Saturday, January 15, 2011
What A Rush! A Varied thrush
I saw this male, Varied thrush in Brunswick yesterday. The bird had been reported several days ago and I had tried for two days to see it. We had just had fifteen inches of snow and it was cold. Twitching this one meant wading knee deep through drifts and standing around in the cold. Yesterday, I hit pay dirt. "The Bird," as it has become referred to lately in birding circles, is visiting a feeder on private property. The homeowner has been most gracious and tolerant of hoards of birders, bedecked with assorted optics, wandering around her homestead and knocking on her door. "Hello. I'm so and so, I've come to see 'The Bird.' Do you mind if........" She knows the drill. Before completing the sentence she gestures to her back yard. "Just stay behind the fence, please." NO problem. To see this bird here at all is nearly a miracle.
Varied thrushes are birds of the Pacific Northwest. They are not uncommon there, nor are they endangered. A Varied thrush on the east coast is however, rare. Every winter for several years, one or two have been reported in Maine. Why the birds have appeared here so far out of their range remains a mystery. Where they go and where they breed in Maine, if at all, is an even deeper mystery. In the Northwest, they favor dark, damp hemlock forests where they are hard to even see. Their loud, distinct, almost mournful, single note call often is the first thing that gives away their presence. I did not get to see the bird reported in southern Maine last winter. So, having one close to me this winter was a great opportunity and treat. It did take two days of tromping through the snow and invading a stranger's privacy to see it, though. The bird is flitting in and out of mixed forest to a well stocked feeder station. As it's name suggests, it is about the size of an American robin. Like robins, they have a mixed diet of seeds, insects and fruit, such as rose hips.
The Bird gave me a major thrush rush. It's a ball of fire, a molten orb of flaming orange, a tangerine meteor flying across a snow field that melted my heart. The bird photographed here is male. The males are brighter than the females and the black collar is less pronounced in the females. The collar gives the thrush the nickname "Necklace thrush." Try as I might, I have not been able to find out why it's called a 'Varied' thrush.
John James Audubon painted the Varied thrush for his famous works in the middle 1800s. Audubon was infamous for killing hundreds of birds for study for his paintings. Those he did not kill himself were brought to him dead, usually skinned, by scouts from around the world. In perhaps his most famous works, Birds Of America, in his text description of Varied thrushes accompanying the magnificent color plates, he said, "The figures in my plate were taken from adult males and a fine female shot in spring."  Perhaps if he had seen them alive, streaking across a snowy wood as I did, he might have been less matter of fact.
1. Audubon, J.J., Birds Of America From Drawings Made In The United States And Their Territories, Vol. III, New York: J.J. Audubon (1841), p 22
The Rise And Fall Of The Varied Thrush is an article about the biennial rising and falling of populations of Varied thrushes suggesting cyclic changes in food sources as a reason for fluctuations. The paper is co-authored by Jeff Wells, a respected Maine birder. Jeff has a great blog on Maine birding. Click on his name for that.
In the Northwest, the biggest threat to the Varied thrush seems to be deforestation which reduces habitat.