Archive for January, 2020

A Carolina Wren and a Hermit Thrush

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

As the sun came up this morning through pink and gold clouds, a Carolina Wren sang a brilliant song to begin this new year. 

I couldn’t have wished for a happier start. The small, bold brown bird with a long, expressive tail and a glorious song is one of our most common birds. Plain in appearance, but amazing when it sings – its voice is big and beautiful. It’s a perfect example of the uncommon beauty hidden in plain sight all around us still, in birds and in other parts of the natural world. 

At this time of year, of course, very few birds sing. So the song of a Carolina Wren is all the more welcome. And it doesn’t only sing – Carolina Wrens trill, fuss, burble, rasp and chatter, and sing several different songs. They are active, inquisitive birds, cinnamon brown on the head, back and tail, with a buffy brown breast, white throat, a white stripe over the eye and a long, down-curved bill. And they’re fascinating to watch – here, there and everywhere around the yard – foraging in leaf mulch on the ground, exploring the bottoms of tree trunks, rustling in the bushes, coming to a feeder, or checking out crevices and corners on the deck, or any any stray objects or containers. 

When I stepped outside a couple of hours later, the air felt cold and crisp, and the day was clear and softly bright, perfect for a walk through the neighborhood. Around our own front yard, a Downy Woodpecker clung to the hanging feeder, while Carolina Chickadees and bright red Northern Cardinals flitted in the branches of water oaks and visited the tube feeder. Carolina Wrens continued to sing and trill and fuss. Several White-throated Sparrows scratched in leaf mulch beneath the feeders and under the shrubs, along with a warm-yellow Pine Warbler. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered jidit-jidit, and flew into a Savannah holly tree, showing a clear view of its round head, perky face, white-ringed eye, and flickering wings. I heard the calls of Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Towhee, Tufted Titmice, and the distant caws of American Crows.  

One surprise was a solitary Song Sparrow that came to the hanging block feeder and stayed there for several minutes. It’s the only Song Sparrow I’ve seen here so far this winter.

But my favorite sighting of the morning – after the Carolina Wren – was a Hermit Thrush. There’s one that seems to be spending the winter around our yard, but I don’t see it every day. I noticed some rustling in the faded leaves of the azaleas, and when I checked it out, saw a spotted breast, and a bright round eye and wary, watchful face turned up toward me. It seemed to be looking right back at me from its well-screened spot. I didn’t watch too long, not wanting to disturb it. I’m just happy to know it’s here, and that now and then I can see it, or hear its gentle chup-chup calls. 

Walking through the neighborhood, I stopped often to listen and watch more closely, and in the end, counted 27 species in all, but that was only by searching intently. Overall, birds were few and far between, with many species missing. So I’m afraid I couldn’t help feeling that the most important observation of this New Year’s Day was of how very, very few birds I could find. The contrast between the beauty of the day and the absence of so many birds was sad. 

After leaving our own yard and following the road through the neighborhood, there were long stretches when I could see and hear no birds at all – and this has not normally been the case in winter here. Many yards, woods and fields looked and sounded empty, not a bird to be heard or seen. One pretty Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches in a tree near the edge of the road. A Turkey Vulture soared, and two Black Vultures rose up from trees along the road ahead of me, white wing patches flashing silver as they climbed higher. Blue Jays cried, and there were the scattered calls of more Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers. On the edge of one yard there was a little flurry of small birds feeding in the grass and in the road, no more than a dozen in all – House Finches, Pine Warblers, and Eastern Bluebirds. 

In the old field across the road from our subdivision, two Northern Mockingbirds sat in the tops of a very dense, tall privet thicket. The field seemed otherwise quiet, except for the chur-whee calls of an Eastern Towhee, though I’m sure there were some other birds hidden somewhere in the privet and pines and weeds.

Near the far north end of the field, about a dozen Cedar Waxwings were feeding in a very scraggly, small, thin tree that was hung with some kind of red-berried vine. They seemed to be quiet – usually I hear Cedar Waxwings before seeing them – but maybe the traffic noise of the highway nearby was masking their calls. I stayed for a few minutes just to admire their sleek, polished plumage and gleaming colors, among the most elegant of birds, even in such a weedy, tangled setting.

I looked and listened for a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but couldn’t find one today, though I have been seeing one or two most days. But there are certainly far fewer Sapsuckers here than in previous winters. I also didn’t see or hear a Yellow-rumped Warbler – not one – and this is a species that only a few years ago arrived here each winter in such large numbers that they seemed to be everywhere, the most common bird around. And perhaps most sadly, this year I have not found a single Golden-crowned Kinglet – and I’ve looked and listened for them often. This is the first winter in 19 years when Golden-crowned Kinglets have not been present in our neighborhood over winter. 

So the morning was a jarring contrast – beautiful, sunny, cold and crisp and bright, with the song of a Carolina Wren and the glimpse of a Hermit Thrush – and yet, so very few birds that it felt tragic. And it is. A tragedy in progress. We are right in the middle of it, as recent scientific reports have confirmed. A major study published in mid-September of last year reported that nearly 30 percent of all North American birds have disappeared in the last 50 years – more than three billion birds. Populations of even many of our most common birds have suffered alarming declines.* 

This news from scientific studies is not something that’s happening in other, faraway places – it’s happening right here at home, and we can see it every day, though it’s often hard to grasp the difference between what we see today – and what we might have seen ten or twenty or fifty years ago.

I think again of the Hermit Thrush, half-hidden in the branches of a shrub, near the ground, looking out at me with a wide round eye. I could only see it partly, the soft brown head and expressive face, and the spotted breast, the cinnamon tail. It looked – and was – so vulnerable, as if looking out at me to ask what is happening to its world. 

  • Decline of the North American Avifauna,” Science Magazine, October 4, 2019, Vol. 366, Issue 6461; Kenneth V. Rosenberg, Adriaan M. Dokter, Peter J. Blancher, John R. Sauer, Adam C. Smith, Paul A. Smith, Jesica C. Stanton, Arvind Panjabi, Laura Helft, Michael Parr, Peter P. Marra.