Saturday, March 26, 2011

When the Wood Thrush Goes on Vacation

Just like humans, when birds go on vacation they often behave very differently from when they are engaged in domestic duties. Hang on, and I will give you an example.

American Robin

When I was a gullible young boy, I was told that if I sprinkled salt on the tail feathers of a robin, it would be unable to fly and I could catch it. So I stalked robins across the lawn with a salt shaker in hand. The robins hoped along the grass in front of me. They maintained a lead at least eight times the reach of my of my short arms. If I managed to close the distance to seven times the reach of my short arms, the bird flew off. Often the flight was only a few feet. The robin would resume hopping, and listening, and probing for worms. I never caught a robin, but I did absorb its characteristic walk-hop. Even in dark light when I cannot see our robin’s gray back or rust-red breast, I can recognize the bird when it flies down from its hidden nest in the tree branches or shrubbery and goes looking-hopping for worms or grubs on a grassy lawn.

Clay-colored Robin (Thrush)

So ... early this month I was at a jungle lodge in Belize in Central America. I saw a bird hopping along a grassy area which was the size and shape of a robin. I knew my (North) American Robin intimately and was able to recognize a relative. I had no difficulty identifying the brown bird as a Clay-colored Robin, or Thrush. Remember that the American Robin is a member of the thrush family (Turdidae).

Soon after seeing the Clay-colored Robin, I stood on a walkway when another thrush hopped from beneath some bushes and began scratching with its beak in the dirt. It was about six feet from me. It cocked its head, maybe looking for a creepy-crawlie in the dirt, or maybe assessing my presence. It had a beautiful brown back. It flew to a low branch, perching so I could see its bright white breast with big brown spots. My aging computer system sputtered for a few moments and then spit out “Wood Thrush.”

Wood Thrush

During my vacation in Belize, I had many opportunities to watch the vacationing (more correctly, wintering) Wood Thrush. The behavior of the Wood Thrush in its wintering habitat is completely different from what we observe when it is in our woods and engaged in its domestic activities.

The Wood Thrush I am accustomed to is a shy, woodland bird. Last year, I spent a couple of long mornings walking the trail up Mt. Wantastiquet. I wanted to photograph the Wood Thrush. I heard it singing. The ethereal, flute-like song - inadequately rendered as “ee-oh-Lay” - carried through the dark forest understory. When the song seemed to be close at hand, I searched the mid-level branches. With patience I managed a few photographs of the Wood Thrush hidden in dark shadows, or back-lit and silhouetted on a branch. One even paused on the forest floor, foraging in the leaf litter for a quick meal; then it picked up some building materials for its nest somewhere in the neighborhood.

Wood Thrush

Wood Thrush numbers are in decline and there are conservation concerns. It is not as easy to hear or see as it was thirty years ago. But if you spend any time in the woods and you know its song, you will hear the Wood Thrush in late spring and early summer. Like the many other tropical migrants which come north for our protein bounty, the testoterone-driven male Wood Thrush proclaims his superiority in song, and defends his territory from rivals. The mated pair hurry through nest building, incubation, and the feeding of their young. If weather and habitat allow, they may raise two broods in a season. The breeding activities are done with as much secrecy and stealth as possible, because there are multitudes of dangers and vulnerability from predators. It is frenetic activity; it cannot all be done without attracting some attention, and that’s when we get to peek in on the Wood Thrush in our woods.

I am accustomed to the shy and secretive Wood Thrush. Therefore, when I met the Wood Thrush during its vacation and my vacation at the tropical jungle lodge, I met a stranger. This was not a shy and secretive bird. Cautious - yes, but not shy and secretive. It hopped along the walkway, foraged in the grass, and scratched among leaf litter in the same way that the familiar American Robin does in our yards and lawns.

Wood Thrush
The Wood Thrush also did something that our robin almost never does. It visited a bird feeder. Every morning the kitchen staff put fruit rinds and day old fruit on a steel platform attached to the deck. The fruit attracted a variety of birds - toucans, jays, tanagers, chachalacas, a wood-rail.  Other birds visited the forest canopy and sub-canopy branches, but did not come to the fruit.

I was not particularly surprised when I saw a Wood Thrush moving through the sub-canopy branches. Nor was I surprised when it paused on a branch above the fruit remains and studied me cautiously from its perch. But I was surprised when it dropped to the platform and began picking away at the pineapple cuttings and watermelon rinds. A thrush as a feeder bird was completely outside the realm of my experience. It happily dined until another person came on the deck; then caution exerted itself and the Wood Thrush flew.

In early March in Belize, the only sign that these Wood Thrush were just a few weeks away from the journey and activity of the breeding season was their bright and fresh plumage. The breast was white, the spots were prominent, the attire was well tailored. But nobody chased anybody. They did not hide; they did not skulk. And they did not sing. I surmise that the principle concern for the Wood Thrush as it neared the end of its tropical winter vacation was to bulk up - to add fat reserves in order to fuel its long journey.

Wood Thrush

I know that is what I did - add some fat reserves on my tropical winter vacation. With luck, I might be able to burn some of those fat reserves in a couple of months when I go searching for the elusive Wood Thrush in our woods.

Good birding!

6 comments:

mph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mph said...

When my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Paris, we saw a familiar thrush scratch around near the Eiffel Tower. We both exclaimed "Robin!" Only a few seconds later did we notice that the bird was black overall...

dAwN said...

Great post Chris..
I am picturing you as a kid running around with a salt shaker after Robins.
Glad you were able to see the Clay Colored Robin...and of course all those other awesome birds.
I would love to have a thrush as a feeder bird!
Happy Birding to you!

Appalachian Lady said...

I liked this post as I am happily awaiting the return of the wood thrushes late next month. We live in the woods with our yard sometimes attracting wood thrushes on the ground, foraging like robins. And, I have seen them below the feeders. They do seem to be smart that they never come near our house when the dog or cats are out.

We enjoyed our trip to Belize a couple of years ago--great place for birds.

Hilke Breder said...

Chris, I enjoyed your recent posts on Belize, also the one on Pigeons and Turkeys. Beautiful photos! One of the Toucans looks like it has teeth on its beak - is that to scare off predators? By the way, I find green font color against the gray background on the bottom of each post almost impossible to read. I had to kind of guess where the comment section was. Maybe my eyes are getting old!

cevugown said...

Great, I never knew this, thanks.

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