Speaking of Nature: A veery nice surprise

  • This is an adult male wood thrush that I photographed in my back woods in 2021. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

  • This is the adult male veery that I photographed in virtually the same location this year.  Note the obvious similarities in body shape between these two members of the thrush family. 

Published: 6/26/2022 3:02:45 PM
Modified: 6/26/2022 3:00:13 PM

For most of the spring I was plagued by the sense that something was wrong. On more than one occasion I commented to my friends and family that there seemed to be an issue with the birds. I knew that there were birds around and I was filling out my monthly species lists fairly well, but I got the impression that they were all present in smaller numbers than usual. I had compiled a long list of species that I considered missing in action (MIA) and every visit to the edge of my meadow was oddly and unsettlingly quiet. The world of birds felt as though it was a bit “thin.”

Where were all the warblers? Where were the flycatchers? Where were the catbirds and the brown thrashers? What had happened to the Dawn Chorus? Was I wrong in my observations, or were these interpretations real? I even started to wonder if there was something wrong with my hearing. These were the questions that were rattling around in my skull on a daily basis and I was actually starting to become concerned that we were beginning to experience the leading edge of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Then, on one magical day, things took a turn for the better. This was the same day that I saw the swamp sparrow that was featured in last week’s column, but the sparrow only represented about 30 minutes of the four hours that I spent in and around the woods in my backyard that day. After the swamp sparrow encounter I decided to leave my Thinking Chair and walk down into the forest where I have placed a second Thinking Chair at the side of the stream that empties the meadow. While I was there a variety of species seemed to materialize out of thin air.

There were wood thrushes, eastern wood-pewees, Louisiana waterthrushes, ovenbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks and even a black-and-white warbler all within view. And then, from further south in the forest, I heard a call note that I recognized as one that belonged to a thrush. To be honest, however, I was a little rusty with my thrush call notes, so it took me a moment to identify it as the call note of a bird called a veery (Catharusfuscescens).

One of the species on my MIA list, this is a bird with one of the most amazing songs you are likely to hear in a New England forest. Impossible for a human to replicate, I would say that it sounds like the entire wind section of an orchestra all playing without sheet music as they attempt to go up the scale and then back down together. I played a song like this with my phone and the response was amazing. A little brown projectile came screaming out of the forest and after a brief and careful engagement I managed to take a wonderful photo of the bird in full song.

This photo, coincidentally, was taken in virtually the same location that I took a photo of a wood thrush (Hylocichlamustelina) last summer. In virtually identical profile postures, these two photos offer a wonderful side-by-side comparison of the two species. Obviously both thrushes, the two birds have very similar body shapes and general colorations. But the differences in the details are important. The wood thrush, which is a little larger than the veery, has white on the face and bold black spots on the breast. In contrast, the veery is much more muted with only the faintest suggestion of spots on the upper breast.

The veery is a tropical bird that comes north for the sole purpose of breeding. During the winter the veery prefers the deep forests of the Amazon and during the breeding season it likes moist woodlands where the males will establish territories and the females will build nests. Most nests (which are your typical cup-type constructions) are on the ground, but some are occasionally built in low woody vegetation no more than five feet up. The female will lay 4-5 pale greenish-blue eggs and she will incubate them for 10-14 days. Once the chicks hatch the male will do his fair share to feed them, but in 10-14 days they will be out of the nest and getting ready to fly to the tropics.

The veery that I saw was one of nine different species that I was able to cross of my MIA list that day and as a result I came out of the woods feeling much better about the state of the world. However, it will be interesting to see if this sense of “wrongness” persists as summer transitions into fall. I have years of observation data to refer back to, but that is only part of the story. The birds are present, but I seem to be working harder to find them this year than I have had to in past years. If you have had a similar feeling I’d love to hear about it.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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