Birders flock to Portland home to see ovenbird

February 03, 2013 at 09:08 PM

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Almost every day since 1959, Suzanne Hannam has carefully noted bird sightings in journals sitting conveniently on a bookcase within easy reach of the kitchen table. On Nov. 27, she wrote, “Theresa thought she saw an ovenbird!”

It seemed unlikely. Ovenbirds — which have never before been spotted in Multnomah County — overwinter in Florida, Latin America and the Caribbean, not a backyard in Northeast Portland. Suzanne and her daughter, Theresa Hannam, got the binoculars and checked the guidebooks. The pink-legged bird with an orange head and perky tail had enough of a resemblance to the photos that Suzanne decided to call the Audubon Society of Portland.

Marcia Marvin, a volunteer for about 10 years, answered the phone. Having been on the receiving end of other such calls, she wasn’t easily convinced.

“We talked about the field marks you’d expect to see,” Marvin says. “It sounded sort of OK, but it didn’t seem like quite enough to post online.”

Marvin checked with some avid birders and got encouragement to write a notice on a birding chat room. The first day nothing happened. The second day, a Saturday, there was an avalanche of people anxious to see the bird that’s named after the ground nest it makes.

“My neighbor across the street called to tell me there was a crowd at my front door,” says Hannam, a slim 84-year-old with cornflower blue eyes. “They were gathering at the gate.”

Over the past two weeks Hannam estimates at least 300 people — including a woman from Walla Walla and one from Newport — have been in and out of the modest backyard. She’s welcomed them with cushions, blankets, hot chocolate and conversation.

“People sit out there waiting to see the ovenbird,” she says. “It’s cold.”

The crowds got so big, she hung a hand-lettered sign on the front door: “Dear Birders, Please feel free to walk down our driveway and into the backyard to try and get a look at the ovenbird. We welcome you!” It’s signed “Good luck, the Hannams” and a little smiley face.

In return for her hospitality, visitors have left birdseed, suet cakes, chocolate-covered caramels, a box of dried prunes, three bird books, food for her year-round hummingbird feeder, even a few dollars here and there.

“One woman left organic sugar,” says Hannam, who watches birds from the kitchen window. “She wanted to be sure I used the right kind of sugar for the hummingbirds.”

What she treasures the most, though, are the cards and letters, some of which are displayed on the dining room table. Many more fill a manila folder on the same shelf that holds her books and journals.

Lars Norgren, who has a wild mushroom business, brought her chanterelles.

“I was at the Hollywood Farmers Market when I heard about it,” he says. “As soon as I closed down, I drove over there.”

Sure enough, the ovenbird showed himself — or herself; unlike other bird species that have showier males, the boys and girls of Seiurus aurocapilla look alike. Books describe the small songbirds as nondescript, and the one in Hannam’s yard does blend into the background. But binoculars bring his beauty — white-ringed eyes, parallel dark lines down an orange head and white speckled breast — and lovable personality into focus.

“They’re a very charismatic bird,” says Norgren. “The way they kick up leaves, flip them over with their bill or foot for the tiny bugs hidden on the other side.”

He speculates the ovenbird came to overwinter at Hannam’s house because he was a little disoriented.

“He flew slightly west of south rather than slightly east of south,” says the avid birder. But he’s getting enough to eat that he’s doing OK. And he’s got a shorter trip to get back home to Canada. He’s actually better off having lived outside the box.”

Certainly, outside the box in Hannam’s backyard is a friendly place to be. One day last week she spotted 12 species. Winged visitors include chickadees, bushtits, finches, varied thrushes, flickers, song sparrows, grosbeaks, cedar waxwings, a Thompson warbler that Theresa calls Batman because of his mask, and a pair of woodpeckers Suzanne calls Woody and Woodette.

Hannam, who says the ovenbird shows up around 4:30 p.m. daily, doesn’t go to extremes to attract birds. She puts piles of wood chips under two ferns and lets the leaves from nearby trees remain on the ground all winter so there are insects to eat.

“He wouldn’t be there if she’d been overzealous with the leaf blower,” Norgren says.

Why would someone open her yard to strangers, even when she isn’t there?

“I don’t own the little bird,” says Hannam. “I want other people to see him. It’s been fun.”


Information from: The Oregonian,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.