Back to Birding with a Varied Thrush

After months of wandering and exploring, I returned to work with a major deadline looming over my head. Completion of my sabbatical project required that I chain myself to my desk, log a ridiculous number of hours in front of a computer screen and, most importantly, ignore bird reports. I logged out of eBird and turned-off notifications on all bird listservs (a report of a Prothonotary Warbler at Mile Square Regional Park snuck through, and I dutifully ignored it).

On Thursday, I finally submitted the beast – a 160-page manual entitled “Living Laboratories: Utilizing the Environmental and Educational Resources of the University of California Natural Reserve System”, accompanied by ~1200 photographs from the ten UC Reserves I visited over the course of my sabbatical. I woke up Friday morning exhausted, but itching to get out and explore. I leashed up the dog and headed out to Irvine Regional Park. It was hot and windy, but that didn’t seem to slow down the birds! Acorn Woodpeckers were up to their usual acorn-caching habits, fanciful Wood Ducks and Mandarin Ducks preened on the shore, and the chips of the recently returned Yellow-rumped Warblers followed us through the park.

As we were returning to the car, I paused in an oak grove where there seemed to be a flurry of activity. White-crowned Sparrows were actively foraging on the ground, Acorn Woodpeckers caused a ruckus overhead, and both Hermit Thrush and Oak Titmouse made appearances. Just then, a striking (and completely unexpected) bird caught my eye…a VARIED THRUSH!!

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Varied Thrush at Irvine Regional Park

Varied Thrushes are elusive birds that are home to the old-growth, dense coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest. This past summer, I encountered my lifer Varied Thrush while hiking through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County. He was skulking in the dense understory of shrubs, but that rusty orange eye stripe and breast pierced through the vegetation. These handsome birds are more often heard then seen; their haunting flute-like song followed me along my hike through the redwoods. Naturalist Louis Agassiz Fuertes best describes the song of the Varied Thrush as “the voice of the cool, dark, peaceful solitude which the bird chooses for its home.”

I typically second guess myself when I encounter an unexpected bird, but the Varied Thrush is unmistakeable. They are similar in size to the related American Robin, but their posture is a bit stockier and less upright. It is their coloration that will catch your eye; their upperparts are a grayish slate blue color which contrasts with their rich burnt-orange underparts and distinct orange eyeline. A sooty black band crosses their breast, like a chunky statement necklace. Females have a similar pattern but are paler. This particular male was rather brightly colored (a local birder who has seen this bird in OC in past years wrote me, “That’s one of the prettiest Varied Thrushes I’ve ever seen in Orange County!).

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So, what is this bird doing in Orange County? Varied Thrushes are short-distant migrants and are known to wander during the winter, to lower elevations and along the west coast. Most winter in the southern portion of their breeding range, but will move as far south as coastal southern California during irruptive years. In the winter of 2014-2015 (before I began birding) an irruption occurred with continuous sightings of this bird in various locations across the county. Perhaps this bird is an early arriver during an irruptive year?

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I observed and reported this bird with an embarrassingly blurry photo taken with my cell phone. I returned later in the afternoon sans dog and with my camera and this cooperative bird stuck around, continuing to forage in the same general area he had been earlier in the day (alongside Spotted Towhee, Oak Titmouse, Hermit Thrush, Savannah Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow).

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Hermit Thrush at Irvine Regional Park
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Oak Titmouse, Irvine Regional Park

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