At Home in the Hermitage

PROMO Intro Hermit 512x219

The mixed-wood forests at Nestucca Bay NWR, ensconced in low clouds and wintry drizzle, exude a damp tranquility this time of year. But all is not quiescent in the understory. Beneath the bare-stemmed alders and salmonberry canes a small brown bird rifles through the leaf litter. It hops, crouches, jabs at the humus with its bill, combing the debris for insects and worms. Against the dark contrast of the fallen leaves, the chestnut plumage of its wings and tail has the burnished look of mahogany. A spray of dark spots across the breast mark an otherwise creamy underside. With a flick of its wings, the bird straightens up and assumes a proud-rooster pose, chest forward and lofty. This is no sparrow. The little brown bird cocks its head to one side, peering at the disturbed soil with eyes like polished opals, ringed with pearl. A thrush. Suddenly it lunges forward and a ground beetle is tweezed between its stout, bicolored bill, and the thrush flies off with its prize.

Hermit Thrushes are the "winter thrush" of much of North America, migrating north earlier in spring and lingering later in fall than other members of the genus Catharus, which includes the Veery, Swainson's Thrush and Bicknell's Thrush. All are known for their beautiful songs, broadcast by males strictly in the breeding season. Perhaps this explains why the Hermit Thrush, wintering quietly along the Oregon coast, receives so little fanfare compared to its cousin the Swainson's, whose spiraling song and liquid call herald the onset of spring. Hermit Thrushes go about their off-season business without so much as a peep, and thus they escape our notice. Like any good hermit, they shun the attention of others, instead finding solace in the forest's seclusion.