Nine-Minute Naturalist: Low Level Living

By David,

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Low Level Living

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. I hope you enjoy!

My goal this year is to improve my birding skill set. With a starting point of general incompetence, improvement is not a huge challenge. I have found being intentional and slowing down as I travel through the woods has helped me notice the volume and variety of birds present throughout Wintergreen. One revelation is the number of species that I see or hear in the lower canopy or on the forest floor. This Nine Minute Naturalist will explore the species of birds whose niche is the living near the forest floor.




The unquestionable loudmouth of the lower levels is the ovenbird. This forest floor specialist is very common in any closed forest environment at Wintergreen. They will be found on the upland slopes of Wintergreen anywhere with a deep layer of leaf litter. This is important as both nesting habitat and providing plenty of invertebrates to provide for a growing family. Ovenbirds are named for their unique nest shape. The domed shape of this ground nest resembles a pizza or Dutch oven. This bird is most easily identified from their loud song that features 4 to 6 tea-cher phrases per second. Male ovenbirds will often sing together answering these calls in immediate succession creating a lovely chorus in the woods. This plump warbler can be easily identified by sight as well. They are olive-green on top and spotted on the bottom. They have a black and orange tuft on the head and have pink legs.

They do have some look a likes that also inhabit the forest floor at Wintergreen. The Louisiana waterthrush is a common species that can be mistaken for the ovenbird. The Louisiana waterthrush is darker brown with a white eyebrow stripe. They also lack the fancy black and orange crown stripes of the oven bird. To a certain extent, they can also be differentiated by location. The waterthrush is almost always found in the vicinity of our mountain streams. They feed on streambed invertebrates as well as mate and build nests within the recesses of a streambank. They build a cup nest beneath logs or in root tangles along streambanks. Their song also differentiates them from the ovenbird. Much less boisterous than the ovenbird, the song of the Louisiana waterthrush is a sweet, clear whistle. They also have a call that is sharp and metallic with a very high pitch.


Black and white warbler


Another lovely warbler that calls the lower levels of the forest home is the black and white warbler. One of our first warblers to arrive each spring, they are known for their aggression. I have found them sitting in thickets of mountain laurel seemingly threatening me as I approached. They will attack and fight species such as black-capped chickadees or American redstarts that enter their territory. These insect eaters build nests in well hidden spots on the ground at the base of trees, rocks, or fallen logs. Their song is a thin, high-pitched weesy, weesy, weesy that is sometimes hard to pick up for those not attuned to the sounds around them. Visually, the black and white warbler is unique amongst the many songbirds in our forest. They are boldly striped in black and white. Adult males have obvious black and white streaking on the underside and cheeks. Females are often paler with a white throat.


Black-throated blue warbler


A less common species at Wintergreen that utilizes the forest floor is the black-throated blue warbler. This stunning bird, which primarily breeds to our west and north, occasionally calls Wintergreen home and is a treat to find. It utilizes the lower level thick understory as it nests in mountain laurel, rhododendron, striped maple, etc. This species has a high degree of sexual dimorphism, meaning it has huge differences between male and female. The males have striking clue head and back with a black face and throat while the females are grayish olive overall. Their song is a slow-paced buzzy call that is not the most memorable of the warbler’s family.

In my journey to improve my birding, the birds that are right in my face have been the easiest to learn. The ovenbird’s loud song, the Louisiana waterthrush’s location, the black and white warblers’ aggression and the black-throated blue warblers’ beauty have made easy marks to find when you place them right at eye level. Get out in the woods today and find these low-level birds!

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