Sunday, November 3, 2013

Cold Hardy Thrushes

American Robins could be considered the harbingers of winter  for some folks
In the cold weather Robins switch to a diet of fruit
By November a few species of thrush can still be found in our Northeastern forests and meadows. Two of them regularly spend the colder months with us and they also happen to be the best known of the group. American Robins and Eastern Bluebirds are both members of the thrush family though their colorful plumage contrasts greatly with woodland thrushes’ more cryptic plumages. Don't try this at home, but if you painted either a Robin or a Bluebird brown you'd immediately see how much they resemble woodland thrushes. The Robin would look much like a Wood Thrush and the Bluebird would look quite a lot like a Veery.
The Eastern Bluebird is also a species that overwinters with us
Note the similarities in body and beak shape between the Bluebird and this Veery
If you observe thrushes feeding you'd see similarities in their foraging techniques. When I see a Hermit thrush trotting across the forest floor and then abruptly stopping, cocking its head and then striking at an unseen insect or worm on the ground, I immediately think of the Robin's familiar hunting style.
On the ground the Hermit Thrush's foraging technique is much like that of the Robin 
An immature Robin is very spotted, which makes it look more like a Wood Thrush
A Wood Thrush sings in the early summer - note the heavily spotted breast
It's not unusual to have a flock of  100 or more Robins spend the entire winter at our nature preserve. Their stay is contingent on the availability of wild fruit including grapes and apples . Many birds including Robins switch over to a diet of primarily fruit in the colder months. This is understandable since insects and other invertebrates become difficult to obtain.
Robins and European Starlings feeding together on European Buckthorn Berries
Cedar Waxwings are also wintertime feeding companions of Robins
Cedar Waxwing
European Starling
Are the Robins that spend the winter with us the same individuals that breed here during the summer? Most probably not. Our summer Robins migrate south, while their Canadian Cousins arrive here from the north and essentially replace them in the habitat. To us on the ground it just looks like the Robins never left.
Robins retain similar plumage throughout the year
Any woodland thrush found at this time of year would most likely be the Hermit Thrush
Late lingering Brown Thrashers are sometimes responsible for erroneous Wood Thrush sightings
Sometimes people come across what they believe to be a Wood Thrush skulking about in the November forest. The problem being that by this time of year our Wood Thrushes have already completed their long journey to the tropics. In fact the Wood Thrush, Veery, Swainson’s Thrush and Gray-cheeked Thrush are all highly unlikely to be encountered here this late in the season. However, coming across the Hermit Thrush is actually possible. The Hermit Thrush remains longer in the northeast than its forest dwelling allies. Occasionally a few will survive the entirety of an Upstate New York Winter. Again it all depends on how adequate the wild food supply is.
A few Hermit Thrush might remain north for the entire winter season
The Brown Thrasher will sometimes be spotted as late as November or even December, and they too are sometimes mistaken for Wood Thrushes. This is understandable especially if you get only a fleeting look at the bird from the front. Both species show a light chest and belly that are covered by a dense constellation of dark spots. Upon getting a better look, the Thrasher’s long bill, yellow eyes and long tail are distinctive enough to prevent it from being confused with a true thrush.
Swainson's Thrush, like the Wood Thrush and Veery are never found here in winter
A young Bluebird perches on one of Spring Farm's Windmill towers
In November and generally throughout the winter, Bluebirds can be found but they are more elusive than Robins. Normally small flocks consisting of one or 2 family groups band together. Occasionally they can be found mingled in with larger mixed flocks of Robins, Cedar Waxwings and Starlings, but more often they are by themselves and away from the bustling feathered crowds. An overgrown Meadow or an old orchard replete with fruit would be a good place to find them, but they also might be found in wooded swamps or at a beaver wetland. Perched on a powerline overlooking a farm field is another likely situation to find a Bluebird in November.

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