Hermit Thrush

This morning brought a welcome sign of the changing seasons – a Hermit Thrush in a patch of weeds, vines and trees on the edge of the woods. It’s the first returning winter bird I’ve seen this fall.

It was a cool, sunny morning, after several days of dark weather and heavy tropical rain. I had gone for a walk and stopped to check out the thicket – often a good spot for birds – and mostly it seemed pretty quiet. I could hear a few tiny chips, a rustle in dry leaves here and there, and the sweet, whistled puh-wheee of an Eastern Wood-Pewee not far away. A light breeze brought down a dry shower of leaves in the woods that sounded like rain. All around was a mix of muted fall colors in the trees, faded green, crusty brown, olive, yellow, dull orange, with accents here and there of dusky red.

A bird flew up from the ground on the edge of the shrubs where I hadn’t seen it at all. I could tell where it was, from small movements among the leaves, and after only a moment or two, it moved into view – the smooth, olive-brown back and wings, cinnamon tail, spotted breast, and watchful face of a Hermit Thrush, with its thin sharp bill and bright eye circled in a thin white ring. A very nice surprise. Its breast was a parchment shade, dotted with dark spots that were brightest on the upper breast and faded to more blurry dots as they spread lower. At first, its back was toward me, but then it turned all the way around so that it faced me, and raised its tail, and slowly lowered the tail again, then leaned over and flicked its wings – all in a characteristic way that said as clearly as its appearance, Hermit Thrush.

 A Hermit Thrush spends its summers in northern forests, where its ethereal, fluted song has enchanted poets and writers like Thoreau, and anyone who’s lucky enough to hear it, especially in a fading summer twilight.

Here in the winter months, it lives up to its name, at least in some ways, more by being unobtrusive and quiet than by really being reclusive. It spends its time in the lower story of shrubs and small trees, or low limbs of trees, and often comes out to forage on the ground in yards or on the edge of a woodland, along with other small birds. In both coloring and behavior, it blends in well with the background, so it doesn’t easily attract attention.

Its call – which I didn’t hear today – is a soft, liquid chup, a distinctive and expressive sound that’s an integral part of our woods in late fall and winter. Though it most often goes unnoticed, once learned, it becomes a familiar sound that calls attention to the presence of the Thrush. It’s one of my favorite winter birds, because even though it’s not uncommon, to see it never feels ordinary. It always feels like a special glimpse into the mostly-hidden life of the winter woods.


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