The great snows of February had me running wildly through my yard, bootlaces trailing, camera wrapped in a dishtowel, trying to capture the beauty of the day. Each dainty twig was enveloped in white, and birds of every hue crushed my feeder to sustain themselves in the chaos of the storm.
I alternated hours spent staring through the window that opened to the yard, and taking long solitary walks in the woods that surround my house. A howling February storm had given me the gift of time. Meetings were canceled. Appointments were canceled. The days stretched out languorously before me.
There was nothing brisk about my walks. I trudged slowly, without concern for the hour. I had a companion.
If there is one bird that I might consider my lucky bird, it is the reclusive Hermit Thrush. Wherever I walked, a Hermit Thrush would appear, either scrambling in a bit of leaf litter, or perched low on a snow-covered branch.
Although they are often too shy for feeders, I admit I do everything in my power to lure them to my yard, slathering suet blocks with peanut butter, and garnishing the deck rail with mealworms. It works. The shy thrush appears day after day… but it is the chance encounters in the woods that give me true pleasure.
At first glance, you might overlook this solitary bird. When it scrambles through a bit of leaf litter, you only see its gray-brown back, so muted and unimpressive. But look carefully, and you will notice the rust tail and wing edges. The eyes are large and soulful, ringed with the finest thread of white. When perched low on a branch (as is their habit) you will see the white breast spotted at the top in a near black that fades to mild buff as it descends to the abdomen. It is both stunning and subtle.
Beyond its reclusive habits, the Hermit Thrush is known for its melancholy song. It starts with a clear note or two and then winds its way through a delicate song of minor notes that trail off in a wavering tremolo.
Males sing their songs in the spring to attract females and guard their territories, so there were no songs from the many thrushes that I encountered along the trails, but this particular bird takes a hold on people, either by sight or by sound. Scientists have analyzed the songs of Hermit Thrush on spectrograms, and discovered that the pitches of the notes follow a mathematical distribution known to musicians as a harmonic series. Human musical scales follow these same mathematical rules. T.S. Eliot called it the “water dripping song.”
By some good fortune, the Hermit Thrush is thriving. Our beautiful Wood Thrush is in decline, but the numbers of Hermit Thrush are increasing each year. Winter is the best time to see a Hermit Thrush. As my walks in the snowy woods expanded to Mason Farm, and Jordan Lake, the solitary birds appeared again and again. I worried that one particular thrush had escaped my lens as the bird scurried away displaying only a drab gray-brown back, only to witness the same bird abruptly turn about and fly to a nearby branch to observe me face on.
We stared at one another in a snow-silenced pine forest. He cocked his head at an angle to scrutinize me better. I held myself stock still, not wanting to break the spell with this creature “of nature pure and holy.”
The long lens of my camera gives me a window to observe all the subtleties of expression that would be lost to the naked eye. I can see the downy feathers fluff out against the cold, and the tiniest flake of snow that clings to the thrush’s back. The facial whiskers flare out next to its polished beak, and large dark eyes stare back at the huge black eye of the camera. It is a moment singular, solitary and cherished.
“O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call.”
Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro.