its appearance. Instead, the bird’s name derives from the shape of the nest it builds. The nest is a domed structure placed on the ground, woven from vegetation and containing a side entrance. Early European settlers in North America thought the nest looked like a Dutch oven, hence the name “ovenbird” for the small warbler with the intricate nest.
Rather than hopping along the length of a branch or limb, an ovenbird walks in a deliberate fashion. This bird feeds on insects, spiders and other small prey items foraged from the woodland floor. On rare occasions, a lingering ovenbird shows up at feeders during the winter months.
Ovenbirds spend the summer nesting season in mature deciduous and mixed forests across Canada and the eastern United States. They do not make as lengthy a migration as that undertaken by some of their relatives. Ovenbirds migrate each fall to the southeastern United States, the West Indies, and from Mexico to northern South America for the winter season.
The two warblers most closely related to the ovenbird are the Louisiana waterthrush and Northern waterthrush. These atypical warblers share a preference for leading lives spent mostly near the ground adjacent to streams. The Louisiana waterthrush seeks out the rushing water of our mountain streams during early spring while the Northern waterthrush prefers quiet pools of water farther north during its nesting season. The ovenbird, however, is not as closely associated with water.
While I have used the adjective “drab” to describe some of these brown warblers, it is not truly accurate. Although these warblers lack bright colors like orange, yellow and blue, they have an incredible, subtle beauty all their own. In the coming weeks, I will discuss some of the brighter warblers in this fascinating family of migratory songbirds.
Warblers are not the only birds migrating through the region. Other notable migrants I’ve observed recently have included common nighthawks, red-eyed vireos and green herons.
Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.