Last week, I received a video from an alert reader, asking me to identify a friendly bird romping through his flower bed. The bird in question was overly tame, undismayed by someone standing over it, recording its every move. It was an ovenbird.
Ovenbirds are skulky woodland warblers that forage and nest on the ground. They build a nest that resembles a Dutch oven, hence the name. We have many in Maine, but they tend to hide in the woods. To have one frolicking amidst backyard hydrangeas is unusual.
Or not. Several days later, I was still wondering why that ovenbird was making itself so obvious. Then, it hit me. That’s what ovenbirds do in the winter!
Ovenbirds overwinter in the tropics and subtropics, including southern Florida. I see them whenever I visit the Everglades. Their foraging behavior in the south is similar to Maine. I often spy them scuffing through the leaf litter under palms and mangroves.
But I’ve also observed them regularly in courtyards and backyards, sometimes right next to the barbecue grill. Without the need to protect youngsters, ovenbirds in winter are surprisingly unconcerned about people.
The same goes for palm warblers. In Maine, they favor remote, boggy areas — completely the opposite of the kind of habitat they use in winter, hence the name palm warbler. I’ve seen them scurrying around the edges of weedy fields, baseball diamonds and parking lots in Florida.
The Tennessee warbler is about as badly named as any warbler in history. This small songbird prefers spruce forests and Maine’s breeders are in the northern part of the state. They winter in the Caribbean and through Central America down to Brazil.
The only time these birds are ever in Tennessee is when they’re in migration. They happened to be first documented in Tennessee while passing through, hence the name. I’ve been to Costa Rica a couple of times, and seeing this spruce-loving bird atop a palm tree makes me laugh every time.
Chestnut-sided warblers make me laugh harder. They are plentiful in Maine, and rather picky about habitat. They like parks and regenerating woodlands, where shrubs and young trees are prevalent. In winter, they like jungles. There are tons of them in Costa Rica. Go figure.
The truth is, many of the birds that we think of as “ours” are merely here for five months. Then they fly off, and belong to somebody else. Often, their behavior elsewhere is different from their behavior here. And why shouldn’t it be?
The tropics provide very different habitat. Insect eaters relish Maine’s buggy climate in June, but they would perish if they hunted for bugs in January. The jungles offer an abundance of insect life, but also an abundance of competition.
Much of the competition is due to the squeeze factor. Roughly 68 percent of the Earth’s land mass is in the northern hemisphere. When our birds fly to the tropics in winter, they must squeeze into a much smaller territory, competing with all the year-round resident birds, as well as all the other migrant species that flee Maine’s winter for somewhere more equatorial. It’s an OK place to spend the winter, but not a great place to raise kids.
Canada warblers may be named for our neighbor to the north, but they spend most of the year in Nicaragua, Colombia and Brazil. Cape May warblers, another species that mostly nests in Aroostook County, lounge around the Caribbean all winter. Wilson’s warblers like wet sprucy areas of the North Maine Woods — and winter throughout Central America. It seems that, like humans, changes in latitude mean changes in attitude.
Naturally, some birds seek habitat in the southern hemisphere that is identical to their breeding grounds. Maine’s bobolinks and upland sandpipers leave Maine’s grasslands, and journey all the way to similar grasslands in Argentina.
All of Maine’s broad-winged hawks are leaving right this minute. Most will migrate all the way to Brazil. In the Amazon River basin, they’ll avoid the jungle and hang out around the edges of the forests and dry scrubby areas, just as they do here.
Imagine having to deal with an entirely different set of threats. Our ruby-throated hummingbirds are currently winging their way to Central America. In Maine, backyard cats are their biggest predators. In the tropics, where there are many species of hummingbirds, some snake species specialize in hunting hummers. Vipers slither up the flower stalks. and patiently wait among the attractive blossoms.
Please be careful, Maine birds. It’s a jungle out there.