By Doug Pifer
A couple of weeks ago a bird fatally collided with the wire fence that protects the trees along the back fence from our browsing animals. It hung there by the head, neck broken, until I discovered it—a hermit thrush in immaculate fall plumage.
Gently I disentangled the dead bird’s head and smoothed down its beautifully speckled neck feathers. A familiar mixture of feelings came over me. I felt this way several years ago when I discovered a white-throated sparrow that died after flying into this same fence: a sense of wonder at the dead bird’s utter perfection, mixed with a certain weight of responsibility for what happened to it. After all, I had put the fence there. As I did with the sparrow, I decided to memorialize this thrush by creating a watercolor sketch of it in my sketchbook.
In this part of the country, the hermit thrush is a bird of passage. It spends its summers and nests in the forests of the northeastern states and well beyond the Canadian border, in mixed forest and boreal woodlands. Preferring to hang around up north longer than most Neotropical migrants, hermit thrushes are actually common in Virginia in spring and in fall.
Some individuals spend the winter here every year, subsisting on such wild fruits as poison ivy and holly berries, bayberry, and coralberry. I’ve seen hermit thrushes locally in wooded ravines and on mountainsides in February and March when snow covers the ground. But they seldom frequent backyards and don’t come to feeders. As their name suggests, hermit thrushes pass through, stay, and then leave with hardly anyone noticing them—unless they have an accident such as this one did.
Like many songbirds, hermit thrushes are night migrants. Sometimes I hear their flight calls in the early hours of October and November darkness as they pass overhead. Later in the night they descend to the ground and rest. Possibly this thrush ended its life after a long night’s flight. It no doubt died instantly, never knowing the fence was there.
When I sketched the thrush, several characteristics stood out. Its long, thin legs indicated a bird that spends much time foraging on the ground. Large eyes, soft bill, and tapered wings added to its streamlined look. The most distinctive character was the spotted chest and a pure white belly. When I stretched out one wing, a creamy white stripe extended across the underside of its flight feathers. This characteristic “thrush stripe” is often picked up on night migrating birds by radar and is evident in all brown forest thrushes.
In my sketch I attempted to show the spirit and vitality of a reclusive bird that over-winters here unnoticed, only to fly off unseen one dark spring night to its remote haunts in the north woods where it delivers the most beautiful of all American birdsongs.