BIRD WATCH: November’s varied visitors

EVEN WHEN THE sun is shining, shady spots or even partially sunny places, seem darker at this time of the year.

The bird bathing in the pond would have been invisible if it wasn’t moving.It’s hard to disguise yourself when you are splashing away nonstop.

It appeared to be a robin but there was something about it that suggested it wasn’t. It was a varied thrush, cousin to the robin, and looking right at home in early November.

For years, it seemed these thrush always arrived in November, mostly late November.

Those were also the years when snow could be expected almost every winter. There are also winters when this thrush doesn’t visit low elevations throughout the Northwest. They aren’t real migrants even though most of us associate them with winter.

There are numerous areas within the Northwest where they can be seen during the spring and summer as well.

Old, even ancient forests, are the preferred habitat of the varied thrush. From sea level to mountain forests, this thrush nests in Western Washington.

Heavy snow in the mountains will push them to lower elevations. Those are the times when they may show up in the backyard. Low elevation orchards attract them. If you have apples hanging on the trees well into winter, they are not only popular with the robins, woodpeckers, deer and bear — the thrush can’t resist them either.

These are beautiful birds and their drawn out whistle can bring thoughts of a favorite hike in an old growth forest.

Majestic, ancient trees, their feet covered in moss, ferns and wild huckleberry echo with their call.

It has been described as a long, eerie, quavering whistle. Then, after a pause, another note on a higher or lower pitch follows.

This shy or very private bird usually conceals itself in the forest undergrowth.

Patience is required if you are to be rewarded with a sighting of the whistler.

They often call from the low branches of a cedar, fir, hemlock or Sitka spruce. This elevation above the ground seems a favorite perch.

While robins turn their beaks up at plain old bird seed scattered on the ground, the varied thrush will join the juncos, towhees and sparrows scratching about under the feeders.

They will eat bird seed, even though berries and other food is preferred. Like the robin, they are omnivorous and tasty living morsels found on or under the ground are also to their liking.

Alaska robin is another common name for the varied thrush.

That is the title I learned it as. The mother of childhood friends had grown up in the mountains of Colorado and that is what she knew it as. And, that’s what she told us kids when we were very young.

When the snow encouraged my mother to put out pans of bread crumbs for the birds, we watched for the Alaska robin and the “snow birds.” That has been a nickname for the juncos for decades.

Thanksgiving was early this year and now it feels like Christmas is coming toward us like a freight train.

Does the early arrival of this varied thrush in the backyard hint of snow for the future? It’s the right time of the year.

If the presence of this bird is forecasting snow for the New Year, it suggests it is also scoping out the area, identifying where food and water can be found. The thought of snow brings mixed emotions but a few days might be fun — just enough to signal that we’ve had a real winter.

That thrush is here for a reason.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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