The quiet forest dweller

Bruce Mactavish
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The warm browns and reds of the natural world in October are upon us.

A hermit thrush is just as inquisitive about you as you are about it during a close encounter in the October woods. — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram

There is a sense of richness and generous excess as autumn reaches a healthy maturity over the land.

It is the closure of another successful summer in our land where we live.

Bird migration is happening all around us every day. More than half of the summertime species have already migrated south from Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the woods it is the hardier birds that are still with us.

These birds are able to supplement their summer diet of insect with berries and seeds.

There is one of these hardier common woodland birds that we do not really get to know until this time of year.

The hermit thrush sings commonly in the forests of Newfoundland and Labrador. It has a very beautiful song and it is possible to glimpse this retiring bird from a distance during the summer, but it is in October that we get the opportunity to meet this bird face to face.

It seems the nature of the bird changes a little.

Perhaps it is because they are freed of summer-time family duties and are permitted to be more inquisitive in autumn.

Hermit thrushes do not expose themselves to the open sky.

Coniferous forests with vague clearings created by scattered birches or alder thickets are the comfort zone for the hermit thrush. Even birders will not get to see the hermit thrush without meeting the bird on its terms. Step 1 is get yourself into their world.

Once inside the thick forest you may tweak a hermit thrush’s natural curiosity by using a technique practised by active bird watchers called pishing.

This is a sound produced by slurring the word pish (rhyming with fish) through your teeth with a stomach clenching force over and over again.

The sound resembles the scolding note of a woodland bird. Birders use it to entice woodland birds to come to them. It works like a charm on the hermit thrush.

First you will detect their soft chuck note call as they work through the dense forest toward you to investigate the source of the sound.

Within a minute or two you are looking at one or often two or three at close range. Sometimes it seems as if they are trying to learn as much about you as you are trying to learn about them. They keep looking at you with their big dark eyes for as long as you keep up the pishing.

Hermit thrushes are shaped like their larger cousin, the robin.

They are coloured with soft warm browns and shadowy whites that blend in with the habitat where they live in. With an air of sophistication they hold their head high.

In autumn their favourite foods are insects and other invertebrate life found under the leaf litter on the forest floor but, like robins, they will snatch a ripe dogberry when available. Running into hermit thrushes is just one of the pleasantries of October birding.

Rare birds of the week

The yellow-crowned night heron reported two columns ago in the Shea’s Lane area of Torbay resurfaced in the same general area much to the delight of those who missed seeing it the first time. Jack Hickey sent photographs of the bird resting on the roof of his house on Hickeys Lane. Christa Crowe was privileged to see it on her lawn on County Drive. This bird should think about flying back south soon.

A rare brant goose was found in Trepassey by Dave Shepherd, who was showing his visiting sister the local sites. Hopefully it will be able to avoid the eager eyes of hunters.

Alvan Buckley is having a field day with northern wheatears, finding one at Cape St. Francis and then another in the parking lot of that nasty old taxation building on Empire Avenue right in St. John’s.

A yellow-headed blackbird was reported at a bird feeder in Tizzard’s Harbour.

Linda Parsons of Gander is enjoying a good start to her season of bird feeding with a brown-headed cowbird and a dickcissel.

Although technically not in our province, a European common cuckoo photographed on Sept. 20 in Blanc Sablon, Que., just hundreds of metres from the Labrador border is worth noting. This European bird is the cuckoo often mentioned in English literature.  Its occurrence on this side of the Atlantic was not on the radar even on the most optimistic birder. Where will it turn up next?

There is lots of autumn to enjoy yet. Be out there.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Torbay, Trepassey Blanc Sablon

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