Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thrushes at the Hawk Counting Site

Today was a laid-back day at at the hawk-counting site here in Duluth. The birds seen overhead were Turkey Vultures (had one dozen of them fly over), and the other raptors observed today were Bald Eagles at varying ages; all of which were very distant. Some Bald Eagles were adults, some were 1-year olds, and some were in between (most Bald Eagles reach maturity at the ages of 4 or 5 years old. We're just getting out of the long, harsh, winter-like storm that took place over the past three days, and I think nearly all migrating birds are stressing to move out of the area (and for birds that are south of us, move into the area).

This morning I was greeted by a welcoming committee of beautiful little songbirds on the edge of the road. Thankfully they kept their distance when cars approached, and flew into the woods along the hillside, away from the road. The first bird that caught my attention was the ever-singing American Robin. His caroling was so pleasant to hear! When the robin produces the gorgeous and uplifting song of up & down cheerful notes, this is called caroling. This American Robin that I saw was a male, in that it had a dark-slate/black head and backside, with an incredibly colorful, and solid-rufous frontside! Females look similar, but have slightly duller heads and backs, and have a much more "washed" or bleached look to the reddish color on their frontsides. Shortly after I saw him, a female robin flew into the area. This is the first female American Robin I've seen this year. As with most songbirds, male American Robins head north for the spring migration slightly earlier than the females, so that they (the males) can establish the best breeding territory and pick out the most potentially food-rich areas to set up shop! One of the trade-offs of being an earlier migrant among others in a bird's species, is that the earliest migrants are susceptible to harsh weather and cold spells in spring, like many of the songbirds which have arrived over the past week, and endured the rough storm. An adult male American Robin is pictured above. Even through some light foliage, the beautiful robins' colors just glow!

After seeing the American Robins, some smaller and darker-looking birds caught my eye. Dark-eyed Juncos, with their tiny pink bills and white bellies, were enjoying some small tidbits of grit alongside the road, in addition to some Fox Sparrows (the bird from the previous blog post)! It was fun to watch these little songbirds intermingle with each other, and feed on their own terms and space. Then something slightly drabber-looking caught my eye. It lurked through the dense underbrush and thickly-intertwined sticks, which lay on top of the snowmelt-saturated (and leaf covered) soil. The bird made an appearance, and gave a soft "chuck" call. It then began to dig into the ground with it's bill, probing likely around leaves and openings where insects might crawl. It also picked up a few leaves and threw them into the air, to make way for it's food-searching expedition. This bird is a Hermit Thrush!

Hermit Thrushes, as their name states, are a thrush (American Robins are a thrush). There are 179 thrush species worldwide. The Hermit Thrush is usually one of the first thrush species in it's genus, to arrive back up here in the northwoods in the spring (not including robins, which are in a different genus under Thrushes). Hermit Thrushes are wonderful birds to observe... they are very easy-going towards other birds, and typically only have their bursts of territorial-ness towards other Hermit Thrushes. They have a song that is absolutely ethereal; and if you've never heard a Hermit Thrush sing before... I guarantee that you'll have goosebumps when you first hear their song! It's not a perfect in-the-field experience, but here is a high-quality sound recording from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website. Click the link below to visit the site with the Hermit Thrush's song & call:

The Hermit Thrush eats primarily insects and berries. Although it is related to the American Robin, you won't see this thrush bouncing around in the grassy lawns in front of people's houses; instead, you might have to take a walk down the road to some mixed woods of deciduous and coniferous trees. The Hermit Thrushes love these mixed woods. Like the classic American Robin's blue eggs, the Hermit Thrush also has blue eggs. Unlike the American Robin which nests in trees, the Hermit Thrush nests on the ground! Instead of having an all sun-exposed lawn, it might be good to provide some shelter and food for Hermit Thrushes throughout your yard. They love large bushes, and have seen them in many large stands of Aspen. Even if you're too far away from a mixed forest, providing some habitat for Hermit Thrushes (and other birds) could be a life-saving experience for these long-distance migrants, and they'll reward you by stopping into your back yard :-)

Hermit Thrushes are a striking bird, in many subtle ways. They have a smooth, blended head and backside of reddish & grayish brown tones, spots covering their upper chest. Below their spots on the upper chest, they have a belly of creamy-white. One of the most distinct characteristics of Hermit Thrushes, is that they have a red tail that is usually more red in color than their back & folded wings. They are a very active bird to watch, not only in the sense that they forage in somewhat bouncy and aggressively manners on the ground, but are even noting the movement in their tail! A Hermit Thrush's tail is constantly moving around in a slow, vertically-bobbing motion. Hermit Thrushes are very inquisitive, and although easily-flushed, they will come out of the brush and foliage to check out nearby happenings, usually before other birds do.

It's so much fun to see migrating songbirds showing where each of us live. There are many more birds to come :) Thanks for reading!


  1. Another excellent post Erik, and the pictures are very fine as well.