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Seek the common


Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche By Ranger Steve Mueller

Venture to a willow thicket and enjoy its rich beauty of sights and sounds. Pussy willows already came and went this year. Willow species enchant the wet hollow in the middle of the old field. A large willow tree stood sentinel in the field when the rest was farmed. The field was not easily accessible and in the late 1980’s was abandoned.

Field corn was grown but now the isolated field has reverted to the wild. A half-mile long tractor trail through the woods is filled with encroaching vegetation. On high ground, a mature oak woods provided nesting habitat for the Ovenbird that calls “teacher, teacher, teacher” well into summer and persists calling throughout the day. It is a small warbler that builds a unique nest that looks like a Dutch oven. The well-hidden domed nest on the ground has a small entrance opening from the side. Only once have I found a nest. 

The bird, though common in mature forests, avoids being seen. Its voice is loud but not many people get to enjoy its subtle beauty that blends with forest floor where it walks to feed. An olive back casts a hint of green but its head boasts the brightest markings. It has a white ring surrounding a piercing black eye. Two black lines streak from the bill over the top of the head bordering orange feathers between them. It is necessary to look carefully to see details on the tiny bird about the size of an egg with a tail. Binoculars help capture details.

Feathers that blend well with forest floor contrast with its white underside. Scattered black stripes on the chest break up the white-feathered underbelly when viewed from beneath. I have taken people bird watching that have never seen the ovenbird despite decades of searching. Books report that the bird sings from the forest floor and I am sure they do but that is not where I usually encounter them. 

During a previous Memorial Day weekend exploration, I advised viewers to look on branches about ten feet above ground for the songster. Leaves had already expanded making it a bit more challenging to locate the bird but we succeeded. Its teacher, teacher, teacher song echoed through the forest. The loud call appeared to come from the ground and trees. Difficulty locating the mysterious location helps protect the bird from predators.

I have lead guide tours for decades to help others locate the singing bird. Guidebooks advise looking on the ground and I have found them there but less frequently than above. A woman on my walk was elated to finally see one after years of seeking it but never locating one. She discovered the common bird was in a different location from the search image she had been taught to seek. She thanked me profusely. 

One should never get locked into narrow focus even when the experts tell us where to look. The joy for me has always been exploring to discover animal behavior on my own. Head out using advice from books to help you but do not become overly dependent on them. Realize books do not always relate the most accurate information. Many skilled hunting friends are sharper than me but not always. We keep learning from new experiences in the wild and find what we thought we knew is not always how things work in nature niches. 

After exiting the old tractor trail through the woods and entering what was a cultivated field, a willow and alder thicket now traverses its low wet center. The Common Yellowthroat claims the habitat for its singing, mating, and nesting. Now that willows have mostly completed flowering, seeds are forming, and leaves hide branches, the yellowthroat announces its presence. Like the ovenbird, it is one of the louder warblers.

It is willing to show itself and will investigate you. Its song is a loud “Witchity, Witchity, Witchity”. A bright yellow breast helps us locate it among shrubs. It has a bold black mask that wraps around the face over the bill. The yellow chin and throat below offer great visual contrast. Above the dark mask is a white band. Though the rest of the bird’s pattern is a subdued olive like the ovenbird’s, its bright front is obvious and easy to locate. It is not shy and can be located in most willow thickets. Seek the common in woods and thickets. Do not let spring pass you by. For many of us, the outdoors is more enticing than phones, television, or electronics games.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.


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