It was easter weekend and I called my mom & dad in northern New Hampshire. My mom was excited because she saw about dozen robins in her back yard. As you know, the Eastern US has had a hard winter, but the Baker River Valley where my parents live just missed most of the big snowfall. For my mom, robins mean spring and it’s a good omen to see them on easter.
This weekend, I am at my studio in Northern California. I got off the phone and went to my window. The sun was shining and birds were at my feeder and quail were scratching the ground. In the middle of the quail I saw a shy but princely looking varied thrush, Ixoreus naevius. It is similar in size to the american robin but has a shorter tail, the orange throat is paler with a black collar. The robin lacks the orange eye stripe and orange wing bars of varied thrush. Also the posture is different. The american robin is a common bird, upright, head held high and looks for worms. The elusive varied thrush stands more horizontally, hops on the ground to forage mainly insects and other arthropods in the summer and switch to berries and seeds in winter. It looks strange to see him amongst the quail.
The varied thrush is known for it’s distinctive call in woodland forests. It’s like a long, buzzy and eerie whistle, one pitch, drawn out until it fades followed by a short silence with successive notes at different pitch and long inter-note intervals. It goes on for some time and then the bird flies to another branch and starts it’s call again. Nests are usually placed in conifers, at base of branches against trunk, 5-15′ above the ground. Sites can vary and in the far north occasionally they will be much higher and in deciduous thickets or may nest very low and sometimes even on the ground. Nests are built by the female is a bulky open cup of twigs, moss, leaves, and bark fibers, lined with softer grasses. The female lays and incubates 3-4 eggs. Both parents feed the young and will raise two broods in a season when possible.
In the Pacific Northwest, the varied thrush is a year-round though elusive resident. It also breeds throughout western Canada and all of Alaska and spends winters in mostly in California but have been seen on the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. Varied thrushes are currently still common but are vulnerable to loss of habitat due to the cutting of forests throughout their range. Populations appear to be stable at present.