Hermit Thrush, Our Common but Secretive Winter Resident
by Ro Wauer
Very few of our wintering birds are so numerous yet so seldom seen as the hermit thrush. This thrush, somewhat smaller than a robin, is resident in almost every wooded area in South Texas in winter, but it is never conspicuous, almost always staying out of sight. When it does venture into the open, such as on a trail or roadway, it immediately seeks shelter when approached. The few times that it remains in the open, it freezes in place in a stately, upright position. Its natural colors help it to blend in perfectly with the environment.
The hermit thrush is a fine mixture of browns, tan upperparts with a pale reddish rump and tail, and whitish underparts with small brown spots. Its only movement may be quick wing flicking. If it is nervous, it may swiftly raise its tail and then lower it slowly. It also may raise and lower its crest. If undisturbed, it will often run a short distance to where it will search the ground for food, and then quickly grab some choice insect or other tiny invertebrate. During fall and winter, when berries are available, it may also feed on various fruits that it finds on the ground or on shrubs and trees. Like its cousin, the American robin, the hermit thrush diet can vary considerably.
During the winter months, the hermit thrush never sings, although partial songs are sometimes heard on sunny spring days. They do, however, make short, mellow call-notes that usually goes undetected. It has been described as a soft "chuck," usually a single note, but it also can scold, like a sharp "tuk-tuk-tuk." But these short call notes are a far cry from their marvelous songs that they produce on their breeding grounds. Then they sing a series of flutelike phases on different pitches with short pauses; the first notes are longest and lowest. The song may continue for many minutes, each phase on a different pitch. And unlike its shy behavior in winter, a territorial hermit thrush will often sing from the very top of the tallest conifer. The song of a hermit thrush on its breeding grounds is one of the most memorable of any of the abundant songbirds that can be heard in the northern forests.
But finding a hermit thrush in winter is not always easy. Since these denizens of shaded woodlands are usually quiet and elusive, in spite of their abundance, it may take patience and persistence. In the early morning, from dawn through the next hour or so, they seem to be rather vocal, make their mellow call notes. Afterwards, seeing one well may take a little inducement. I find that by making mellow but short whistle notes, you can often solicit a response. And once one responds with its single note, it is amazing how many others in the same woodlot will also respond. An acre-sized woodlot may harbor eight to twelve hermit thrushes.
To actually see one of these skulkers well, it may require additional work. One can either quietly walk deep into the woods or stay along the edge in the general area of where one has been calling. Once quietly stationed, and with moving about, it is then necessary to continue with the low chuck-calls. It may take several minutes, but unless your movement has not frightened it away, your target bird is likely to respond and begin moving closer. On numerous occasions, in such situations, I have had a hermit thrush approach to within a few feet of me. They are curious birds and, if not frightened off, will approach surprisingly close to the source of the call notes.
The hermit thrush, robin, and eastern bluebird are the only three members of the thrush (Turdidae) family that regularly occurs in winter in the Gulf Coastal area of South Texas. Two others - wood thrush and western bluebird - are found only rarely, and one additional thrush - clay-colored robin - is a year-round resident in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. All of these possess marvelous characteristics that, especially during the breeding season, argue that members of the thrush family are North America's finest songbirds.