I heard the song, it took me a minute to place it and I almost couldn’t believe my ears. I hadn’t heard it in years, and a neighborhood is the last place I’d expect to hear it.
The maker of this song is a bird of northern spruce-fir forests. In fact, if I remember correctly, the last time I heard this wiry spiral of notes was during camping and hiking trips to Baxter State Park.
Yet, here it was, drifting through the air along with the petals of apple tree blossoms in my neighbor’s yard.
I got the glasses on it, confirming it was a thrush; but my song identification skills were so rusty I had to break out the Peterson “Birding by Ear” CD to determine it was a Swainson’s thrush. It immediately took me back to the first time I identified this thrush by sight and sound.
We’d been hiking a trail in Baxter, traveling through spruce-fir forest. It was late in the afternoon, and the day was overcast, making it seem as if it were later in the day than it was. The dark green of the conifers was offset by the lighter, golden-green of the newly emerged leaves of the occasional deciduous tree, and the lime-green of moss-covered rocks and trunks added to the color palette.
That intriguing song rang through the trees, followed by a call note that somehow sounded both haunting and whimsical — a high, whistled “whit, whit.” To me, it added another layer of mystery and beauty that I attribute to the Northern Forest.
Swainson’s thrushes breed in Alaska, throughout much of Canada, and parts of the Western United States and along the Pacific Coast, as well as portions of New England, upstate New York and the Great Lakes region. They winter in Central and South America, as far south as Argentina — a true long-distance migrant.
The bird I observed in my neighbor’s yard earlier this spring spent some time foraging on the ground, as its relatives typically do, but I was surprised to see it foraging among the lower limbs of the apple trees. Reading up on it in “The Birds of North America” species account, I learned the bird is known for this, as well as employing aerial fly-catching techniques. Here in Maine, this apparently has earned it the nickname “mosquito thrush.”
I was curious to see if other people in Southern Maine were reporting Swainson’s thrushes in their areas during migration. I utilized a new birding tool called Maine eBird, which was introduced in May by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Maine Birding Trail and Cornell University. It is an offshoot of Cornell’s eBird and is specific to Maine, giving birders an opportunity to report their sightings, see others’ reports and keep up to date on birding volunteer opportunities, projects and news in the state.
I clicked on “Total Number of Species Reported in 2011 — Cumberland,” and selected “Swainson’s thrush.” A map loaded and sure enough, sightings were reported in Brunswick, Freeport, Portland, Yarmouth and Scarborough for May and June.
I went to Cornell’s national eBird site and looked at data from last year during this time. Again, there were sightings listed around these towns, as well as additional postings in Portland and South Portland. I then queried the site for reports during the breeding season of 2010, and, as I expected, none were listed. Changing the location query from Cumberland County to Penobscot County, I found several sightings north of Old Town during the 2010 breeding season.
I wondered where the thrush I observed would end up, but of course it’s impossible to know. I was so glad I got to see and hear it during its spring migration stopover.