Hermit Thrush

Today has been the most beautiful kind of Fall day, cloudy, gray and moody, cool and damp, after rain overnight that washed down still more leaves. The wet yards and roads were thickly spattered with yellow and brown. By mid-morning the rain had paused, but clouds hung low and dark, and more rain was expected later in the day. It’s been the rare and wonderful kind of day when the temperature falls as the day goes on – it began in the mid 60s and by mid-afternoon would fall into the low 50s, and yet, there was hardly any wind at all. An unusual quiet surrounded me as I walked, peaceful and mellow, with the bittersweet feeling that comes in late Fall.

There were not a great many birds at first, and I didn’t carry binoculars because of the chance of rain – I would regret that, as I usually do. But it was a good day for listening, and as it turned out, the highlights of the morning were not what I saw – but what I heard. For the first part of the way, there were the usual suspects – the scattered chatter of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Carolina Wrens, the peeps of a Northern Cardinal here and there, the whinny of a Downy Woodpecker.

Then as I was walking past a stretch of woods I heard a liquid chup-chup call from somewhere among the trees, not too far away. It was a sound I’ve been waiting to hear, listening every day for the past two or three weeks at least, and beginning to wonder if one would return this year, and finally here it was – a Hermit Thrush.

A Hermit Thrush is a pale-brown songbird similar in shape to a robin, with a spotted throat and breast, and a habit of raising its long cinnamon tail sharply and lowering it slowly, often doing this as it calls a soft chup, and looks around alertly with its head erect and watchful. Hermit Thrushes are only here at this time of year – from late Fall into Spring, when they leave to spend the nesting season in northern forests and a wide range of territories throughout North America. Though I don’t often hear them sing while they’re here – a song so lovely it has inspired many poets and other writers – the soft, simple call of chup seems to me almost as haunting and as sweet. Hermit Thrushes are woodland birds, not particularly shy, but easy to overlook because of their quiet appearance and solitary behavior. In the winter here, I often find them – each one alone – around wooded yards, feeding on the ground close to shrubs and flying up to low branches of trees when startled.

I stood for several moments on the edge of the road, listening and looking, trying to spot a bird among the trees, but I couldn’t find it and finally walked on. Even without seeing it, to hear its call was the highlight of the morning, as vivid as any sighting could be.

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