One of the uncommon birds that often makes the Christmas Bird Counts here on Vancouver Island is the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) – I usually get at least one in my count area. Other members of the thrush family like American Robin, and Varied Thrush are pretty much guaranteed but the Hermit requires a little more work or, dare I say it, luck. Swainson’s Thrush, another common summer thrush in British Columbia is much less likely.
In the summer, you need to head to the sub-alpine to see and hear these birds. Their melodious song is one that I commonly associate with back country hiking in Strathcona Provincial Park and I’ve got fond memories of listening to the almost ethereal warbling sound of their evening song while falling asleep. Sibley describes the call of Pacific Coast birds phonetically as “zreeeeew cheedila chli-chli-chli” – note that there is a noticeable pause after the first two phrases.
In the winter I’ve usually seen them working rural lawns, looking for insects and possibly worms. At first glance this small brown thrush does look superficially like a Swainson’s Thrush with its spotted breast and dull brown back. Look a little closer and you’ll notice that the Hermit Thrush has a rusty-red tail, whereas the Swainson’s has a brown tail.
The foraging behaviour of the Hermit is distinctive as well. As it moves on the ground looking for food it often flicks its wings when stopped, and raises its tail quickly and then lowers it slowly. I think that it that motion that I’ve noticed while driving past country lawns during previous bird counts – it’s a sign that “Hey, that’s something a little different that deserves a second look.”
In a bit of CBC foreshadowing I noticed this Hermit Thrush working its way along the lawn outside my office window this Friday and quickly got out to get some photographs. I hope it’s still around on December 19 and moves across the road to my count area!