Blog Post

A Nocturnal Courting Mystery…

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends. Today’s post is an unplanned, real-life story that took place over the past two days. It has to do with birds, romance, mysteries and lifelong learning. I hope you enjoy it!

It all began with an integrity check.

As a firm believer in the importance of citizen science (aka “‘community science”), I’ve regularly participated in a number of wildlife studies that depended on the observations and data collection of regular folks who cared about the world around them. “Like what?,” you might ask? Well, here’s a few projects that come to mind:

  • I can recall hundreds of humid summer evening bike rides with a toddler in tote, scanning rural backroads for turtles crossing.
  • I vividly remember leading groups of volunteers on the wild, snowy trails of the Canadian north woods, following packs of wolves.
  • I can still feel the spruce needles in my underwear after spending a day snowshoeing on miles of snaking trails of the elusive Canada lynx, hoping to collect a DNA sample that would contribute to important scientific research.

For me, having a NEED is a great motivator for action and results. The act of giving back via citizen science projects sometimes fills that NEED for me in my work. So, when 2020 rolled around and I realized that I wasn’t part of any such projects, I decided to change that.

Via a chance phone call with Maine Audubon’s conservation biologist, Tracy Hart, I learned about the Forestry for Maine Birds program, and offered to volunteer my time. Volunteers are given a few audio files (each 2.5 hrs in length) and are asked to use their “birding by ear” skills to identify the different species heard during the recordings. As a practiced bird nerd of a few decades, I thought “This will be great for me to brush up on my bird sounds.” Let’s just say that I was VERY correct.

The recordings I received were from the early breeding season (late May). They captured all sounds that took place 30 mins before until 2 hrs after sunrise. So, I settled in with a cup of tea, put on the headphones and hit play…

One of the first songs to reach my ears completely vexed me. Just like that. Go ahead and Listen to it here. This birdsong sounded, to me, like a mashup of a bunch of different birds: a wren, a warblers, a finch, a vireo….maybe a waterthrushes? Dang…I was stumped. I had my my nature-savvy wife, Kate listen as well. She was stumped, too. So, I decided to sleep on it, hoping I’d have an “A-ha!” moment in the middle of the night. When I woke up the next morning – I had nothing.

So I made the decision to turn this fabulous mystery into a learning moment and called upon a few of my nature-connection/bird-nerd colleagues, namely: Bridget Butler (of BirdDiva), Kristi Dranginis (of BirdMentor) and Matt Haviland (of the Naturalistics podcast). If this crack team couldn’t decipher the sound, I didn’t know who could.

I attached the mystery song file to an email and asked:

“Hey Bird Nerds…I’m stumped by this song…y’all have any insights into who it might be / what’s going on / why, etc? I’m really curious…lemme know!”

Thus began a beautiful exchange among a foursome of rabid adult learners. It was epic. We went back and forth with over 25 emails, texts and calls…all about a 13-second sound clip of some bird vocalizing in a Maine forest on May 27th of 2019 a few mins after sunrise. Isn’t life amazing and absurd sometimes?

So…are YOU curious yet? Do you have an idea of who it might be?

Here’s some hints/clues that we uncovered along the journey:

  • Dan (to Kristi): “It sounds like four families of birds all in one…waterthrush meets ovenbird meets wren meets warbler. Weird, right? What are you hearing?
  • Matt (to Dan): “Sounds like an ovenbird nightsong. They have that particular version that they sing late in the evening and throughout the night, especially early in the breeding season. I think there were some studies that showed their nightsong is actually more important for attracting mates and maintaining territory then their daytime song. Also they only sing at night very sporadically, not like during the day with regularity.”
  • Bridget (to all):”Hmmm….Is there a timestamp on that recording to bring it all together? If so, Matt’s theory would make a lot of sense.”
  • Kristi (to all):OK…I found some great information from BNA online that touches on the definition of “flight call” and more about the dusk song of the Ovenbird. I think we’re on the right trail.
  • Bridget (to all): “I just found a passage in Kroodsma describing this behavior. Amazing! I think I’ll be doing an evening sit spot where there are Ovenbirds this spring!

Okay…I think you get the idea. Matt’s depth of field experience as a bird biologist and researcher – coupled with the fact that all of us guessed “ovenbird” as one of the likely candidates – started us down the path of learning as much as we could about this little brown bird.

The Ovenbird

“What the heck is an ovenbird?” you ask? Good question. They’re small, brownish, ground-dwelling, wood warblers that breed forests east of the Rocky Mountains. They have a very loud song they sing A LOT during spring and summer days that sounds like this (go watch this 30-second video clip of a singing ovenbird – it’s gorgeous).

Within a few hours, our bird-nerd posse also unearthed a few similar recordings (like this one) from Xeno-Canto (a bird sounds website). These recordings were also attributed to ovenbirds singing at twilight. We we’re beginning to feel pretty confident.

The result? Well….we learned a new (to us) behavior about a relatively common bird we’d all seen and heard thousands of times in our lives. This fascinating behavior hadn’t been observed in person by anyone on our team, but Matt was familiar with it regardless. So, we thought it was important to dig up multiple resources to backup his opinion….and we did 🙂

I love having colleagues like this – we share our curiosity…we don’t worry about “not knowing”…we challenge each other…we grow together…we’re all the better for it. Thank you, Kristi, Bridget & Matt.

Now, let’s wrap this up with Donald Kroodsma’s lovely description of the nocturnal courting behavior of the mysterious Ovenbird (from “The Backyard Birdsong Guide” 2008)….

“High in the canopy at twilight (and also in the middle of the night), the Ovenbird a dramatic and unexplained singing, aerial display. He chips softly at first, perhaps hopping upwards from branch to branch. Gradually,he accelerates his chipping before launching into the air to hover and sometimes circle about in a labored flight five to fifteen yards above the canopy with spread tail and quivering wings, all the while singing!…

It is a remarkable, ecstatic song, made up of a variety of warbler and slurs and twitters, rising and falling in pitch, and somewhere midsong he gives away his identity with just one or a few teach’er phrases. Then he swiftly and silently drops back into the forest.”

Excited to follow natural mysteries…looking for a mentor to help? Click the button below to sign up for a free, 20-minute consultation with Dan Gardoqui of Lead with Nature today.

If you really want to geek out on this topic, check out the wilson Bulletin, 93 (1) from March of 1981 and read “Display Behavior of Ovenbirds (Sierus aurocallipus) II. Song Behavior and Singing Behavior” by M. Ross Lein)

To learn More about Matt, Bridget or Kristi, click their logos below:

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