Now and only now can I unequivocally declare that spring has settled.

For some this fair season is declared when they hear the peal of the first spring peepers, for many it’s the clear notes of a robin and for others it might be the clamor of Canada geese. But this year, each of those harbingers was derailed by another dump of snow.

Yesterday morning I was washing the outside of the dining area windows when I heard the ecstatic pronouncement of spring back in the woods behind me. A male ovenbird was repeating his jubilant sounding phrases that are easily memorized if you think of them repeating the words, “teacher-teacher-teacher.”

Ovenbirds belong to a group of colorful, small birds known as woods warblers. Naturalists and biologists often refer to this group of birds as “neotropical migrants.” This group of small migrants spends the winter in a tropical destination and nest in northerly non-tropical settings.

The ovenbird I was listening to had just arrived, likely the night before, riding the steady south wind.  After spending weeks on a precarious migration from its wintering grounds in Central America and northern Venezuela, this singing territorial male sounded tireless.

I have a special fondness for ovenbirds because of an intimate relationship with one particular male. I first met him on May 30th sometime in the mid-1990s. He had flown into the nearly invisible mist net that we had set up in the woods to capture songbirds so we could band them.

After carefully removing him from the tangled, fine net mesh, I tucked him in a small cloth bag and brought him to the table where we could process him. Process means to try and determine his age, sex, note the date, and then fit him with his tiny aluminum band and record the unique 8 or 9 digit number that gives this bird a one-of-a-kind identity. The bird is not kept captive long and is quickly released after processing it.

For over 100 years biologist have been banding birds with lightweight bands.  Bands range in size from those that resemble wide finger rings that are used in banding large birds like eagles and large waterfowl or tiny fragments of foil that are used for affixing to the wire like leg of a hummingbird. Each band has a unique 8 or 9 digit number along with an inscription that says CALL 1-800-327 BAND and WWW.REPORTBAND.GOV . Obtaining a federal permit is not easy and requires many skills and a mess of paperwork.

Of the many, many birds I’ve banded I honestly think I gave nearly all of them a subliminal “good luck” as I released them.

It’s pretty special to catch a bird that has been previously banded. But when I caught this same fellow the following year, on May 29th in the very same mist net location it was like a happy reunion.

Songbirds are very lucky to survive to adulthood; most die before they are a year old. They are exceptionally lucky to make a long-distance round trip migration. In the case of my little ovenbird friend, he had likely flown over 6,000 miles just in its fall and spring migration!

Having caught my new found ovenbird friend twice, he had now logged over 12,000 miles on just his migrant flights.

The next year I didn’t catch him. It turned out he eluded the net because the fourth year I caught him again! It was May 30th and yes, in the same net!

Feeling in the presence of a true Olympic champion, I was humbled at his timeliness and durability.

While I think I have a pretty good sense of direction when in the woods, mine pales in comparison to these songbirds when it comes to homing in to an exact spot. Their ability to hone in to an exact place makes the most expensive of GPS units look like junk. It amazes me to think that this little bird, weighing only a few grams, found its way into the same net, at the same swath in the woods on nearly the same date for three years.

I didn’t mourn the fact that I never caught him again because he had already outperformed the odds. And somehow I like to think the bird I heard the other day is genetically tied to my special little friend.

To listen to the song and learn more about ovenbirds and to listen to their song, click on to the link for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. It’s a great resource.

Happy spring.









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