Hermit Thrush overwinters at Worcester feeder (All photographs by Sheila Carroll.)
Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus) are common but local breeders throughout Worcester County, Massachusetts, the densest populations occupying forested areas in the northern and western sections. They also are common migrants, sometimes seen in numbers in fall migration if weather conditions are right. Typically they are the first woodland thrush back in spring—late March or early April—and the last to leave, usually in mid-November. Hermit Thrushes are found in some of the Worcester County Christmas Bird Counts every year, though only a single or just a few birds are reported for any specific count circle. In most years, there are scattered reports of single birds into early January; then Hermit Thrushes become decidedly rare until spring migration begins. Worcester County is a tough place for migrants to survive in winter because of cold temperatures and the accumulation of several feet of snow.
So we were surprised in late afternoon on January 30, 2015, when a Hermit Thrush showed up at our feeders in the city of Worcester. I had seen a Hermit Thrush feasting on the berries of our scraggly holly bushes on January 4, and was excited to see one that late not only in the county but in my backyard, where they are far from common birds at any time of the year. We live in the city of Worcester, and though it is a nice section, there is not much habitat for birds. Bancroft Tower Hill, two blocks away, has some decent stands of trees.
The thrush fed on a premium seed mix that included sunflower seeds and a few nuts from a circular feeder with a dome. Periodically, a jay chased it off, but the thrush returned several times to gorge on seeds. Sheila photographed the thrush fending off the many House Sparrows. We honestly thought this would be a one-day wonder.
But for the next several days, the thrush consistently showed up late in the afternoon, always at the same feeder. Sometimes it fed on the ground under the feeders and also where we had shoveled and tossed seed on the ground. The bird typically stayed late too, well after sundown and after all the cardinals had left the feeders. Looking out the kitchen window in the gloom of twilight, we would see the bird, alone and eating away. It became a daily event.
Then the snows came with a vengeance. The snow quickly piled up higher than our small back porch, and we had trouble at times getting out to fill the feeders during some of the blizzards. We started to throw additional seed on our back porch for the juncos and cardinals because it offered some protection from the elements. Immediately the thrush joined them and regularly began feeding on the back porch. During days when it was snowing—and there were many of them—we would see the thrush on the back porch feeding off and on for most of the day. It would fly in from the cover of the bushes, perch atop one of the feeder poles for a minute or two, then fly down to a feeder, the porch, or the ground.
One day in early March, we saw the thrush perched, motionless, atop the feeder. It held its entire body up at an angle. The sun was out, but it was very cold. I went outside to see if the bird was all right. I got within two feet of it and still the thrush did not move though it clearly saw me. I didn’t want to get any closer. I called Sheila out to take a photograph. She didn’t get anywhere near as close to the thrush as I did. Sheila took some shots while it remained perched and motionless. We were getting concerned and started planning a trip to the Tufts Veterinary Medical Center with what we thought was a sick thrush. But as soon as we went inside, it flew down to the ground and fed normally.
Early on, it became obvious that the winter was going to be an especially brutal one. I was concerned that this thrush was eating only seeds but it likely needed more varied high-energy foods. Totally winging it, I whipped up a concoction of crunchy peanut butter, raisins, sunflower kernels, berries-blueberries or raspberries depending on what was available—and mealworms. Lots of mealworms. I mixed everything together and put it in a deep plastic bowl on the back porch. The thrush immediately went for it and regularly began eating from the bowl.
As anyone who has hosted a unique bird knows, you rapidly get attached to the bird and feel responsible for its welfare, particularly during a winter as severe as the winter of 2015. In my notes for February 13, 2015, I wrote “becoming a pet.” We actively looked for the bird during the never-ending series of snowstorms, made sure it got fed, but wondered where it went at night and how it survived the many times the temperatures well below zero. The Hermit Thrush became the special bird at the feeders.
Hermit Thrush fends off House Sparrow at the feeder
There were a few days when it was not snowing that we did not see the bird. We were not glued to the back window at all times, and on those few days when it was not snowing, we went out to run errands, look after our roof, and try to bird. We could have easily missed the Hermit Thrush on those few days.
By the middle of March, we noticed that the bird was also feeding at the suet feeders. This may have been because the squirrels and chipmunks had discovered the feeding area on the porch. By the middle of March, the grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds had returned but the thrush continued to come to our feeders.
Our last sighting of the bird was on March 23, when it fed on the ground under the feeders and took some suet, too. By then, the disastrous winter had abated some and small areas of bare ground were showing. When you spend so much time closely looking at one bird, it is amazing how your view of that bird changes. Hermit Thrushes are surprisingly small and delicate birds; it was sobering to watch this one small bird, which really should have moved on, try to survive one of the worst winters in Worcester’s history. This bird was always solitary and did not hang out with other species. It came and went on its own schedule. We still look for the bird every now and then, but we hope that the Hermit Thrush survived and moved on.