Winter thrushes a rare sight

  • The sight of an American robin looking for food on ground covered with snow can be quite alarming. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bluebirds are also common winter birds in our area. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson—

  • Hermit thrushes are only seen by a lucky few during the winter months. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

Published: 1/20/2020 11:01:15 AM

Last week, I wrote a story about the interactions between a Cooper’s hawk and a wild turkey that unfolded right outside my back windows. There was more humor than conflict in this particular interaction and both parties retired to their corners unscathed. With the disappearance of the snow from our big December storm, there is no way to detect tracks of the turkey’s comings and goings, but the lack of snow has probably meant a lessening of pressure on the turkey because wild foods are more accessible.

I asked you to send in your votes for a name for this particular turkey and the votes are in. The choices were Basil, Syngen or Larry, and a landslide victory went to Basil. So, now that it’s official, I can say that I hope Basil is doing well. The recent arrival of some new snow will provide a fresh canvas for winter tracks and I hope to see signs of many interesting visitors out in my yard. I’ll let you know if Basil’s tracks are among them.

Included in one of my recent reader emails was a note of concern about the sighting of a bluebird in winter. I checked my records and discovered that I formally discussed this particular topic back in 2014, so I think it’s okay to address it again now.  

There are three species of thrushes that can be found in our area in the winter: the American robin, the hermit thrush and the eastern bluebird. Of these species, the most common is the American robin.  This will probably come as a shock to many of you, but it turns out that the observant birder will pick up on the presence of robins throughout the year.  The main issue is the fact that it simply doesn’t jibe with the picture we have in our heads. Robins running around in green grass is okay. Robins running around in the snow, on the other hand, just seems wrong.

Nonetheless, robins are around throughout the year. Just last weekend, I caught sight of a flock of about 15 robins flying over my house and even though I know this was not unreasonable, I simply felt, deep in the core of my being, that it just wasn’t “right.”  What do they eat?  Where do they go?  What the heck is going on here anyway? All good questions waiting for new graduate students of ornithology to look into.

Next there is the eastern bluebird.  Another species that we strongly associate with spring and summer, the eastern bluebird is a common enough winter resident that I hear one almost every month throughout the year. The fact that they have to switch food sources from insects in the summer to berries in the winter means that they don’t hang around in the same habitats in the same way. I very rarely see a bluebird on the ground in winter, but if I spend enough time outside in any given month I can usually hear that wonderfully sad little call of bluebirds calling to one another as they fly overhead.

Finally, there is the hermit thrush; a bird that may not be quite as familiar to you.  About the same size as an eastern bluebird, the hermit thrush is a close relative to both the American robin and its aforementioned blue cousin. The least colorful of the bunch, the hermit thrush can be identified by the bright, rusty-orange patch of feathers on its rump. The Massachusetts Audubon Society lists this bird as “very infrequent” and I have only seen a winter hermit thrush once in my entire life. I was completely stunned at the time, but fortunately I had my camera with me and snapped out of it in time to get a photo.

So do not fear for the thrushes of winter. There has been a lot of gloomy talk of the impacts of climate change on our beloved birds, but sightings of robins, bluebirds and hermit thrushes in winter are not harbingers of doom. We are all learning that the world is a little more interesting than we thought and since we all learn these lessons at different times in our lives it is reasonable for some of us to be learning this particular lesson right now.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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