Birding is a three-dimensional pastime. It’s superior to, say, mushrooming, where the quarry is never higher than your shoelaces. And, of course, misidentifying a bird won’t kill you. Now, while all the mushroomers get busy writing angry op-eds, let me explain.
Birds fly. The sky’s the limit. One can’t go birding without looking up. The entire forest is stratified, from the treetop warblers to the ground foraging turkeys. And in the middle: thrushes.
Members of the thrush family spend much of their time on or near the ground. They forage on foot.
Males on territory might sing from a treetop, but they are often content to croon from a lower branch in the canopy. Birders sometimes complain about “warbler neck,” the pain that comes from looking high into the trees. Nobody complains about thrush neck.
Robins and bluebirds are thrushes. They’re easy to tell apart. The rest? Not so much. All the medium-sized thrushes are various shades of brown, with whitish, spotted breasts. So when walking in the woods, identification becomes easier if you start with a default bird: everything is a hermit thrush, unless it isn’t.
The hermit thrush is the most common and widespread thrush in Maine. It is comfortable in the understory of both hardwood and softwood trees. It forages through the leaf litter on the ground. When surprised, it may fly to a nearby branch where it can look you over and assess the threat, perhaps raising its tail or wiggling its wings. In other words, it’s easy. Its reddish tail contrasts with its brown body, confirming the identification at a glance. The whitish breast is lightly spotted.
Hermit thrushes don’t go far in winter. Most stay in the states. Some are even found on Christmas bird counts in Maine. They are the earliest of the brown thrushes to return, and start singing in late April.
Like their cousins, the song is an ethereal, flute-like melody, rising and falling. The Swainson’s thrush is more secretive and prefers cool, damp, coniferous understories. In Maine’s northern, coastal and alpine forests, it is just as common as hermits. While hermit thrushes nest on or near the ground, Swainson’s thrushes are tree nesters. Otherwise, they forage on the ground like other thrushes. This time of year, they habitually pop out of the woods onto logging roads where it can be a little easier for them to spot food.
Swainson’s thrushes winter in Central and South America, returning to Maine later in May. The flute-like song is similar to the hermit thrush’s, but it is raspier and always rises in pitch. They are slightly darker than hermits, with a tail the same color as the rest of the bird. A buffy eye-ring gives the bird a spooky face.
The veery is the same size as the first two, though it’s a cinnamon color with a barely spotted chest. In fact, the apparent lack of spots is a helpful field mark when compared to other thrushes. It prefers a thick, deciduous understory, preferably on the edge of wetlands, making it one of the hardest thrushes to see. Fortunately, it is very vocal. The downward organ notes of its song are distinctive, but its “view” call notes are heard more often. Veeries tend to nest in clusters. When one is present, expect several.
Veeries winter in Brazil, and they don’t return to Maine until about the third week of May.
The wood thrush is a denizen of deciduous forests. Although I’ve encountered breeding birds on the Golden Road above Moosehead Lake and in Aroostook State Park, their northern range limit seems to be in central Maine. Wood thrushes are bright brown with a heavily spotted breast, making them easy to identify. Their “ee-oh- lay-teeeee” song is distinctive.
Wood thrushes are enigmatic in several other ways. They are declining rapidly. Habitat loss is the usual culprit. They prefer mature trees and a thick understory, which is missing from most of Maine’s working forest, but is common in places like the Kennebec Highlands. They are highly vulnerable to cowbird nest parasitism. Furthermore, across their mid-Atlantic breeding range, an overpopulation of deer is devouring the understory of some forests, including actual nests. Fortunately, the birds have softened the blow by raising multiple broods per year. The male often takes over raising the first brood while the female starts another.
Now that we’ve reached midsummer, the canopy birds are getting quieter and harder to see. Thank you, thrushes, for coming down to my level.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.