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." [1] 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.

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  1. All I can say is: WOW!!!. Great photo and essay. Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

  2. Thanks, Gary and Boom. Birds in the snow are so glorious, but THIS one - WOW is right!

  3. Ok I've decided I can say I'm birding a little vicariously through
    Your post. How very beautiful and exciting. Tends to perk up
    Our little corner of the world and howgood it is to havesuch generous
    People willing to share with the rest and to you for helping those of
    Us too far away to see in person enjoy the experience. AnnieO

  4. Beautiful bird! and great pictures! nice work.

  5. Beautiful bird! I can see why you had express your joy poetically. I envy you!

  6. Annie, Kimberly and Hilke, thank you all. I love seeing birds and new birds nearly immeasurably. But what I especially love is having people to share the experience with. Thank you for being some of those people. You give a great deal to me in that. Annie, maybe I'll write a book one day, the title will be "The Vicarious Birder." Great title! I wonder what I'd write about though.........

  7. Robin, what a remarkable sighting! Thanks so much for capturing it for the rest of us.

  8. Robbie wrote: "My yard is full of these beauties every winter and they certainly do brighten up a dull day!"

  9. Margaret McPhersunJanuary 15, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    Beautiful bird. Nice sighting

  10. Carol wrote:"Would you reveal where in BrunswickAt least what section?This is miraculous"

  11. Stacie Hatcher Hanes commented on your note "What A Rush! A Varied thrush".
    Stacie wrote: "beautiful Robin!"

  12. Alana Ranney Parker commented on your note "What A Rush! A Varied thrush".
    Alana wrote: "awesome! luck you!!!"

  13. Jim Walker commented on your note "What A Rush! A Varied thrush".
    Jim wrote: "Very nice shots Robin.... Loved the write up and photos on your blog."

  14. Re. the name "Varied Thrush" You got me curious.I could not find a definitive answer in my books or on line. But here is an interesting note from "Birds of North America" (online) which I had not read:
    "Studies of song structure suggest that males vary the frequency and duration of their notes to reduce habituation by neighbors."
    I have no idea if this is the origin of its name.

    The only other hint I got was the "variedness" of the colors.

    Barbara Herrgesell

  15. Great piece and beautiful photo.


    On Sat, Jan 15, 2011 at 12:28 PM

  16. Great photo, Robin! The only place I've ever seen this bird is in Washington State. How come you're so lucky?!

  17. Robin - Wonderful photos! Thanks also for the links to Audubon and Jeff Wells. Your photos of the Varied thrush show a much more colorful bird than the one painted by Audubon.....I prefer yours and wish I could see one someday, especially highlighted against the snow....what a visual treat.

    In reading some of the Audubon link, I was interested to learn that his favorite bird was the Wood thrush.

    Audubon did a lot of work in Kentucky. If you ever come this way, there is a little jewel of a museum dedicated to his work in Henderson, Kentucky, well worth the trip, as it has one of the largest collections of his work in the country.....among other things, they own TWO of the portfolios like the one that just sold for over 11 million dollars.

  18. Mary Ann Wilson commented on your note "What A Rush! A Varied thrush".
    Mary Ann wrote: "Congratulations

  19. Great photo, Robin! The only place I've ever seen this bird is in Washington State. How come you're so lucky?!

  20. Shawn Weigelt commented on your note "What A Rush! A Varied thrush".
    Shawn wrote: "WHOA! You've got one of our birds out there, Robin! I often see them in the Douglas Firs in our backyard this time of year. Pretty cool that one showed up in Maine, though you've got to wonder what it's doing there! =)"