Close to a Hermit Thrush

Late in the afternoon – the day still sunny and mild – the front yard looked and sounded as if a party were going on. Dozens of brash and brassy American Robins perched in trees, drank from the birdbath and ran across the ground in quick spurts. One of them somewhere was singing – a hesitant, tentative Robin song. Five American Crows strutted around the edge of the road.

An Eastern Phoebe sang as it traveled from spot to spot – and another sang in response from the yard next door. Yellow-rumped Warblers flicked check calls as they flew around in the river birches, maples and wax myrtles. On the feeder, a pair of House Finch, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and several Chipping Sparrows jostled for space – only room enough for three or four at a time, at the most. Two Brown-headed Nuthatches darted in to grab seeds, then sat on nearby branches to crack them. Several Mourning Doves, Dark-eyed Juncos and more Chipping Sparrows picked up seeds from below the feeder. A Pine Warbler sang.

Then a small brown bird with a dark-spotted breast flew up into the Savannah holly tree beside the porch where I was sitting. I always forget how small a Hermit Thrush is, really. It looks larger when seen alone, especially through binoculars. This close – too close for binoculars – it looked very small and vulnerable, with smooth brown head and back; dark-spotted breast, and pale-ringed eyes that give it a perpetually watchful, guarded look. It ate a holly berry, then turned its back to me and sat very still, not even lifting its tail, for several minutes. Its feathers all looked fluffed out, in its wings and on the belly, and it held the tail down and still. Occasionally it looked over its shoulder toward me, looking at me with a round, dark eye, but still it stayed. Finally it turned around again – and then it flew. It never made a sound, except for the flutter of its wings.

It’s very different to watch a small bird like this – not removed by distance or binoculars, but just to sit there very close and share the space and the moment. Time does not stop. But it seems to.

After several minutes more, I began to hear the tsseeet calls of White-throated Sparrows and heard scratching in dry leaves. Gradually they began to emerge, materializing out of bushes not far away from me. Their plumage and patterns were vividly sharp, with russet, black-streaked back; smooth gray breast; black-and-white striped head; clean-white throat outlined in black, and the small smudge of gold above the eye.

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