A Hermit Thrush Ushers In the New Year

This morning – icy cold and clear, with a deep blue sky – a Hermit Thrush welcomed us home from more than two weeks of holiday travel. It flew across the front yard and perched in a low branch of a bare water oak, and sat there, quickly lifting its cinnamon-colored tail and slowly lowering it, again and again, and looking around with round, dark, watchful eyes. It’s the first Hermit Thrush I’ve seen or heard around our house this season.

A Hermit Thrush is a quiet bird shaped something like a Robin, but smaller, with a gray-brown back, reddish tail and boldly dark-spotted breast. While it’s here in the winter months, it spends most of its time on the ground, under bushes or around the edge of the woods, and usually when I see one it’s foraging alone – not among other birds in a flock. We seldom get to hear its fabled song – widely praised as one of the loveliest of woodland birdsongs – which it sings on its breeding grounds in northern and western hardwood forests. So for me, it always has something like the allure of a celebrity in hiding while it’s here. Its quiet, solitary behavior serves as a screen, allowing it to move around mostly unnoticed, calling out only a soft chup-chup! now and then. But when it thinks no one is looking, it hops out into the open and runs from spot to spot with nervous, suppressed energy, looking around as if it’s watching for something – not so much for danger, but for something it’s expecting. It looks like a bird with an interesting story to tell.

Meanwhile, the water in our two bird baths was frozen solid, so I added a little more on top and put out fresh feed in both feeders, and the yard was pretty busy with activity all day. In addition to the usual Chickadees, Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens and Cardinals, several White-throated Sparrows and Juncos fed around the bushes and on the ground. Yellow-rumped Warblers rustled in the wax myrtles. A Mockingbird came to a feeder now and then, looking big and clumsy and scattering all the small birds away, but it never stayed long. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings passed through, filling the treetops with a spray of high, thin calls. Eastern Towhees called and fed under the bushes, out of sight. A Pileated Woodpecker flew low across the yard and disappeared into the trees to the east. Two Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked and came to a feeder briefly, but mostly stayed up in the tops of the pines.

Two White-breasted Nuthatches came closer and stayed around for a long time, creeping up, down and around the branches of several pecan trees. They chattered softly to each other almost constantly in low, nasal tones. There was no sign or sound of a Red-breasted Nuthatch at all.

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