A Shy Summer Neighbor: the Hermit Thrush

Last year at this season, I stood in the dooryard, getting some fresh air and checking the weather. A small songbird ran around on the far edge of our quickly-reviving rhubarb patch, foraging for breakfast. To my surprise, it started singing as it scurried over the ground. I had understood that songbirds begin their mornings by singing for a few hours to re-establish their territory, then they fall silent while foraging. This bird whistled while he worked! What pleased me most is that it was a hermit thrush.

Hermit thrushes are my favorite songbird. Well named, they are extremely shy and elusive. Some guidebooks describe identifying them by song only, warning birders how extremely unlikely it is that they’ll ever see one. As reclusive as they are, they seem quite comfortable on our homestead. Beginning in May every year, they return and make themselves at home. This, to me, speaks of our remoteness and solitude.

As much as I hoped that the little buff birds in the yard were, in fact, hermit thrushes, I always had to allow for the possibility that they were actually the very similar Swainson’s thrush. Seeing the bird sing its unmistakable song confirmed its identity.

My favorite description of the hermit thrush’s song comes from writer Barrett Willoughby. Her books are primarily romances, but I enjoy her evocative portraits of life in Alaska. One of her favorite phrases was “the liquid run of the hermit thrush.” That just about says it all. To me, this song is the soundtrack of a Southeast Alaska summer. Whether hiking through the forest or alpine meadow, or fishing offshore on a sunny sub-boreal afternoon, there are few finer sounds.

We’ve seen hermit thrushes foraging around the homestead, then we began to hear their song one evening this last week. They’re back again! A pair of them are flitting about the yard as I write this.

Just like the summer they usher in, the song of the hermit thrush is all too brief. Some birds continue to make their distinctive territorial calls after breeding season, but the hermit apparently does not. In a brief month or two, they’ll fall silent, signaling the onset of autumn and the return of winter. Their beautiful song is all the more precious for its brevity.

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