Consider the plight of the poor bird writer in the month of May. The thrushes are late and don’t stick around. Hungry warblers feed at the sap wells the sapsuckers have dug in the side of a tree. The sparrows arrive only to be replaced by the swallows. The geese have goslings before the last frost. Orioles and hummingbirds show up. And somebody calls about towhees.
Nature moves at breakneck speed!
What’s a bird writer to do?
Here’s a review:
Thrush season was indeed short. In many years, these forest dwellers settle into our area for an extended stay. This year, three of these thrush migrants blew through, almost literally, and left little time for watchers to get to know them.
There are four species of migratory forest-dwelling thrushes to watch out for, and a fifth species that nests in appropriate habitat in our area. Other thrushes that prefer more open habitat are nesters here.
The local nesters are familiar birds, by and large, led off by the American robin, which provides a good template against which to compare other thrushes -- but only in shape and behavior. In color, the robin has little in common with the migrant thrushes.
The hermit thrush is the most common of these. This bird is recognizably a thrush, with the same chunky appearance and a long tail. The stance is like a robin, too, being alert and upright with head and bill pointed upward a bit. Like a robin, the hermit thrush is oftentimes seen on the ground, at least in migration.
Unlike the robin, however, the hermit thrush is a rather drab bird – yet it stands out from the other migrant thrushes by its reddish tail and the reddish spots on its breast. It also has a thin, white ring around the eye.
Mark these well. The identification of migrant thrushes can depend on them.
The other possibilities are gray-cheeked thrush, whose name is descriptive, and Swainson’s thrush, whose namesake, William Swainson, an English ornithologist, is remembered in several other species titles, notably Swainson’s hawk. And Swainson’s warbler. The thrush is a late addition to this list; formerly, it was called “olive-cheeked thrush,” and that name still appears in older bird books.
Olive-backed is a more descriptive name, but only barely, and it leads to concentration on the wrong side of the thrush. Better to mark the bold eye ring and the buffy breast with bold spotting. The gray-cheeked thrush lacks the eye ring (hence the name).
This could go on at some length, but we’re lucky, perhaps, because the hermit thrush is the most common of these plain thrushes in migration. In nesting season, one other occurs -- the veery, a bird distinguished more by its blocky shape. It appears more “muscular-looking” than other thrushes, bird guide author Richard Crossley says. One other of these thrushes occurs here occasionally, the wood thrush, which Crossley suggests is “a really fat thrush with a short tail and big head.”
The thrushes are noted singers, of course, and even the robin qualifies, though its effort is less renowned than that of these woodland thrushes. The hermit thrush gained a lugubrious reputation when Walt Whitman used it as a meme for mourning in his elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” Modern writers have perpetuated this, often referring to the bird’s song as “ethereal” or “haunting” or “melancholy.” From the bird’s point of view, this is quite wrong, of course, since song is an element of courtship.
Along with the American robin and the veery, two more thrushes nest here. These are the bluebirds. Eastern is the more likely species in the Red River Valley, though there are nesting records for mountain bluebirds, as well. Two more thrush species are late season migrants, occurring more often in fall and winter than in spring, Townsend’s solitaire and varied thrush. Both have occurred here, but both are wanderers.
The passage of thrushes is one stage of spring migration. In some years, these birds tarry here; I’ve seen hermit thrushes while there was snow on the ground, and sometimes they hang around until mid-May, as they have this year.
As David Lambeth, dean of local birders, predicted last week, the Harris sparrows appeared on time, and the orioles and hummingbirds have not been far behind.
Bulletin: Thursday, deadline day for this column, brought an incredible variety of birds to our backyard west of Gilby, N.D. Orchard and Baltimore orioles both showed up -- the latter in record numbers for us. We also had rose-breasted grosbeaks, an eastern towhee and half a dozen kinds of sparrows. Plus shivering swallows and hungry warblers at the suet feeders -- emergency rations for them. More about the towhee next week.
Jacobs is a retired editor and publisher of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.