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Northland Nature: Varied thrushes make surprise visit to feeders

A varied thrush, a bird native to the Pacific Northwest, visits a Northland yard in December. Photo by Larry Weber

Like many in the Northland, I maintain bird feeders during the winter. Typically, I begin in October and continue through the cold season. Unless it is very snowy, I cease in April.

Though we feed birds, it is more for our sake. Unless conditions are very brutal, the local birds, so well-adapted to northern seasons, can survive without our handouts. (I prefer to call it a feeding site instead of bird feeder since three kinds of squirrels — gray, red and flying along with deer and raccoons — take meals here, too.)

But as we go through the dark and cold days of winter, watching the activities of these feathered feeders so near the house adds much to the scene. Perhaps we need them more than they need us. And several species of birds have found and made use of the feeding site. Early in the season, we observed some kinds that fed here and then moved on in their southbound trek. Sparrows of several species — white-throated, white-crowned, song, tree and juncos — came by for a while.

Also, our feeders were discovered at that time by brown creepers, grackles and even a yellow-rumped warbler, but they also left as the chilly days came. October and November were colder than normal and we saw changes at the feeders. Though purple finches and goldfinches came in for meals, they did not stay. (We have much of winter still ahead of us and I'm hoping these and other finches will return.)

But it was the regulars, the "same seven" that settled in apparently for the winter. Each day, these cold-weather companions are present. They include black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays (maybe as many as 10) and three kinds of woodpeckers: downy, hairy and red-bellied (more red on the head than on the belly).

Along with these seven songbirds, our feeding sites have hosted two groups of wild turkeys: one of five and one of eight individuals. This band of usuals was interrupted recently when a complete surprise showed up. As I looked out at the ground beneath the feeder at about noon one day, I watched as a robin-sized bird arrived. With a dark back and orange underneath, I could see that it shared more with a robin than just the size, but it was different. The bird also had orange on its wings and a black "V" marking across its chest.

It did not stay long, but I got very good looks at it and I was quickly able to identify this stranger as a varied thrush. The bird was an adult male and in beautiful plumage. For a while, it joined a few other birds as they fed on seeds. Varied thrushes are cousins of robins, but normally do not live here. Bird books show their range as being in the Pacific Northwest, from northern California all the way to Alaska. They are predominantly birds of the coniferous evergreen forests.

Despite this range, they have been reported nearly every year in Christmas Bird Counts in some parts of the Midwest, including northern Minnesota and Duluth. Perhaps they wander through the boreal forest north of us in winter and sometimes make it to our area.

Unfortunately, I was not able to relocate the one that visited us, but I hope to see it again and I hope that wherever it might be in the region, the varied thrush will do well in this out-of-range place for the winter.

What a great feeder sighting on this December.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods," "Webwood" and "In a Patch of Goldenrods." Contact him c/o krohman@duluthnews.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com. 

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