Living Columns & Blogs

Forget bird watching. Here's how to bird listen

Ovenbirds are named for the resemblance of their nest to a small dome-shaped oven.  The male bird makes a rollicking “teach-er, teach-er, teach-er" sound.
Ovenbirds are named for the resemblance of their nest to a small dome-shaped oven. The male bird makes a rollicking “teach-er, teach-er, teach-er" sound. Centre Daily Times, file

A June walk in the woods is unique in so many ways. The summer heat has yet to set in; the forest canopy is filling out; and at your feet, you can still find an assortment of wildflowers. But what really catches my attention is the variety of bird songs echoing along the path. Now is the time to venture out and enjoy these sounds.

Finding birds in the deep green of a woodlot is not an easy task. But if you can recognize the melodic song of an American robin in your backyard, you can learn to recognize a trio of long distance migrants — ovenbird, wood thrush and red-eyed vireo. These birds sing to attract a mate, and each has traveled thousands of miles from South and Central America to nest in our woods.

Ovenbirds are named for the resemblance of their nest to a small dome-shaped oven. These birds spend most of the day foraging for insects on the forest floor. The song of the male is a rollicking “teach-er, teach-er, teach-er,” with each two-parted phrase getting louder as he sings. Bird song learners use mnemonics to help remember the cadence and length of the song. When you hear the ovenbird’s loud "teach-er," you might agree with the time-honored mnemonic or replace it with another word. Either method is fine, as long as you can recall the words you use.

Wood thrush inhabit the next layer up. You will hear them in the mid-canopy among the flowering dogwoods. Their song is a favorite of many a birdwatcher and — to my ears — is a sweet flute-like song of “e-o-lay.” A relative of the robin and bluebird, this thrush is well worth inviting into your awareness.

At the top of the forest, the red-eyed vireo’s short phrases of “see me ... up here ... do you?” seem to encourage you to find him. The vireo will give you plenty of opportunity as he repeats this short song thousands of times each day.

Listen for ovenbird, wood thrush and red-eyed vireo on your next walk and see if you can locate them in the different layers of the forested landscape. Once you have mastered these three, you can set your sights on the roughly 75 other songbirds that nest in and around the forests of Central Pa. Use caution when learning to recognize bird song — it may compel you to listen to recordings or down load a bird guide app for your phone. Your walk will turn into a slow saunter, and you may find that it is hard to stay out of the June woods and easy to tune into the bird songs of summer.

OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — offers more than 80 courses this summer, including the class "Breeding Birds of Stone Valley,” which will focus on birds nesting near Shaver’s Creek. To receive a free catalog for this semester, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or email olli@psu.edu.

Doug Wentzel, a true nature lover, is an attentive watcher, learner and teacher. For more than 25 years, he has enjoyed the landscape around Shaver's Creek.
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