Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

A Little Brown Bird

Small birds can often be the most challenging to identify. Particularly, those with indistinct colors like grey or brown. Sometimes all you can see is a flicker before they disappear. In which case I lump their identification into the catch-all category of little brown bird or 'lbb' for short.

Occasionally, they freeze instead of flying and even then they can still be difficult to discern. Often, while photographing a small bird, when I lower my camera I lose them completely, even when they are sitting right in front of me.

Earlier this month, I got my first ever photos of this reclusive little bird while it was sitting in a Japanese Ash tree in the Arboretum.

The larger robin can easily swallow the fruit of an ash tree whole.

Like a robin, our little brown bird is part of the thrush family. Unlike a robin, it is usually silent at least when visiting Seattle in October. Seattle Audubon's online guide, 'Birdweb', says that October and April are the two best months for spotting this bird near Puget Sound. In the Spring they are on their way north, looking for prime breeding locations, while in autumn most are winging their way south searching for warm winter weather. 

Unlike the varied thrush, another larger member of the family, our little bird does not provide us with a unique, identifiable pattern. It is actually very similar in its size and looks to a third relative, the Swaison's Thrush.

One of the few distinguishing features between the two little birds are their tails. As you can see here the tail of our 'lbb' subtly fades into a unique, warm rufous glow, unlike the Swainson's.

Our little bird apparently cannot swallow the pea-sized, fruit of the ash tree in a single gulp.

Instead, it must squeeze...

...nibble and...

...mash the fruit into a manageable size.

One of the traits this bird shares with its larger cousin, the robin, is a habit of flicking its wings and tail. It is about the only thing this bird does which draws attention.

This shy, retiring bird also spends time searching the ground for food. In the distance, it is easy to mistake its subtle shades and behavior for a sparrow or a dark-eye junco. It is never far from a tree or bush. At the slightest disturbance it will flit, flicker and fly - leaving only a memory of brown as it becomes one with the brush. 

Binoculars can be helpful in spotting and viewing this bird. They provide just enough distance to help keep us from scaring them away.

During the last few weeks the leaves on the ash trees in the Arboretum have been turning to gold. Our little brown birds have been stealth-fully searching the trees for fruit.

At the same time, I have been silently striving to catch one of them picking the bright, little berries.

So far, I have been successful only once.

Even when they stay on the far side of the fruit and the photo is less than desired, the experience is still satisfying. Every moment shared with such a shy and subtle creature is a peaceful reward for the effort.

If these photos and my descriptions have failed to convince you of this little brown bird's beauty then there is only one thing left to do. You should take a moment to listen to its song. This is how the males attract mates to their breeding territories high in the Cascades or up north in Canada. In particular I like the sound of the second recording on, 'All About Birds'. Click Here and then scroll down to hear the beautiful haunting melody of the Hermit Thrush.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where the migrating thrush visit our city!



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. Visiting with you and all the birds in the Slate Museum this morning was a wonderful! So many surprises! The feathered leg and tiny talons of the saw whet owl, the GB Heron's comb, seeing a coots foot and wondering why it has talons, the rhea, the trumpeter wings, the bear's head and claw and of course the rufous back and tail of the Swainson's versus the brown back and rufus tail of the Hermit Thrush. So much to see and learn. Thank you!

    2. Opps! My bad I left out the R in Slater Museum.

  2. I am helping one of these little guys that flew into a window. Your article was helpful. Thanks