Thursday, April 9, brought one of the earlier spring arrivals to the area. A hermit thrush showed up in a friend’s backyard on Fleming Road. Actually, they have been seen earlier, sometimes showing up in late March at lower elevations such as Red Rocks Park.
Hermit thrushes are one of the more common thrushes found all across America. They are found in more open, brushy areas than the other spotted thrushes, which prefer deep, damp forests. In fact, we often had one in our backyard during spring migration when we lived in Buffalo, a yard that was small and had nothing to support a thrush other than one large lilac bush.
Although they range all across America in breeding season, they are hardy thrushes that can stand fairly cold weather. It is not unusual to find a few wintering along the Pacific Coast and in the Southern states. Hermit thrushes are divided into three major groups, which have slight variations in color and size but are still obviously hermit thrushes. These are generally referred to as the eastern interior west and Pacific populations. Our interior birds are somewhat smaller than the eastern birds, and they are more uniformly gray in color. They have an eye ring that may vary from barely noticeable to distinct.
Hermit thrushes are reputed to be the finest singers of the melodious thrush family. For myself, I prefer the heartier notes of the wood thrush and the veery. The hermit thrush’s clear, flute-like notes are much fainter and sound like he is farther away than he actually is. Their song is also much like the birds themselves, as it varies across the country. I have heard them singing on Kinney Peak, just off Stanley Park Road, along Highway 103 and the Old Squaw Pass Road. They nest throughout the mountain forests, usually above 8,000 feet. Their clear, soft song can usually be heard during the courtship season, especially from about 30 minutes before sunset until well after dark. Although the hermit thrush is often referred to as shy and secretive, I have found them to be rather unafraid of people. They are not shy but allow you to watch them from fairly close distances; they do, however, seek out quiet, secretive places in which to nest. They usually nest on the ground where they are protected by overhanging branches or grasses. Therefore, they are directly affected by controlled burning of forests that is aimed at removing all the protective undergrowth. In this dry climate, it takes several years for such growth to return; therefore, controlled burns should be done on small plots, leaving unburned nesting areas in between and with longer periods of time between burns.
Hermit thrushes eat a wide variety of small native fruits, such as serviceberry, wild grapes, raspberries, kinnikinnick berries, poison ivy berries and sumac berries. They, therefore do little harm to farm crops. They also eat a wide variety of insects, many of which are detrimental to the forest.
Two other signs of spring appeared in our yard this week. The puschkinia, or early star drift, reached full bloom. Its flowers grow in a cluster much like a small hyacinth; the petals are white with blue bases and a blue stripe down the outside or back, giving the clusters a pale blue appearance. They were native to the steppes of Tibet, and I love them because they do so well here. Our climates must be very similar, for they spread all over my garden, are not eaten by chipmunks, and are one of the earliest bulbs to bloom.
Along with the abundance of bloom came the first red admiral butterfly and several bees. The bees were much less abundant than in past springs, and none of them appeared to be honeybees. One looked like an ant with wings, so it may have been just that, from one of the many ant colonies around the yard. The others were a pale-yellow and black-banded bee that were doing their job of pollinating but were much smaller than honeybees.
The red admiral butterfly was enjoying the nectar from the flowers and kept me company for some time while I pulled weeds.