Trying to Spot an Ovenbird

Continued from Spring Warblers in the Rangeley Lakes Region.

The path we were following was an old loop trail that headed up the hill, merged onto a logging road that traversed a ridge line, then curved back to Grants Camps and the main road. The track was narrow, covered here and there with giant piles of fresh moose droppings, making me wonder if there was some huge moose nearby.

I love moose, but I was always wary about coming face to face with one on the trail. Did I mention they are huge? Did I also mention they have tiny brains? Though in general they are very docile creatures and will just run away when spotted, most Mainers know someone who knows someone who was chased by a moose for who knows why. I myself have seen one race a car along the road instead of ducking into the safety of the underbrush, and my mom literally hid from one behind a tree when it started following her during rutting season; at the time, she was eight months pregnant with me! Needless to say when I gingerly step over their droppings I remind myself to keep eyes and ears alert.

birding, nature, maine

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Rustad, aka Mom.

After our raucous entry into morning birding, the woods fell mostly silent again. A few Black-capped Chickadees giggled from the branches above us, and a lone Winter Wren sang its flute-like song from somewhere near the brook. The trail meandered along, and we picked our way up the hill and then back down.

In a small clearing near a particularly rocky section of the stream we heard a loud call that stopped us.

Teacher-teacher-teacher the bird seemed to say, gaining intensity and volume as it continued. We had just run into an Ovenbird.

Ovenbirds are members of the warbler family, and are brown with streaked breasts. Known for running about on the forest floor, they can be very hard to see, though hearing them is no problem at all. I had never seen an Ovenbird before, and I was determined to find it.

Now, according to official birding rules – yes, there are official rules for birding and species you can “count” on your life list – if you hear a bird species you can count it. While it’s true you do not have to be able to see them, I was stubborn with my own list. I had to see the bird, at least one time, before I could count its call. Why? The answer is simple: I’m not very good at identifying bird songs. I easily confuse what should be easy calls with other familiar birds, and it’s embarrassing how many times I have thought I was hearing a brand new bird only to find it was another Northern Cardinal or Northern Mockingbird. Seeing the bird and then identifying its call was a fool-proof method of not confusing myself.

ovenbird, maine, birding, nature

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Rustad, aka Mom.

My mother had seen Ovenbirds dozens of times, but she patiently waited for me when I insisted on tracking this one down. I crept carefully along the pine needle path, pausing every time I heard the call and changing direction ever so slightly.

There,” I hissed to myself, running a few steps when I thought I caught a glimpse of a feathered form dodging beneath the underbrush. But by the time I had stopped and raised my camera (I also felt the need to photograph a first-time bird), it had disappeared.

Teacher-teacher-teacher ­its voice continued to ring out – directly behind me! I whirled around, once again tiptoeing my way over to what I thought was the source. For a moment it remained silent, and I wondered if it had flown off, but suddenly the call materialized, once again behind me!

I muttered a few choice expletives and followed it, realizing that I was making circle after circle, like an insane person. Every time I thought I had made it just close enough the bird vocalized behind me. Only once more did I see the faintest hint of an outline, but by the time I caught up with it the bird was dozens of feet away.

birding, maine, nature, ovenbird

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Rustad, aka Mom.

Waiting all the while, my mom finally suggested we move on. Annoyed, I reluctantly followed her, staring over my shoulder as the teacher-teacher-teacher cry slowly faded into the distance. Luckily no one had seen me look like an idiot except for my mother, and she is obligated to love me.

The trail was not long, and it quickly led out of the woods and onto the dirt road through Grants Camps. Though it was just past seven a.m. the whole place was awake, heading to breakfast or out fishing on the river or the lake.


Erika Zambello

About Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer, born and raised in Maine. She has a bachelor’s degree in Government and Anthropology from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Duke University, specializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by her childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016.