Thursday, July 2, 2015

Hush! A Thrush

Some birds are more often heard than seen.

The Swainson's thrush is a member of this shy chorus. Cryptically clad in buff and white, with a spattering of spots to break up its form, it slips quietly through trees and shrubs, keeping out of sight.

But when the male Swainson's lifts his voice in song, it's enough to make you feel as if you've been transported to some Arcadian idyll. The song is an ethereal upward spiral, sung not only at dawn but also throughout the evening, often until well after sunset. A haunting, ringing quality seems to make it hang shimmering in the air until the next trill rises. (You can listen to it here.)

Before this year, I'd only seen a Swainson's thrush once, and that was just because he was kicking up a storm rustling through leaves in a neighbor's yard uphill from my Seattle one in an area where a fence had fallen down. He gave me one startled look and vanished.

This summer, I have the privilege of watching a female Swainson's incubate her eggs in a nest perched on a conifer branch just a few yards from my office window in Cottage Lake.

She sits so patiently on  her tightly woven nest; on many days it seems she only moves to snuggle herself in more deeply. I often feel like bringing out a few magazines for her, and a little cup of coffee. With the recent scorching weather, though, I've observed her sitting next to the nest, letting the air keep the eggs warm. She prods the eggs with her beak now and then, testing their temperature and turning them over.


The male, however, is all over the place. He often flutters into the maple right next to the window to peer in at me. Or to give a thumping to the male robin who rashly lands on a branch in his domain. Sometimes he swoops through the spray of the hose when I'm watering the raspberry patch out front. Sometimes he perches on the shepherd's hook in the garden near the nest, looking like an expectant father pacing a waiting room in a 1940s movie.

The Swainson's thrush is such a lovely bird, it's a shame that it's got such an unimaginative name--the fate, alas, of so many birds. No offense, Swainson, but seriously? You already have a warbler and a hawk named after you. (Reptiles and fish totally luck out when it comes to names. More on that some other time.)

Regional names for this flutist of the woods aren't much of an improvement. According to the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds, its nicknames include Alma's thrush (who's Alma?), olive-backed thrush (ho-hum), russet-backed thrush (yawn), and swamp robin (better, but rather limiting).

More interesting are the varied ways in which bird books render the thrush's skein of song.
photo from Wikipedia

"Song spirals upward, like whip-poor-will-a-will-e-zee-zee-zee, going up high and fine at end..." explains the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds.

"Po po tu tu tu tureel tureel tiree tree tree," warble the thrushes in the Sibley guide, but only if they're in the Pacific; interior west and taiga birds tend to whistle "po rer reer reeer re-e-e-e-e-e" instead.

Naturalist William Leon Dawson, in Birds of California, describes this thrush as "a flitting shade and a haunting voice," and admits to difficulty in recreating the song in syllables, but shares other naturalists' versions:
weeloo weelo weeloeeewit-wit
t'villia-t'villiaholsey
govendy govindy goveendy
Well, wit-wit and weeloo and a govindy, too. Some authors, though, dispense with interpreting the song and go with the "everybody's a critic" approach:
"Those who have heard the olive-backed thrush singing an even-song to its brooding mate compare it with the veery's, but it has a break in it and is less simple and pleasing than the latter's." Neltje Blanchan, Bird Neighbors, 1922
"Its song, while perhaps not as beautiful as that of the Hermit Thrush, is better known to most bird-watchers..." Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region
"The throaty, gurgling song lacks the richness of the wood thrush's and the purity of the hermit's but is pleasantly musical." Richard Pough, Audubon Guides
Fortunately, Swainson's thrushes cannot read.

By Don Faulkner via Wikimedia Commons
They also make a wonderful call that sounds like a drop of water, often rendered whoit or quoit.

[We interrupt this twittering about thrush song for some breaking news. It appears the eggs may have hatched, as I thought I saw a tiny head and gaping beak protrude from the nest's edge before Mama Thrush stood over it. She has her wings spread out to shade the nest, as it's currently in full sunlight on a day shaping up to be a hot one.]

I have my fingers crossed for our resident thrushes. Their nest is built precariously close to the tip of a branch, rather than tucked closely by the trunk, and I fear that the day will come that a jay or crow takes note of it and dives in for a meal.

I know, I know, that's nature for you. I don't blame the jays and crows; I just hope it doesn't happen. The thrushes have been so single-minded  in raising their brood, parental intensity condensed to a single point in their black ink-drop eyes. I'd like to see their little ones fledge.

In fall, Swainson's thrushes leave the northwest and head south. Some migrate as far as Argentina. They fly at night, calling to each other, and if you listen in a quiet place, you can hear their notes twinkling down from the sky.