Tuesday, January 6, 2009

One Tough Thrush

Let's face it, most thrushes are pansies, at least those of speckled bellies. Shy and skulking, they retreat to hot and humid tropical climes to winter.

Not so with the most mellifluous of them all, the Hermit Thrush. These russet-tailed beauties have a song that is breathtaking; almost hard to comprehend in its richness and complexity. And for woodland specklebellied thrushes, they are tough as nails.

Hermit Thrushes breed in conifer-dominated boreal forests across northern North America, ranging south at higher elevations in the mountains. In Ohio, they are very rare breeders, with relict populations confined to our largest and most intact hemlock gorges.

But we get plenty of them in migration, and more than most people probably realize in winter. This is the only thrush in the genus Catharus that overwinters primarily in North America. But they aren't easy to find in winter, and a bit of botanical knowledge will surely help your efforts if you are interested in unearthing one of these tail-pumpers in the off season.

On the Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count last Saturday, we were delighted to come across this lush patch of Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra, in heavy fruit. And not just because it is a good-looking plant. Fruiting sumac in winter means Hermit Thrush! Look very closely in the center of the photo, and you may see a little thrush looking back.

We zoom in a bit, and now you should be able to make out Mr. Thrush inspecting the interlopers. When we saw this habitat, we proceeded to make some sounds to pique the curiosity of a thrush, and sure enough, out he popped. Unfortunately, Hermit Thrushes won't sing for us in winter, other than rarely a soft whisper version, but they do give their distinctive low chuck notes.

Our thrush stayed in rather dense cover, as they usually do, but I was able to zoom in and through the vegetation and capture a decent image. Here he sits on a branch spackled with Green Shield Lichen, Flavoparmelia caperata.

There are four common, widespread species of sumac in Ohio: this one, which is the aforementioned Smooth Sumac; Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina; Winged Sumac, Rhus copallina; and Fragrant Sumac, Rhus aromatica. All of them provide tasty fruit that are long persistent and offer a stable food source for wintering Hermit Thrushes.
So if you would like to add a fairly difficult species to your January Ohio list, just go poking around the sumac patches.


Dawn Fine said...

I absolutely adore the song of the Hermit thrush...i get teary when I hear it..
sooo beautiful..
So even if I dont see it...darn secretive little fellows..I can hear it!
Nice post...we have allot of sumac where I grew up in Ct. Some of which we would make a nice lemonade type drink out of.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to find one of these hardy thrushes all the way up in the Leelanau Peninsula of Northern Michigan, feeding on some grapes in a land covered in snow. I put some pics of the bird on facebook, I actually got an accidental decent shot. Pretty fun.
- Ben Warner

Jim McCormac said...

Saw your photo of that eskino-like thrush up in Michigan, Ben - great shot!


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