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.