Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

On Hearing the First Ovenbird of Spring*

*with apologies to Frederick Delius.

This has been a wacky migration season. We have had a spring in New Jersey that was first too wet, then too warm, then very cold. Just as the birds started heading north, the winds started coming from the northeast.

Thanks to this weather, many of the birds that would have come through New Jersey were pushed to the west, a bonanza for birders in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Until I read the recent reports of more experienced birders, including Don Freiday, who runs the birding paradise known as Brigantine, I had wondered if I had finally lost my ability to find birds. Here it was late April and I had yet to find any of the early migrants, including such warblers as the pine, palm or even the myrtle, which can be found in southern New Jersey over the winter.

It was making me rather depressed, to be honest. Age has finally caught up to you, I thought. You aren't willing to get up before dawn and seek out the birds.

So I rose early several times and walked from my house to the Central Park of Morris County, aka the old Greystone mental hospital property, now a county park. I found some migrants - phoebes, redwinged blackbirds, chipping sparrows - and noticed the winter juncos and white-throated sparrows were either much reduced in number or gone altogether, replaced by chattering goldfinches.

No warblers. My bad luck continued.

Or so I thought. Never underestimate a determined bird. I rose one morning before dawn a few weeks ago and drove to part of the wilderness area of Great Swamp. In the past I have had many magical mornings here, such as the time I drove up and, without leaving the car, heard and saw a pair of mourning warblers, not the easiest warbler to find, sitting on the fence post in front of me.

This is where experience counts as much as luck. In the first place I went, a wet area not too muddy for once, I knew I'd find yellow warblers and common yellow-throats because they breed in such areas. I found them, but only one of each, which was unusual. I was compensated, however, by a hunting redshouldered hawk, a very vocal pileated woodpecker and a singing brown thrasher.

The next area I visited was muddy, as usual, made worse by the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy six months before. This area had been closed for months after, and those who had come through did the very minimum to make the trail passable although in two places I was glad to have my stick to help me get over two downed trees. (This is, after all, a wilderness area - as opposed to the management area across the road.) With trees uprooted, the flooding from subsequent rain was not sucked up and became big, stagnant ponds - prime mosquito habitat this summer.

It was in here that I was able to finally find a pine warbler, palm warbler, many blue-gray gnatcatchers and, most unexpected, an American redstart, a warbler I ususally find much later in the season.

Ultimately, I found seven types of warblers. This satisfied me for a while. Then I started to wonder about one warbler I usually hear relatively early on, the ovenbird.

Ovenbird on the left, pine warbler on the right, drinking from a
Pinelands puddle, 2011
This picture from two years ago is the best I have of this bird, unfortunately. It is a rather unusual shot because like many birds, this one prefers to skulk in shrubbery. The only reason this one was in the open was it was drinking from a puddle created by recent rain during a very hot summer in the New Jersey Pinelands.

This warbler prefers the ground to the trees and has nary a bit of yellow in it.

Ovenbirds could be mistaken for thrushes but for three things: They are olive in color rather than brownish or rufous, they are striped rather than spotted and they have a wide orange stripe on their head. When I used to pass Bryant Park in NYC on the way to work I would often find an ovenbird skulking under the hedges at the park's edges, which happened to be elevated above street level.

But the ovenbird more than makes up for its secretive behavior by its loud and familiar song, which sounds to me like Tea-CHUR, Tea-CHUR, Tea-CHUR although the books give it as "teacher, teacher, teacher" with the stress on the first syllable.

This is one of the most common birds in the forest, but when I went into my favorite forests I didn't find it.

Until yesterday.

One of the other nice things about spring is asparagus. Sure, you can buy asparagus all year round in the market but it is not local and the taste isn't as good as getting a bunch just picked from the closest farm.

Every May I go to one to buy many bunches of asparagus to use fresh and also make into soup. I went there yesterday to buy a couple more bunches and decided to drive home through Jockey Hollow, which was a Revolutionary War winter encampment that didn't get the press of Valley Forge. It is now a federal park.

It has a paved tour road and on weekends I frequently have to pull over to let those exceeding the 20 mph speed limit by. Yesterday, a weekday, there was only one car during my entire trip and so I could drive 15 mph. That allowed me to hear a number of Eastern towhees doing their "drink your TEA!" song or variants (David Sibley says the song is "highly variable" and he's right) plus a wood thrush.

It was then, as I stopped to listen to my first Baltimore oriole of the season - another bird I should've heard by now - that I heard the ovenbird.

I was relieved. Finally.

My husband likes to remind me the birds are not waiting around for me. Nor do they follow a road map. At some point the winds are going to come out of the right direction and I will get up early on another morning and travel to my favorite spots and find the birds I should've found by now, including scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak and worm-eating warbler.

I will put aside concerns about global warming, unusually cold and wet springs and winds from the wrong direction. I will trust that I will find the migrants, maybe even some new birds, and be happy once again.

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