A morning not too long ago found me standing at the roadside with binoculars in hand. A passing car slowed and stopped behind me. The woman behind the wheel rolled down her window and leaned toward me quizzically.
“What’s so interesting here?” she asked. “Almost every time I drive by here I see several people lined up along the road.”
I explained there was an uncommon bird in the area, “in someone’s yard to be exact,” and birdwatchers were excited to catch a glimpse of it. Expecting a disinterested, “Oh,” I was encouraged when the woman asked what kind of bird it was while her passengers shrank back into their seats in embarrassment.
“A varied thrush,” I replied.
The woman asked me to repeat the name a few times, and I explained the bird is usually only seen out West. Satisfied, the woman drove off looking intrigued; her passengers no doubt relieved their driver was no longer engaging in conversation with a goofy-looking stranger holding binoculars.
Pleased that at least one person was interested in learning about this bird “or any birds at all,” I returned my scrutiny to the yard’s feeding stations and surrounding shrubs. The property’s owners had first noticed the bird and reported it, very graciously inviting birders to view the bird from the road in front of their house.
This was a very generous gesture. Although I am a birdwatcher and enjoy the company of other birders, I’m not too sure I’d be comfortable with a crowd of optics-wielding strangers standing on the edge of my property. Luckily, the owners of the house are also birdwatchers who are just as excited at seeing a rare bird as are the rest of us and are willing to share.
It so happened I was the only one there at that point, and I enjoyed the peace and quiet of that little-traveled road as I looked for the thrush. There was a lot of activity at the feeders to entertain me in the meantime: goldfinches, house finches, mourning doves, cardinals, a northern mockingbird, two red-bellied woodpeckers and a swamp sparrow were all taking advantage of the food supply and ample cover available.
A special treat was the presence of tree sparrows, which are only seen here in the winter, as their breeding range encompasses northern Canada and Alaska. These elegant little sparrows with the black spot on their otherwise spotless chests, “a reliable identification mark,” were foraging on the bare ground near the feeding stations.
What I really wanted to see, of course, was the thrush. In body shape and form, it is similar to a robin. “They belong to the same family,” but on pure looks, the varied thrush is a standout. The male has a beautiful blue-gray back and a bright, yellowish-orange chest, neck, and throat; as well, there is an orange eye stripe. A thick black band sets off his burning orange chest further, and a dark black cap and cheek patch accentuate his fiery facial highlights.
Females are duller overall, with a less-distinct chest band.
Varied thrushes breed throughout Alaska, western Canada and the northwestern U.S. Their song, which is very unlike a robin’s, is a single, burry note, which to me conjures up images of the cool, wet and mysterious forests of that region.
Normally, they winter in southerly areas of the Northwest and into Southern California; why the birds end up on the East Coast is still largely a mystery.
In Maine, at least one varied thrush is reported (to my knowledge) every year or every few years. This year we have reports of three birds within the state: one in Orono, one in South Portland, and two “yes, two,” together in Saco.
Sadly, the varied thrush in South Portland did not make an appearance for me, although he has since been seen several times by others. I’ll have to keep trying; he has been there since mid-December, so maybe my luck will hold out.
In the meantime, I’ll be happy to share information with curious drivers who take the time to listen and wonder.