Speaking of Nature: A winter-thrush trifecta!
Bill Danielson photo
A hermit thrush is a surprise winter visitor.
Bill Danielson photo
An adult male American robin pauses in his search for something to eat in a freshly melted patch of lawn.
Bill Danielson photo
An adult male eastern bluebird is an explosion of blue against the white winter landscape.
One of the satisfying aspects of keeping a field journal is the fact that you have your own personal record of past events. It’s a silly thing, I know, but I take great delight in saying, “To My Archives!” any time someone asks me a question about when this or that happened. It’s even more rewarding when it turns out that I actually scribbled down the information that someone asked about.
So it was with great contentment that I started adding details to my 2014 field journal. I transfer key events from past years to the pages of a new journal so I don’t have to go scrounging around for every little thing. Specifically, I keep track of high and low temperatures for every day of the year and, at the bottom of each new page, I keep a summary of the previous four years. Today (finally) I can share a little factoid that I’ve been sitting on since January.
In 2012 we had a winter without winter. Do you remember that? The days were short, the nights were long but it never seemed to get cold and there was virtually no snow. On March 13, 2012, the temperature at my house hit 69 degrees. That was no fluke. There were two multi-day stretches with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees that March. I remember wondering where winter had gone.
Well, winter is back! Rejuvenated from her hiatus, she swept in with a great sense of purpose and blanketed the landscape with snow and ice. It has also been cold this year. Spring is supposed to arrive in just few days, but I think she may find that her older sister is unwilling to leave soon.
And, yet, the birds and animals have their well-rehearsed schedules. The blackbirds are starting to arrive — right on time. The ducks are starting to fly inland in search of open water — right on time. The chipmunks are out and about — right on time. Every March I receive a few letters inquiring about the early appearance of robins and wouldn’t you know that they’ve been showing up again — right on time.
The American robin is a symbol of springtime. What could be more iconic of hopeful optimism than a robin hopping through a freshly thawed lawn in search of a worm? In the next few weeks there will indeed be a surge of migrating robins hopping across our lawns, but it’s also true that many robins have stayed with us through the entirety of this long, cold winter.
As a biologist, I am intellectually aware of the fact that robins can withstand winter. As a fellow creature on this Earth, however, I am awestruck by their ability to survive. What are they eating? How do they find enough of it? Exactly what is going on? The various species that visit my feeders are remarkable enough, but at least I can mentally grapple with the question of what they’re eating since I’m the one putting it out for them. But robins? I just don’t get it.
But that’s just the beginning! We had a warm patch a couple weekends ago when the temperature managed to break above freezing for the first time in a long while. I was off to do some Saturday errands and as I drove down my country road, I noticed a sizeable congregation of robins along the edge of the road where the grass was finally exposed. They seemed just a little desperate and I imagine they were all looking for a treat in the warming ground.
I passed robin after robin, but at one point my inner birdwatcher hit the big red button that deactivates my auto-pilot mode and brought my thoughts to the pressing question of what I had just seen. That one bird back there … what was that? So I backed up and there it was, standing at the edge of a roadside ditch, looking for something to eat.
The bird’s body was definitely that of a thrush. It had the same shape of an American robin, but there was just something off about the color. Robins have the classic red breast and then they have dark gray feathers on their backs and heads. In the case of a male robin, the feathers on the head are almost black.
But this bird was different. It was slightly smaller and the colors were selected from a palette of varying shades of caramel brown. It also had a white breast with speckles, but the definitive field mark was the rust-orange tail that is the hallmark of a hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus).
This was huge! I’d heard of hermit thrushes being seen in the wintertime, but until that moment I had never seen one for myself. When I consulted the pages of my trusty bird guide, I discovered that the hermit thrush is the only one of the “brown” thrushes that lingers in North America during the winter. I called my brother and he confirmed that he’d heard reports of hermit thrushes up in Maine.
In my mind, hermit thrushes are denizens of the moist northern woods during the height of summer. They nest on the ground, they lay gorgeous blue eggs and they eat insect, spiders, worms and even small salamanders on occasion. This is hardly the description of a bird that can endure the kind of winter we’ve just experienced. And yet there it was.
When I first spotted the hermit thrush, I was headed out to run errands and I didn’t have my camera. When I came back from running errands, I was delighted to see the bird in exactly the same place. I popped into the house, grabbed my gear and drove back to find the thrush right where I left it. I even managed a few photos, but then my luck ran out. Apparently, I could watch the thrush, but pictures were not allowed.
With hazard lights blinking, I slowly stalked this thrush as it moved from one patch of brown to the next. I watched it conjure little insects and invertebrates from the ground, marveling at how much life must have been awake in just that top inch of soil. This bird wasn’t struggling — it was feasting! The only hitch was that I just couldn’t get close. Fortunately, one of my earlier photos came out.
I returned to that spot many times over the past two weeks. I regularly saw the thrush exactly where I expected to find it, but I never got another good broadside like I did on that first day. But the photo gods smiled upon me and presented me with one final gift.
In the same place where the hermit thrush had been lingering, I found a small group of male bluebirds. They’ve also been here all winter (as is usual) and they were so distracted by the cornucopia of delights in the soft earth that they allowed me to take what is now my best winter bluebird photo, thus allowing my completion of the winter-thrush trifecta. Hail Nikonus! Hail Iso! Hail the great and merciful photo gods!
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com