This month sees some early winter returnees, some lingering summer residents and a number of birds just passing through.  Every year is different in the details, but the patterns remain largely the same.  In October, many of our breeding birds have moved out, but depending on the weather, quite a few are still around filling up as much as possible with food in the familiar areas of home before heading out as the food stocks run low.  Northerners are moving into the area as well – some species that normally nest here, moving leisurely southward, and some that overwinter down here.  White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos are back in the area, and Hermit Thrushes and Winter Wrens have returned as well.  You may still hear occasional songs from time to time, as the weather alternates between cool and warm, perhaps triggering a ‘spring’ response.  In the past week, I’ve heard individual Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Mockingbirds and Carolina Wrens singing enthusiastically away as if it was mid-May instead of mid-October.  The unseasonably warm weather may be contributing to this.  This month sees the tail ends of warbler and flycatcher migration, while the flying insect-eaters like swallows and swifts are largely gone.  Winter foraging flocks of Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches, Brown Creepers and Downy Woodpeckers are forming up, and the main wave of migrants is now made up largely of sparrows and thrushes.  So, let’s take a look at things.  I’ve looked at some of the sparrows in past posts, so today let’s think about thrushes.

When I spot a thrush foraging in and under low bushes, the first thing I look at is the head and back.  Is it red/reddish, or brown or even grayish?  Then I look at the breast and belly – lots of bold spots all down onto the belly; fewer bold spots, just on the breast; or faint, smudgy spots also just on the breast.  How about the tail – is it red and contrasts with the greyish-brown back, or red with no contrast to the reddish back?  Finally, the face:  If the thrush is a mousy greyish brown with fewer spots, does it have an eye ring?  Does it have obvious buffy spectacles sort of like a round-headed vireo: White-eyed or Yellow-throated, say?

Let’s put it together:

First, the common summer woodland thrush in our area is the reddish, boldly spotted Wood Thrush.  The song is familiar to people who camp or hike in deeper woods; a melodious, echoing, rolling sort of song that’s hard to mistake for anything else.  The bird matches the song – hard to mistake for anything else:

Reddish cap over a grayish face, cinnamon color all down the back, and lots of big, bold black spots running down onto the belly.  By now, the Wood Thrushes have mostly moved out for the winter, although there may be stragglers hanging around.  Note, by the way, that the Wood Thrush, like the other thrushes, tends to stand with its bill slightly up-turned.  This is a useful tip, which we’ll talk about later.

The other reddish thrush of summer, which has also largely moved out by now, is the Veery.  Smaller bill, fewer, weak reddish spots, and more of a reddish hood merging into a reddish face, are the things that stand out here:

Both of these thrushes have a reddish tail, but the tail color doesn’t contrast much with the reddish back – unlike our next thrush; the common winter thrush of our area:

Hermit Thrushes have bold spotting, but just on the breast; and have reddish tails (with some reddish in the wings – like Great Crested Flycatchers), but brownish back and head, with a clear and complete white eyering.  When you see a spotted thrush hanging around in the winter, the odds are extremely high that this is the one you’re looking at (especially if it pumps its tail).  In migration, however, it is important to take a closer look at these brownish thrushes, because of our next two species.

The first of these – the Gray-cheeked Thrush – is going to show a couple of fairly obvious differences:

First, it’s not anything like as reddish on the tail and wings – in fact, a very greyish bird overall.  Second, the breast spots are finer and often denser than the larger, more scattered spots of our earlier birds.  Third, not much of an eyering on the very greyish face.

The other thrush of this pair is also pretty easy to tell once you know what to look for:

The Swainson’s Thrush is spotted more like a fainter Hermit than a Grey-cheeked – fewer, larger spots on the breast.  The overall look is browner than the Grey-cheeked, and the strong white eyering is connected to the beak by a strong, buffy  ‘spectacle’ line:

Finally, remember how we noted that thrushes stand with their bills slightly up-tilted?  You can see that in the above photos.  There is another bird that is often seen as a summer resident in our area, and during migration, that is frequently confused with a Wood Thrush – see if you can pick out the differences:

Did you notice the long tail, the obvious wingbars, and the way the long, slightly curved, bill looks like it’s held straight out (and often even slightly down-tilted)?  Brown Thrashers are birds of brushy fields and wood edges, unlike the thrushes, which are generally birds of deeper woods, but of course during migration, and in the winter, all bets are off..