by Simon Thompson
Most, if not all, of us are familiar with the American Robin. We see them flocking on their way north in the spring, and many of us even have them nesting on our property during summer. Their caroling song (“Cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up”) is an integral sound of springtime, and their acceptance of us as neighbors makes them a part of our immediate world.
Robins are members of the thrush family, which also includes all three North American bluebirds, the shy Wood, Swainson’s and other brown thrushes, and the western Townsend’s Solitaire. This large group of birds is quite diverse and although the recent taxonomic classification is open to debate, over 300 species of the true thrushes are found worldwide, with about 10 species regularly breeding in North America.
Because of our diverse topography here in North Carolina we are blessed with four of the brown forest thrushes. These are the Wood, Hermit, Swainson’s and Veery. Due to their preference of dense forest habitat all are shy and far more likely to be heard than seen.
The most widespread species is the heavily spotted Wood Thrush, which breeds at lower elevations in the rich deciduous forests of Western North Carolina. If a portion of native vegetation and undergrowth has been left intact, the Wood Thrush can even be found in well-wooded gardens and adjacent woodlots. There’s nothing nicer than being awakened at dawn on a late spring morning by the rich flutings of a newly arrived Wood Thrush, often considered the finest songster in North America.
A drive up into the mid- to higher elevations of the Blue Ridge will take you into the preferred habitat of the Veery. Like the Wood Thrush, the Veery is a shy bird, although at times it can be seen hopping around on the forest floor. Without the rich red-brown coloration and heavy spotting of the Wood Thrush, the Veery is a subtle study in cinnamon brown with little to very obscure spotting around the throat. The beauty of the Veery is in its song, which is best heard at dawn or just before dusk when the unusual, metallic downward spiraling song echoes over the foggy spruces.
Climb a little farther up into the mountains to find the last of the three regularly breeding thrushes, the Hermit. This widespread bird has been extending its range down the Southern Appalachians and now breeds as far south as the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Unlike the other spotted thrushes, the Hermit Thrush spends the winter with us, and it’s not uncommon to find one feeding under the bird feeder. This moderately spotted thrush is easily recognized by its habit of slowly raising and lowering its red-brown tail, and in my opinion, its song is the most evocative of all. With introductory notes each given on a different pitch, followed by a sweet fluttering trill, the song of the Hermit Thrush evokes the windswept conifer forests of the north woods.
Here in the western mountains our last breeding thrush is the Swainson’s. A common migrant in both spring and fall from its wintering grounds in South America, this pale thrush with an obvious buff-colored eye-ring has recently been discovered during summer high in the Blue Ridge. While no nests have yet been found, it follows that this northern thrush could mimic the range extension of the Hermit to eventually breed here in our Southern Appalachian forests.
Learning these shy, brown thrushes can be a challenge, but their songs and even their call-notes are distinctive. Their preferred habitat and elevation helps as well in distinguishing the expected species.
Take an evening drive into the high Blue Ridge and park at an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway. As the evening sun begins to set, sit back and enjoy the chorus of Veery and Hermit Thrush. It’s simply gorgeous.
Simon Thompson owns and operates Ventures Birding Tours. Contact VenturesBirding@gmail.com.