July 21, 2023
Every time I set out on a picture walk, I wonder what I’ll find. I wonder if I’ll see something new, or something interesting, or something particularly beautiful. It doesn’t need to be a bald eagle, or a rare insect, or a breathtaking sunrise —although those things are certainly welcome; I mostly enjoy the pursuit of wonder, and the challenge of capturing just the right photo at just the right moment. I am as easily excited about finding a tiny snail on a stalk of a dead plant as I am about finding an exquisite bird I rarely see. It’s the pursuit itself that never grows old, and pushes me out the door every day.
Not long ago, I was house-sitting for a friend in a part of our state that I rarely visit. She lives on a seldom-traveled, unpaved country road that quietly meanders into the beautiful and expansive Manistee National Forest. I ventured out on that road early one morning wondering what I might find. The deep shade along the forest road was a welcome relief from the heat, but I wasn’t sure that it would be a good place for pictures. There just wasn’t much light peeking through the trees, except for small patches here and there where the occasional butterfly would land, and the columbines struggled to find sunlight.
I was captivated by the sound of all the birds singing throughout the forest; their voices echoing melodically through the giant cathedral of trees. One of those birds was louder and more insistent than all the others and I wondered who it might be. Fortunately, Merlin* came to my rescue and identified the mystery vocalist as an ovenbird!
I had never seen or heard an ovenbird before, so I stood quietly on the edge of the road, waiting for any movement in the trees, hoping to get a glimpse of one. It didn’t take long, but the setting was so dark, and the bird moved so quickly, that I didn’t think I’d get a decent shot. Eventually, though, my patience paid off.
When I did some research on this elusive little bird, I was fascinated to find out that ovenbirds are smaller than sparrows, and they will only breed where there are large, undisturbed expanses of mature trees and a closed canopy. The forest canopy needs to be so dense that it severely inhibits underbrush from developing on the forest floor, and allows for a deep layer of leaf litter to accumulate. Ovenbirds spend most of their time foraging in that leaf litter looking for things to eat like crickets, caterpillars, ants, spiders, slugs, and snails. They also need leaf litter to build their nests. This task is left to the female ovenbird who creates a comfy home on the forest floor using dead leaves, grasses, stems, bark, and hair. The finished dome-shaped nest, at 9 inches wide and 5 inches deep, has a squat oval side entrance and resembles a primitive outdoor oven, which is how this bird got its name!
Halfway through my walk, I came to a wide-open field at the edge of the forest, where an odd-looking bird flew overhead and landed on the top of a utility pole! Even from a distance, it didn’t look like a bird that would normally land on a tall, skinny pole! With long legs, a long neck, and a thin, straight bill, it had the appearance of a fairly typical shorebird. Luckily, the bird on the pole was singing its heart out and Merlin* quickly identified it as an Upland Sandpiper. This particular shorebird, however, loves the prairies, pastures, and croplands rather than the wetlands where its cousins like to hang out! It is also a shorebird that loves to perch on fence posts and perform memorable flight songs over its territories! This bird was behaving true to form!
On my return trip through the forest, I had one more surprise waiting for me– a barred owl! It landed on a branch not far from where I was walking and posed for a few pictures before flying off. Even though barred owls are plentiful in Michigan, this was my first!
In between these discoveries, there were butterflies and wildflowers quietly going about their business in the random patches of sunlight, waiting patiently to be noticed, and I obliged.
It was just another ordinary day of small but incredible wonders that, more often than not, go completely unnoticed.
*Merlin is a free bird identification app