Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


(Transcript of For the Birds for June 13, 2011)

Every now and then, even after birding in this area for over 30 years, something unexpected and magical happens. On Memorial Day weekend, I had a perfect moment with an Ovenbird. I’ve treasured Ovenbirds since the moment I opened my first field guide to the page with this softly-colored, subtly beautiful little bird. I’d found a dead one in downtown Chicago when I was in high school, and didn’t have a clue what it was. But there it was in my field guide—and with the happy information that Ovenbirds were common in the Chicago area. I instantly became determined to see a life one.

I saw that lifer on an ornithology class field trip a few months later, and I was thrilled because I was the first one to see it. Now I’m pretty good at finding them, but it’s still tricky to find them most of the time, even though like just about all warblers with loud, easy-to-hear songs, Ovenbirds tend to sing from fairly low perches.

Ovenbirds are one of the more abundant forest birds in eastern North America. But they have very specific needs—studies show that they survive much better when their territory is in a forest interior rather than on an edge, and populations have declined with fragmentation, along power-line corridors, and where there is chronic industrial noise or seismic exploration. Ovenbirds are also one of the species killed most often at windows and lighted towers. One was killed at a window on my house back in the 80s, and Photon and I came upon one killed at a window in my apartment complex while I lived in Ithaca. Fortunately, I do see more living ones than dead ones. When I was in Guatemala a few years ago, I stayed at one lodge for four days. Every time I went past one little spot, I saw an Ovenbird quietly walking about on his winter territory. It was thrilling to realize that he’d flown the entire distance from somewhere in the eastern United States or Canada at least once, but it was also scary to think about all the hazards the endearing little guy was going to have to deal with to return.

My magical experience with an Ovenbird happened on Memorial Day weekend, when I strolled down the boardwalk at the Western Great Lakes Visitors Center in Ashland, Wisconsin. Suddenly an Ovenbird alighted on a branch just 8 or 10 feet away from me. I reflexively pulled up my camera but he didn’t seem the least afraid by the sudden movement. Even as I clicked the shutter, I was savoring the moment—I don’t think an Ovenbird has ever approached me before. I tend to be a romantic, but I don’t think birds could survive long if they inclined to romanticism. I have no idea why he came so close, and can’t even speculate. I took photos of him looking to the left, to the right, and directly at me. I don’t think I breathed during the entire 45 seconds or so that he was there. But as far as I could tell, he kept breathing just fine. Like I said, birds can’t afford to get swept away with emotion just because they’re close to a human—if anything, they need to be more on their guard than ever when a human is near. I’m afraid my species has given songbirds plenty of reasons to be wary.

I’m sure I’ll be hearing and maybe seeing plenty more Ovenbirds before the season is over. But now I have a vested interest in the well being of one particular one. I don’t think I’ll be able to drive past the Western Lake Superior Visitors Center ever again without thinking of him. And whenever I walk along the boardwalk, I know exactly who I’ll be looking for.