With a sunrise now at 5:40 a.m. and setting at about 8:30 p.m., we are approaching 15 hours of daylight. This means that the daily morning walks begin earlier. May days are long and though can be chilly with snow (as seen in 2019), but also warm with much happening.
As I step from the house on this cool, clear, calm May morning, I note that I’m not alone in greeting dawn. Chipping and white-throated sparrows are in the yard. Both the local phoebes and robins are proclaiming territorial songs. Using another method of sending its ownership, yellow-bellied sapsuckers are pounding away on yard trees.
As I pass a swamp, the recently hatched Canada geese family goes into hiding. Red-winged blackbirds, male and female, are nesting here. He continues his singing that began weeks ago. A spotted sandpiper, just back from the south, bounces along the shore.
And overhead, the winnowing of a snipe adds this sound to the landscape. This persistent bird has been doing its flight for a couple weeks — dawn and dusk.
The frogs are silent at this hour and temperature. Recently, leopard frogs, with their snoring call, have joined the earlier ones, while the quacking songs of wood frogs are waning.
Passing a field, I hear the songs of song sparrows again. They are joined by the arrival of Savannah sparrows. Flying over the field are a couple of kinds of swallows — tree and rough-winged, breakfasting on any insects available.
Coming to a woods, I hear the ruffed grouse still drumming on its favorite log. I’ve heard it daily since March 28. And then I hear the sound that I have been hoping to hear during morning walks lately: the loud song of the ovenbird.
Ovenbirds are a kind of warbler. These small birds abound in the Northland and each spring, 26 species will arrive, most coming back from a winter spent in Central America. Before this month is over, we may see all of these nearly two dozen kinds, some in large numbers.
Though in spring (breeding) plumage and though all will sing, not many are as vocal and as easy to recognize as the ovenbird song that I hear now. We often turn bird songs into phrases of words that they may sound like. This one sounds like it is saying “teacher-teacher-teacher…” and for this reason, it is often called the “teacher bird."
As it is this morning, the song is loud, often repeated and easy to hear, but since the singer is small (about 6 inches), brown on its back and spotted beneath, it may be hard to see. (The only other color is an orange cap — visible only if we see it closely.)
And seeing it closely (or at all) can be hard. Not only is the bird small and brown, it stays near the forest floor where it will be nesting — easy to hear and hard to see.
The "ovenbird" name comes from its nest being a hollow beneath leaves on the ground, reminding early naturalists of a Dutch oven (not like our ovens of today).
They are not the first warbler to return to this woods. A few that winter in southern states have been here already, but their announcement of arrival is loudest. Others will be present, too, in the next couple weeks along with many May happenings.
When walking in the woods to see spring wildflowers and tree blossoms, we may hear orioles, grosbeaks and thrush songs — listen to also hear the teacher call.