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Northland Nature: Hermit thrushes return to our forests

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

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A hermit thrush as seen on a spring day. Note the brown body, lighter undersides with spots and a reddish-brown tail, often raised and lowered as the bird sits. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)

With nearly 14 1/2 hours of daylight, we enter May. No other month gives us happenings of this growing season like those of May.

It is a month of abundant spring wildflowers under trees in the open woods. Their lives are quick before leafing trees shade the forest later in the month. Not only is there a floral display of these small ephemerals, but plenty of trees blossom as well.

Among the changing branches are many migrant birds. There are new ones here each day; many also grace the scene with songs. During these weeks, we welcome back orioles, grosbeaks, wrens, hummingbirds, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes and about two-dozen warbler species. Amazing May is a great time for taking walks in the woods.

Though it is during May that we see most bird migrants — numbers and variety, the migration has been happening for weeks prior. Probably the most notable early arrivals are geese, swans, ducks, loons and pelicans. Hawks and eagles continue their northing flights.

Among songbirds, red-winged blackbirds have been at swamps for weeks. Juncos and other sparrows were in yards and along roads for much of April. Others arrive in late month stretching into May.

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Each walk during the last week of April has been filled with sights and sounds. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers drum continuously in the woods. Tree swallows and phoebe catch insects near waterways. In the yard, the first yellow-rumped warblers consistently arrive now, while in the woods, hermit thrushes return quietly.

For the most part, thrushes are not as well-known as some other songbirds. Typically, seven kinds of this family can be found in the region each spring. Some remain and nest; others keep on going further north to breed. Best known of the thrushes are robins — well-known and well-loved. Bluebirds with blue-red plumage are also much appreciated.

But the other five kinds of thrushes are not as colorful — mostly brown, and not seen as much. Nearly all have brown backs with spots on the underside. Some, like the gray-cheeked, nest in the far north and are only seen in passing through here.

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The other four kinds may nest in the region: Swainson’s thrush in the northern parts, while the wood thrush (most spotted of all) is more in the south. The veery (least spotted of all) and hermit thrush are likely to stay and raise a family. All of these brown thrushes live in forests.
All are migrants, coming back in spring, mostly in May. The first arrivals, usually in late April, are hermit thrushes. Since they winter in southern states, they have a shorter distance to migrate. Others spend the cold season in Central America.

Hermit thrushes are also the smallest thrush. While most are about 7 inches, hermits are only 6. They get their name from living deep in forests, not venturing out much.

Like others, hermit thrushes are brown on the back, spotted undersides, but unlike others, they have a reddish-brown tail. This appendage is often raised and lowered when they sit on a branch.

While walking in the woods on a recent late April day, I observed this early arrival. Though staying in the forest, they do produce a rather loud flute-like series of notes to defend their homes. Perhaps that is why this small brown forest bird was chosen as the state bird of Vermont.

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Not quite like our state bird, but hermit thrushes are still a delight to behold in the springtime woods.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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