It’s gotten to be a bit of a guessing game every spring about which of the warblers will be the first to return to my home.
In 2021, the first warbler to return in the spring was a male Northern parula that arrived on April 9. In 2022, this same species was the first to return, albeit a few days later than the previous year’s date.
The Northern parula didn’t used to be one of the first returning warblers at my home. That honor used to go to hooded warbler or black-throated green warbler. This year, an ovenbird beat all of its kin to arrive on Friday, April 7, in the woodlands around my home, followed a few days later by a black-throated green warbler. This year’s first hooded warbler was a bit tardy and didn’t return until April 23.
The ovenbird is not one of the brightly colored warblers, such as black-throated blue warbler or yellow warbler. The ovenbird is a small brown bird with a white breast marked with dark streaking — an appearance that bears a superficial resemblance to the larger thrushes that share the same woodland habitat. The only hint of color is an orange crown patch bordered by dark stripes atop the bird’s head. Even this orange crown patch is not easily seen. When agitated, an ovenbird may raise its head feathers, which makes this orange mark easier to detect. The ovenbird also shows a distinct white ring around each eye, as well as pink legs and a pinkish bill.
The resemblance to North America’s brown thrushes didn’t go unnoticed by some early American naturalists. Painter and famous naturalist John James Audubon painted a pair of ovenbirds, which he knew as “golden-crowned thrushes.” When comparing the two names, one can’t help but wish that the inaccurate but more romantically descriptive golden-crowned thrush had stuck.
Unfortunately, ovenbirds are stubborn about letting themselves be seen. They’re easily heard. The males begin singing a loud, rollicking “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher” song almost as soon as they arrive on potential nesting grounds.
The ovenbird, unlike many warblers, is not named for its appearance. Instead, the bird’s name derives from the shape of the nest it builds. The nest is a domed structure placed on the ground, woven from vegetation and containing a side entrance. Early European settlers in North America thought the nest looked like a Dutch oven, hence the name “ovenbird” for the small warbler with the intricate nest.
In April and continuing into May, a couple of dozen warbler species will pass through Tennessee. Some of these warblers find area woodlands and other habitats to their liking. They will pause, explore and perhaps decide to spend their summer nesting season in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina rather than continue migrating farther north.
Many of the warblers that pass through each spring, however, are destined to travel a much longer distance before settling down in their favored habitats for the summer nesting season. These warblers include the Tennessee warbler, Nashville warbler, Cape May warbler, blackpoll warbler and Connecticut warbler. Most of these species nest as far north as New England and Canada.
Others find the Southern Appalachians to their liking. Some of the first warblers to return each year include the Louisiana waterthrush, which favors rushing mountain streams, as well as species such as black-throated green warbler, hooded warbler, ovenbird, black-and-white warbler, worm-eating warbler and common yellowthroat.
The Northern parula offers an abundance of identifying characteristics. Adult males are bluish gray overall with a yellow-green patch on the back and two white wingbars. A chestnut band separates the male’s bright yellow throat and chest. Adult females are often a bit paler and typically lack the male’s breast band. Both males and females have distinctive white eye crescents.
Most warblers lead frenetic lives. They often sing high in the tops of trees, but they do occasionally venture closer to the ground, particularly when foraging for prey, which consists of a variety of insects and small spiders. The Northern parula is even more restless than most of its kin.
The more reliable means of locating a Northern parula is to listen for the male’s buzzy, ascending song. He is a persistent singer from the time of his arrival until mid-summer.
A quirk involving nesting material is somewhat unique to this warbler. In much of the southern United States, the Northern parula conceals its nest inside strands of Spanish moss draped from the limbs of live oaks and other trees. In the Southern Appalachians and other locations farther to the north, the absence of Spanish moss means that the birds rely on various Usnea lichens, which are sometimes referred to as “Old Man’s Beard.”
A pair of Northern parulas will attempt to raise two broods in a nesting season. The female lays two to seven eggs and does most of the nest construction.
Look for spring’s warblers in the coming weeks. Feel free to share any sightings with me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.