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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: June brings on the songbirds

What a wonderful month June is. By now, most resident and migrant songbirds are nesting. Some are feeding hungry mouths. And some of those little nestlings have already fledged. Two such species of wild birds are among them—the eastern towhee and the ovenbird.

Most people familiar with eastern towhees first become aware of their presence by hearing them. Calling its name towhee throughout the thick understory of the forest is the common call-note, drink-your-tea, but the towhee also calls chewink and joree. Call notes are vocalized by both sexes, but the beautiful song is sung by the male only. As well, sharp "tics" are also common calls from towhees when they sense danger, flee predators and engage in mobbing behavior.

Towhees are actually large and colorful sparrows, belonging to the family Emberizidae. About 7 to 8 inches in length with a long tail, the male of the species sports beautiful rusty orange-colored flanks, a white belly, black upper parts, and black wings accented with white-tipped primaries.

A bird of forested edges and dense undergrowth typical of young to mid-age deciduous forests, observing towhees in action as they search for food in thickets and on the ground is not easy to do. The birds are somewhat shy and quite active as well.

Hearing them is more likely. Not only are their songs and calls distinctive, towhees are noisy foragers. They have the interesting habit—much like chickens and turkeys—of scratching the earth as they search for food. However, unlike chickens and turkeys, which usually scratch with one foot at a time, towhees jump forward and quickly scratch backward with both feet at the same time to uncover seeds, berries and invertebrates from underneath forest leaves and debris.

Some older bird field guides have the eastern towhee named the rufous-sided towhee. So too was the name of the western race of towhee as the two races were considered to be the same species. Today they are classified as two separate species: the eastern towhee and the spotted towhee.

Another of my favorite feathered friends, the ovenbird, has made their welcome appearance only just recently. As usual, I heard several ovenbirds over the course of several days before I glimpsed one of these handsome little warblers. Much less noisy than towhees are in the understory, ovenbirds have the habit of appearing out of nowhere only to slink or flutter away with as little fanfare as their arrival.

These insectivorous birds are less gregarious than towhees and hunt insects by stealthily stalking or by quick attacks. Over the years I've watched many an ovenbird chase, capture and consume insects on areas of the ground no larger than a pizza plate.

As mentioned, ovenbirds are warblers, specifically belonging to the large family of wood-warblers. These ground-nesting birds get their unique name from the style of the nest they build, which is a neatly domed nest constructed from plant stems and dead leaves and lined inside with hair. Indeed, an ovenbird nest has the look of a miniature Dutch oven, hence the name.

In the spring and summer when males arrive from their wintering grounds, their calls echo continuously throughout the forest, sometimes even at nighttime. Loud and distinct phrases of teacher-teacher-teacher-teacher resound everywhere in ascending crescendos as male birds call in near-unison with one another. The olive-brown birds are thrush-like in appearance (both male and females resemble each other), and are short-tailed with black streaks on white underparts. They also have especially noticeable white-eye rings below an orange crown bordered by dark crown stripes.

June is here and Minnesota's migrant songbirds are singing and nesting everywhere once again. The woods, fields, and waterways are alive with bird songs and color as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.