A Winter Bird

From 2013 sketchbook

Yesterday I got up in the hushed morning twilight and raised the blind to see falling snow. As daylight crept further over the horizon, I heard them. They made faint whistling calls, like the rusty whisper of a rarely used voice. I recognized the sound at once, knowing it for a mere shadow of their summertime echoing trills that fill the overstory of the conifer forest.

Varied thrushes have come to town. There is quite a contingent in my neighborhood, joining the mixed flock that flies from tree to tree, hunkers in the brush, and visits the feeder where I put out sunflower seeds. They are striking birds the size of a robin, with orange-y breasts, bellies and eyebrows, a black collar and face mask. They land in the lilac and viburnum bushes then launch again, springing away from the snow-laden branches which unburden themselves in a shower of white. Later in the day, they disappear and go quiet. They are morning birds, just as they are in summer. I may hear a few small mutters from them in the afternoon when the daylight drains away.

Several kinds of thrushes inhabit the Pacific Northwest, but most of them are not year-round residents. The American robin is the most common and well-known, as well as the least furtive of our native thrushes. You are lucky to see the neotropical migrant Swainson’s and hermit thrushes that fill the woods with song in late May until early July. Another name for the varied thrush is Alaska robin, as its breeding territory extends as far north as the Arctic Circle. Perhaps some of these far northern thrushes are wintering here in the Cascades.

I went scrounging through old sketchbooks because this bird is a subject I have returned to many times. The trouble with drawing birds from life is that they won’t hold still. When I had access to the natural history collections at Central Washington University a few years ago, I took the opportunity to find the thrush study skins and look at details. The trouble with drawing dead birds is that they are dead, lying in a flat drawer with mothballs. The cured skins are stuffed with cotton, feathers have lost the sheen of the living, while the legs and feet appear mummified. Yet there is enough remaining to see the essence of the bird, enough to remember my own encounters in the wild and imagine the bright eye and rapid wingbeats. And that buzzy echoing trill lingers.

Always the challenge with depicting birds is to animate them, because it is easy to make them stiff and flat, a la John James Audubon’s less successful paintings. That is the reason to study the dead ones, because what you learn can be used to articulate that hot spark of life on a two-dimensional surface. I’m still trying to get it right.

To be surrounded by thrushes in the middle of winter is a small delight and my heart lifts when I catch sight of one out of the corner of my eye. And when I hear them speaking quietly amongst themselves first thing in the morning. I’m glad I planted a native viburnum hedge, which holds vermillion berries on drooping twigs, since thrushes eat berries and insects. In a couple months they will move back up to the deeper forest and their songs will ring out across the fir and hemlock canopy.

Varied Thrush

Male varied thrush. Watercolor, ink, and pencil on Arches hot press paper. Started two days ago, finished today. One of these days I want to master the intricacies of drawing bird feet.

They come through the garden in the morning, catching my eye with a flash of orange and movement. They’re not exactly furtive, but they are alert and always in motion.

Varied thrushes (Ixoreus naevius) are common birds in the coniferous forests of North America. I first became aware of them when I worked in north Idaho. Their buzzy single note whistles echoed in the rain-dripping tree canopy of June. When I hear that song, I think of snow melting in the mountains and high water in the rivers. They can be found in British Columbia and Alaska, south into coastal California, and east to northwestern Montana. I remember camping at the Fish Lake Guard Sation last summer, and hearing the varied thrushes as part of the dawn chorus.

Now they have come down to lower elevations. They travel in flocks, the males brighter than the females. It’s strange to see them out of the treetops, but there they are. The robin-sized birds find hiding cover in the Oregon grape and other shrubs at the edge of the driveway. One or two fly down and scratch at the ground like towhees. Seeds and berries make up their diet, but there may be bugs under the leaves as well. I watch them peck, then they’re on the wing again.

November is always a difficult month for me. The trail crew stretches fieldwork out as long as possible, but the weather shuts us down. The mountains are closing in for the winter, the daylight hours are shorter, and it’s hard to be productive when the ground is frozen and the trail is hidden under snow. There are things to do at the ranger station–reports to write, plans to make for next year. Tools to be cleaned up and stored. Like the thrushes, we have migrated down to lower elevations. Life moves at a faster pace in the valley where the other humans are. A part of me is horrified by this–I want to remain at a walking pace, travel as lightly as possible, and keep life simple. Town feels noisy and claustrophobic, and I find my thoughts running in different channels than they do in summer.

If the thrushes can adapt, so can I. There’s no way of knowing if they miss the big trees like I do, and the steep glacial valleys. I watch them flying around the garden, and they appear to accept reality. Hm. There’s a lesson for me here. Make the transition gracefully. Watch out for predators (especially a gray cat named Henry). Hang out with friends. Find things to eat, and take shelter from storms. Go out when the weather is decent. The seasons are what they are, and nothing stays the same. The world is in motion, and that’s good.

All I need is an adjusted attitude. Thank you, thrushes.