By Bryan Stevens
While many migrant birds take wing in the autumn, a recent event reminded me that, in many respects, fall is the season of the thrush.
Taking part in the recent Fall Bird Count conducted by members of the Elizabethton Bird Club afforded me the opportunity to see some amazing birds, including large flocks of migrating broad-winged hawks, playful pileated woodpeckers and some often hard-to-see thrushes.
I usually feel lucky to be able to find one thrush in a single day of birding. On Saturday, Sept. 29, migration must have brought these birds out in full force, because I saw three different species — wood, gray-cheeked and Swainson’s — in the span of a few hours.
I found the Swainson’s thrush during the morning while walking the trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. I flushed the bird from cover and got a good look at the bird. The Swainson’s thrush is a model of subtle beauty with a plumage that consists of warm olives and browns and a beige wash across the upper half of an otherwise white breast dotted with faint brown spots. The beige wash extends into a prominent eye-ring.
I usually see more Swainson’s thrushes in autumn than spring. Named for William John Swainson, the thrush doesn’t spend the summer months in the region, but is a fairly common spring and fall migrant. The thrushes that do nest during the summer in the region include wood thrush and veery, as well as the hermit thrush, which is also a winter resident.
The namesake of the Swainson’s thrush was a famous English naturalist living in the 19th century. Swainson, who grew up in London but spent much of his adult life in New Zealand, excelled as an English ornithologist, malacologist, conchologist, entomologist and artist. Besides the thrush, eight other species of birds are named in his honor.
Two of the other birds — Swainson’s warbler and Swainson’s hawk — are resident in the United States for at least the spring and summer months.
The other six species include Swainson’s francolin, Swainson’s sparrow, Swainson’s antcatcher, Swainson’s fire-eye, Swainson’s flycatcher and Swainson’s toucan.
Swainson never visited the United States of America, but in 1806 he accompanied the English explorer Henry Koster to Brazil in South America. Swainson and his family emigrated to New Zealand in 1841. Swainson settled near the New Zealand city of Wellington only to have earthquakes in 1848 and 1855 devastate the shoreline near his estate, which he called Hawkshead. He found the pioneer life in New Zealand difficult, especially when a native Maori chief pushed his own claims to Swainson’s estate. Swainson died of bronchitis on Dec. 6, 1855, at the age of 66.
The recent Fall Bird Count also offered me an opportunity to see a gray-cheeked thrush for the first time in almost 18 years. The species is aptly named. The gray-cheeked thrush lacks an eye ring, and its most prominent feature is the grayish plumage around the bird’s face. No evidence of brown or buff coloration intrude into the face region.
Gray-cheeked thrushes nest far from Tennessee and Virginia. In fact, they nest almost to the very edge of the tundra region in the far north. Because of this tendency to nest in remote regions, experts have had difficulty determining population trends for this species.
I know that I hadn’t seen one of these thrushes since back in 2000. I didn’t get a very good look during my recent encounter. I saw a bird fly from a tree branch into thicker cover. I relied on other members of the count party who got a better look to make the identification. The gray-cheeked thrush is not a common migrant in the region, but they do make some sporadic appearances. It’s possible they are also overlooked. Their migration actually takes place at night. The daytime observations of this bird involve individuals that have stopped for a brief respite to refuel and rest.
A shy personality contributes to the ease with which the bird can be missed even by a sharp-eyed observer. Like some of its relatives, but perhaps even more so, the gray-cheeked thrush would rather slip into concealing cover than reveal itself on an exposed perch to human observers. Both the gray-cheeked thrush and Swainson’s thrush belong to the genus Catharus, a term derived from Ancient Greek that can be described as “pure” or “clean” in reference to the plumage of some of the members of the genus.
The other two Catharus thrushes in North America include the veery, Bicknell’s thrush and hermit thrush. Some members of this genus are colorful birds with descriptive names, including the orange-billed nightingale-thrush, black-headed nightingale-thrush and slaty-backed nightingale-thrush. The incorporation of the name “nightingale” is no accident. Like the famous nightingale of folklore and fairytales, many members of the genus are remarkable singers capable of producing ethereal and flute-like songs.
In the final days of September and early days of October, wood thrushes returned to prominence in the woodlands around my home. I have wood thrushes nesting in the woods around my home every spring, but it is still always a treat to see the largest of the brown thrushes that call North America home during at least half of the year.
The wood thrush is not a member of the Catharus genus of thrushes, but instead is the sole representative of the genus Hylocichla. While not exactly an official state bird, the District of Columbia has made the wood thrush its official bird. The popularity of the wood thrush is probably helped by its own beautiful song, which has often been described as one of the most beautiful of all North America’s birds. Widespread in the United States and Canada during the summer nesting season, wood thrushes withdraw in winter to spend the cold season in southern Mexico through to Panama in Central America.
Right now, migration of thrushes is proceeding at a somewhat leisurely pace. Soon, though, most of this family of talented singers will depart the borders of the United States until next spring. When they get ready to leave, most thrushes will make a remarkable non-stop journey that will take them to the region where they will wait out the cold winter months. Enjoy them before they depart.