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

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Saturday, January 11, 2020

A Winter Thrush

When we sense danger, like a bird, we may freeze for a moment. Our adrenaline pumps, our minds race and we rapidly consider alternative strategies of escape. I suspect the experience for birds is similar - but more intense. Since they are smaller than us, they have more to fear. Internally, I suspect they vibrate at a higher speed. I wonder if the average bird feels like a human who has consumed six cups of fully caffeinated coffee. Their survival depends on their constant awareness and split-second decisions. 

(When we startle a bird the best thing we can do is nothing. Don't move, don't make a noise, don't even stare. Wait and watch - out of the corner of your eye. When the bird returns to feeding, or whatever it was doing, then quietly and slowly move on or assume a more relaxed position.) 

Varied Thrush reproduce in forests, preferably old-growth forests. They are accustomed to clean air, dappled shadows, cool floating mists and silence. The city seems like an odd place to find them and yet they are often here. 

The American Robin, also a Thrush - e.g. a member of the Turdidae family - is a relative of similar size and color. In the fall, the Varied Thrush can occasionally be spotted in the city feeding with Robins on the same types of fruit. Given their preference for quiet the Varied Thrush are likely to be a bit more in the shadows and often further away then the Robins. They are elusive and shy.

September 30th is one of my earliest fall photos of a Varied Thrush. 

Even in October, the Varied Thrush still looks a little out of place when photographed in front of bright green leaves.

However, the fruit they find in the city must be virtually irresistible.

By mid-November, the leaves are turning to autumn colors. 

The Varied Thrush blend in beautifully among fall leaves. The male birds tend to have more black coloring, which I find most obvious around the face. (This is also true for American Robins.)

Among females, their 'black' coloring has more of a faded, brownish tone. No doubt it helps them blend in with their surroundings.

In my experience, I find the Varied Thrush generally silent during the late Fall and Winter. However, in the early Autumn, when walking through the Arboretum just after dawn, you can often hear their lonely, heartbreaking songs. The sounds transport me to the dim, sanctuary of an old-growth forest. These are the songs I would expect to hear on distant mountains especially during the early part of the breeding season. 

To me, the piercing song sounds like two gentle notes, just a half step apart and perfectly even in volume, and yet softly fighting for vibrational dominance. If you Click Here you will be transported to All About Birds where you can play a Gerrit Vyn recording. The second and third sets of tones seem most similar to our local birds. (For some odd reason if you want to replay the song more than once you must reload the page.)

In December, after most of the leaves have fallen, the Varied Thrushes are somewhat more obvious.

Their beauty feels like nature's reward for being out and about in cold, wet weather and looking closely at every bird which gives the cursory impression of being an American Robin.

By late December, the available fruit has diminished.

By January, the fruit is looking like raisins that have passed their prime.

I love this photo of their 'fruit-eating' tongue. It looks exactly like the tongue of a Cedar Waxwing and serves the same purpose. The 'fish hook' on the back of the tongue helps to push the fruit down their throats.

My latest in the year, city-photo of a Varied Thrush, shows a female on March the 4th. Which fits with the idea that males leave first to find and defend their breeding territories. Birds of North America states that 'Males arrive on breeding grounds earlier than females and begin singing almost immediately to establish territories.

The earliest reference given for this quote refers to, 'Jewett, S. G., W. P. Taylor, and J. W. Aldrich (1953). Birds of Washington State, University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington, USA.'

My friend and Master Birder, Dave Galvin, has noticed Varied Thrush appearing in the Cascade Mountains in late March and early April. He calls this vertical migration. Birds of North America concurs. It states, 'In much of its range, it appears that naevius (the coastal subspecies) migrates attitudinally from lowland areas to adjacent coastal mountains, but some north-south migration occurs as well.'

Seattle Audubon's Birdweb (under the 'Find in Washington' tab) shows that the Varied Thrush becomes uncommon in the Puget Trough between May and August. Since during the last few years I have seldom been in the mountains, I did not expect to find any breeding season photos of Varied Thrush in my database. However, in 2017, my friend Rob Thomas and I hiked through the center of the Olympic Mountains. 

Near Low Divide, elevation 3602', I photographed this young Varied Thrush. Notice how the feathers are short and of uniform length. Mature birds do not generally grow all new feathers at the same time. The brown coloring may indicate it is a female or it might be a young male who has not yet achieved breeding age or plumage.

Even young birds need to keep their feathers properly arranged and clean.

By visiting All About Birds, and scrolling down to the Conservation heading, you can see that Varied Thrush species have decreased in abundance by 73 percent between 1966 and 2015. This correlates with a decrease in old-growth forest, their prime breeding habitat. 

When we protect the forests around us we protect the richness of our life experience and that of future generations as well.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city!


Recommended Citation

George, T. L. (2000). Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.541

Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. I hope we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

Is this tree native to the Pacific Northwest? What species is it?

Scroll down for the answer.


Western Hemlock: It is a common native tree that occurs generally to about 3500 feet, close to the elevation of the Low Divide in the Olympics. However, from what I read about the Olympics on Wikipedia, in the drier central and eastern portion of the Olympics, e.g. west of Mt. Olympus, Western Hemlocks extends significantly higher. 

In general, the easiest way to distinguish the Western Hemlock from the Mountain Hemlock is the size of their cones. The Western Hemlock cones are generally less than an inch in length while the Mountain Hemlock cones are usually longer than an inch. Although, since no cones are visible in this photo, this difference is not very helpful in this particular instance.


The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional workaround is to set up my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is: LDHubbell@Comcast.Net


  1. Hi Larry, Great shots, as always, and for me a timely posting. A score of robins has been camped here in the North end, harvesting cotoneaster (I know, not native. I promise to rip it out). A splendid varied thrush has joined them lately. I would've been willing to stand around in the rain for this treat but I can see him from the living room!
    PS: I probably don't need to tell you there's a hundred yard long hedge of cotoneaster along Montlake from the Cut to NE Pacific. Driving by my wife invariably says "That (becoming gigantic) is what I hoped ours wouldn't do." This must be a regional bonanza for whomever can digest the fruits.

    1. Thank you! Nonnative plants that are utilized by native birds is an interesting conundrum. i have tried to wrap my head around figuring out what is the most approach. One idea is, Maximizing Diversity. Another is E.O. Wilson's suggestion (and book) of devoting 'Half Earth' to nature. Taking that idea to the next level a homeowner might devote their back yard to being a Wildlife Sanctuary and their front yard to landscaped exotic plants (they could even be endangered plants from around the world). In any case my suggestion would be to not be too quick about removing plants that native birds are utilizing. Maybe plant natives elsewhere in the yard while watching for the optimal replacement for the cotoneaster. By the way, I have even seen Cedar Waxwings eating cotoneaster. All the best!

  2. Tried very hard to get this bird for the Grays Harbor CBC. It turned up, just not in my particular area. Really nice photos and good info.

    1. Thank you! They certainly love small fruit in the winter time, but even knowing that they are elusive and shy. I commend you for your effort!

  3. I see them every morning at Woodland Park Zoo when I get there before it opens. (I volunteer). Lots of great habitat there.

    1. Very interesting! Thank you! Do you happen to remember where they are foraging e.g. in leaf litter, fruiting trees or shrubs or among conifers, etc?