Hermit Thrush and White-throated Sparrow

This morning was another clear, sunny day, and quite a bit warmer than it has been – very warm for this time of year. Birds throughout the neighborhood seemed widely scattered and few in number, and I was beginning to feel that things were too quiet. In truth, I think things are too quiet – there are too few birds and too few butterflies and moths, and too few insects overall. 

This is true, and not to be ignored. But today, two small quiet birds in widely different places brightened the day immensely, each in its own characteristic way:  The low, expressive sound of a Hermit Thrush’s call in trees on the edge of the woods; and the glowing beauty of a colorful White-throated Sparrow sitting in full sun on the edge of a privet thicket. 

Both are winter birds here, the first of the season I’ve seen or heard. 

The Hermit Thrush’s call came from a wooded area near a creek where there were few other sounds of birds at all, not even the chatter of chickadees and titmice. I was only hearing the background chirping of insects and the distant cries of crows and jays, and the sound of my own footsteps. But then a familiar low, liquid chup, repeated over and over, came from somewhere in the oaks and sweet gums and pines not far from the road. For several minutes I listened and scanned the lower branches of the trees for the thrush. It continued to call, chup, chupchup, but stayed hidden somewhere in the trees and a lot of leafy vines. Eventually it fell silent, and I walked on.

It would have been nice to see, but this quiet little call is so much a part of the fall and winter landscape here that it’s almost as good just to hear. It sounds like mellow autumn shades, muted and earth-toned, like the yellow leaves of grape vines, and the crusty patches of orange in the oaks, the soft rose-green of the dogwoods.

Hermit Thrushes are solitary, woodland birds, not particularly shy, but unobtrusive and well-camouflaged in soft brown and cream with dark spots on the throat and breast. In winter they don’t stay in flocks with other thrushes, but often search for food on the ground with other birds like sparrows, towhees and pine warblers. When startled, a Hermit Thrush will fly up into a nearby bush or tree and sit watchfully, raising its cinnamon-colored tail sharply and lowering it slowly, over and over again, and calling its soft chupchup.

Walking on, I passed large, grassy yards that looked mostly empty, but here and there an Eastern Bluebird flashed its brilliant colors, a Northern Flicker called a bright kleer! Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers rattled, a Carolina Wren sang and another trilled, an Eastern Phoebe sang its swishing song. Despite the warm sun, I saw almost no butterflies. Only two yellow Sulphurs. 

In the dense thickets of the old field just outside our subdivision, some sibilant tseeet calls cut through the traffic sounds on the nearby highway. There seemed to be quite a lot of rustling in the leaves of the privet and other rough shrubs, grasses and vines. A Northern Mockingbird flew to the top of a tree with dark-green leaves and sang exuberantly. A Pine Warbler trilled its softer, lyrical song from somewhere deep in the pines nearby. An Eastern Towhee called chur-whee. More rustling in the shrubs – and a pair of Northern Cardinals emerged briefly, followed by a handsome pair of Eastern Towhees, splashes of bold color in orange and brown and red, black and white.

When a beautiful White-throated Sparrow emerged on the edge of a bush in clear, full view, it looked as if it had blossomed there. Lit by the morning sun against a tangled background of faded grasses and rough weeds, the small, plump, elegant sparrow glowed with life – warm brown-streaked back and plain gray breast, bright black and white striped crown, gray cheeks, clean white throat, and the touch of a small yellow mark between the eye and the bill. I always think of a White-throated Sparrow as dapper – its colors and patterns so neat and crisp.

White-throated Sparrows, like the Hermit Thrush, are just arriving now, after spending the summer in northern forests. In the winter months here, they love overgrown old fields like this one but can also be found in yards with plenty of shrubs, and often come to feeders. 

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