Monday, March 16, 2009

Thrush Magic

"Cheese n rice, you are a spectacularly majestic bird!"
These are the words that escape me each time I view this:

The Varied Thrush. The brilliant orange-against-black of
this, my most favorite of winter birds, rivals our
occasional sun breaks.
Photo used with permission by Mike Yip

It has been some time since I've seen this bird -- mainly because I've been living in the Sonoran Desert for the last five years. Now back in the Pacific NW, I am treated to the awesomeness of the Varied Thrush whenever I choose to brave the wind and rain.

Delicately curious and always composed (in spite of being a noisy flyer), they flitted in the branches overhead as I crouched and spied with a grin from the Oak woodlands of Bald Hill this past weekend. They knew I was there. Everything did. And in crouching I was promptly visited by a scolding Ruby-crowned Kinglet at arm's length and a Winter Wren full of schmotsy.

You're not likely to forget your first encounter with the song of the Varied Thrush. My first was the summer of 2003. I was employed by the University of Washington as a field wildlife technician surveying birds in the forests of Fort Lewis. After a week of intense training to identify all birds in the area by sound, and several weeks of on-the-job training that followed, I was quite comfortable with every bird song and call in those woods. And to my surprise, the work also familiarized me with the dense variety of underbrush, trees, mammal scat, and the subtle difference between the croak of a tree bough in the wind versus the Pacific tree frog. With long days hiking and working alone in the woods, I could identify and name nearly every living thing around me.

Or so I thought.

One morning, not unlike any other, I stood in the dark, dense woods at pre-dawn waiting for the official minute of sunrise to begin my point count. My clipboard illuminated by the blue light of my watch as the countdown ticked by. That's when I heard it: a sound so completely new, so foreign and so incredibly close it might well have been an alien on my shoulder gurgling salutations. A single steady note like a long metallic trill bore out strong and loud, unyielding through the darkness. Neither in training nor in my weeks of working had I heard or been prepared for anything quite like this. The first note was followed by a pause, and then another long, loud trill of slightly higher pitch...then a second pause in which all the woods seemed to now be listening, and a third final note. Something surreal in the darkness was near me, paying attention to me, and I couldn't imagine what it was -- I, who was so comfortable naming everything around me!

That evening, my crew mates and I were rehashing the excitements and frustrations of our day in the woods, much as we did every evening. From one of them, I learned that the sound I'd heard was the song of the Varied Thrush. It is rare to hear one sing in "our woods", as we'd come to call them, so they were left out of our training. Furthermore, there is apparently a "story" behind the song of the Varied Thrush, so it goes: they choose the listener of their song carefully, for it transports them to another place and time filled with magical and mythical adventures...only to return to the same spot, devoid of any memory of the journey.

I don't know about any adventures with elves or fairies, but as for a magical moment to go with their song? Every time.


Dan Warren said...

Hi JP,

I am glad you are finding amazing testimonials to the awesomeness of nature.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for naming this bird for me. We lived in SouthWest BC and this bird has been visiting our bird feeder for the past couple of weeks. I've lived in BC all my life and have never seen this bird before, it's stikeingly beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for identifying this bird! His song is so different, I thought a kid was practicing his flute!

JP said...

The drawn out, 3-note song, punctuated by a pause, does sound flute-like! That seems befitting of the fairy tale adventures that supposedly go with it. :)

Brian said...

I`m in Victoria BC and i`ve just seen a pair in my back yard foraging amongst the leaves whilst its raining,
Beautiful bird, my cat saw them first.

OlyPenLovinLife said...

It's March and Spring has sprung on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. We live near wetlands and see across to Victoria BC from our bluffs. The Varied Thrush (I believe it to be) has visited us here every morning past 3 mornings (9 to 10 am) rain or shine. I hear a long loud trill held for 3 seconds, a pause, followed by another long trill lower or higher in pitch and not as loud. The Swainson's Thrush is also here later in Spring and what a fantastic ethereal song he serenades us with!

JP said...

Brian: classic varied thrush foraging if the rain would afford them some anonymity. :)

OlyPenLovinLife: yours is the life I aspire to. I spent a good portion of my childhood on the Peninsula -- Forks and later Sequim -- with a grandparent whom I still visit for several days each year and talk to each week. I love it there. The only thing more wonderful than the Peninsula is a moment with a varied thrush on the Peninsula whilst overlooking those bluffs. Thanks for sharing.