On the Ohio Birds email listserv, you’ll sometimes see reports of unusual bird sightings.  This winter, a particular bird has been seen daily at a park in the Columbus area, a bird that shouldn’t be here in this cold season.  I went out last week to see if I could get some photos of this unusual visitor.

Gardens in Winter

Inniswood Metro Gardens is located in Westerville, Ohio.  This facility is part of the superb Metropolitan Parks system of central Ohio, and is rather unique for being a scenic garden area as opposed to the typical recreational and natural areas that you usually see.

According to the Inniswood Garden Society:

Inniswood Metro Gardens was once the 37-acre estate of sisters Grace and Mary Innis, who enjoyed gardening and wildlife observation respectively. The Innis sisters’ desire to preserve and enhance their gardens and woodlands for the enjoyment of all people resulted in the generous donation of their home and property to Franklin County Metro Parks in 1972.

Nestled within a scenic nature preserve, the 121-acre Inniswood Metro Gardens is a continual source of inspiration for Central Ohioans of all ages. Streams and woodlands filled with wildflowers and wildlife provide a majestic backdrop to the beautifully landscaped flowerbeds, rock garden and lawns.

Dedicated to the enjoyment, cultivation and preservation of nature’s treasures, Inniswood boasts more than 2,000 species of plants, specialty collections and several theme gardens including the rose, herb and woodland rock garden.

Visitors will enjoy the seasonal beauty of the gardens and natural areas as they stroll along two miles of trails and paved pathways.

It may seem odd to visit gardens in January, but I had good reason to 🙂

The gardens were of course flowerless, but the landscape was quite attractive.  There was a bit of greenery here and there, despite the winter.  I’m sure that spring and summer would find this place full of color.

Other birders were here to see the unique bird as well.  Would we spot it?

A Pleasant Place for Feeders

The place we were looking for was the deck on the back of Innis House.  This deck contained multiple bird feeders (including suet feeders) and a bird bath that the park staff fills every day to attract our feathered friends.

I positioned myself near the deck and watched a variety of birds (and one very hungry squirrel) come to eat.  See if you can figure out who these visitors are!

The Star of the Show

Suddenly, as I was taking a picture of birds on the deck, the individual I was looking for entered my field of vision in the background of the picture.

The bird peeked over a brick at me, decided I was no threat, and went on looking for food.

I then got a good view.

This bird is an Ovenbird, a warbler that should be nowhere near the state of Ohio in mid-winter.  Ovenbirds get their name from the unique shape of their nests, which resemble Dutch ovens.  Most warblers spend their summers all over North America, but then winter in the warm south or in Central and South America, because they typically eat insects.  Ovenbirds are no exceptions to this common rule.  Although warblers typically spend their time foraging in trees, this particular species looks for food on the ground, as demonstrated here in these photos.  They usually eat bugs and snails found there.  This one is probably eating suet that has been knocked out of the feeders by other birds; suet is beef fat, and is a reasonable substitute for insects.

As you can see, Ovenbirds look almost thrush-like with olive back and striped breast, though they are smaller than actual thrushes.  They often hold their tail at an angle, and you may see it flick up and down when the bird is agitated.  It also has a white eye-ring that gives it a somewhat wide-eyed appearance.

Another feature that stands out is the Ovenbird’s black and orange crown.  This bird got along well enough with the other birds around it.

So, what on earth is this bird doing here in Ohio in January when its brothers and sisters are in Florida or the Caribbean?  The most likely explanation is visible in the next photos.  Notice the injury on the bird’s left side.  It probably couldn’t make the long migratory journey because of it.

Despite the injury, our Ovenbird moved around just fine, and had a ready supply of food and water on hand.  If this bird can stay warm enough, it may survive the winter.  There’s even an academic paper written about this subject.  It is estimated that half of all Ovenbirds die every year; the oldest one on record was 7 years old.  I’m pulling for this warbler to make it!

Warblers have been known to attempt to winter over in the north before, probably due to some kind of infirmity- here’s another Ovenbird doing this a few years ago, and this PDF article highlights a Pine Warbler calling Ohio home in a previous winter (and also eating suet).  The odds may not be in their favor, but the fact that more people than ever feed birds means that such stragglers have a fighting chance.

Once again, there is a lesson for birdwatching here- although there are solid rules of thumb to go by, there are also exceptions to those rules.  ‘Don’t expect to see warblers in Ohio in winter’ is a reasonable statement.  However, there is another species of warbler that commonly breaks this rule, but that’s for another post, coming soon 🙂