The Winter Bird That Stole My Heart


From the moment I saw Spots, the name I gave this lovely Hermit Thrush as I spied it from my kitchen window hopping along my neighbor’s yard, it was true love. Spots didn’t just hop along bobbing his tail and flicking his wings, the bird did it with gusto! I hoped to be able to hear the unusually ethereal song of this bird while here and when that day came one very early morning, my heart skipped more than a few beats.

Listen to its gorgeous song here:

But let me back up a little bit.

Spots came with a friend, another Hermit Thrush, which stayed around for a while, but vanished. I finally figured out where Spots was roosting and one early morning, armed with a small dish of 20 or so meal worms, I called the bird in with my well-practiced “chuck” call. The bird landed in a Coast Live Oak about 20 feet away. I slowly placed the little white dish of worms atop an inverted dish I set down in the middle of the bird bath and returned to my living room window to see if the bird would come down for the worms.

Spots landed on the inverted dish, apparently intrigued by the worms. He studied them from every angle finally snatching one and gobbling it down. Ten more followed. Spots then retreated back to the oak tree. A few minutes later, he came back for five more.

Mid-day, I called the bird in again and Spots had a little snack. Likewise with dinner.

From that day forward, until Spots apparently began migration on April 11, the day the Juncos also departed, Spots came to breakfast, usually lunch, and always a late dinner when I stepped outside and issued my “chuck” call dish in hand. I would wait until I heard the bird’s responding “chuck”, then set the dish down moving slowly and calmly. Eventually I could sit quietly about ten feet away.

This Thrush was one of the last birds moving at the end of the day, long after the feeder birds had retired for the evening. Only the newly arrived Hooded and Bullock’s Orioles, a single California Towhee and the bevy of hummingbirds would eat as late as Spots.

Hermit Thrush, "Spots"

Hermit Thrush, “Spots”

One early morning as dawn was barely upon me, I heard, for the first time, the glorious song of Spots. It rang out in the silence with only the more distant Common Poorwill and Great Horned Owl in occasional accompaniment, the stunning cadence of the flute-like notes rising almost hauntingly–mystically–in the cold morning air. I sat shivering on the cold concrete stairs mesmerized. Had I known just how beautiful this would be, it would have been on my bucket list.

For me, these are the things that are truly life changing events.

When I first discovered Spots was gone, after considerable “chucking”, I felt an immediate sense of sadness. I didn’t get that last photo. I didn’t wish Spots a safe trip. I knew Spots would leave soon, just not this soon. It was akin to not ending a friendship in a good way. I tried “chucking” in the afternoon and evening, and even the next morning. No Spots.

I stared at the half-used container of 1,000 meal worms wondering which remaining birds might enjoy them. But it was really a half-hearted thought. The worms are still safely wriggling in their container.

I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this bird that I grew to love and about what it is about animals, in general, and particularly birds that so endears them to me. Is it their grace and beauty? Their near miraculous ability to contend with a generally hostile, dangerous world? Do I marvel at a creature so driven by instincts I cannot begin to understand because I can’t even grasp the most coarse layers of my own instincts?

I’m not sure. I just know that when I see them something happens. Something big happens. But it’s even more than that. When I watch the natural world at work, I find even my simple understanding of it almost incomprehensible. Not just bigger–way bigger–than me, but immeasurably so. Something so gloriously complex that awe doesn’t suffice as an understatement. Beauty so breathtaking no words, no canvas, no photo can describe it because it’s so much more than that. It’s graphic. It’s visceral. It touches me deeply.

When I close my eyes and imagine flying thousands of miles to anywhere under my own power, often much of that over open water guided by any number of things, sometimes in deadly weather where one false move will cost me my life, well… I just can’t even comprehend it. Literally I can’t. And to do this year after year? Sometimes nature seems a harsh mistress.

The curious part of me wants to study and understand it and I do read a lot. The artistic part of me wants to leave it alone and just joyfully experience what I see and hear. It would seem like a conflict, but my experience is that it’s not. Just like my love of music doesn’t require me to take it apart technically, if I like or am otherwise moved or intrigued by a piece of music, I really don’t need to delve into the theory and technical points. It is what it is.

Like music, birds make me feel. I feel them as powerful. I feel them as tricky and often clever. I feel them as wanderers and pioneers. They often draw a chuckle and other times concern. They seem brazen or brave, calm or contentious. I can sit in a forest, on a rocky ledge, or the beach; I can stand at the edge of a bog or in chaparral and the feelings are similar but never the same. These are human ways I experience them. And they come in every shade and hue.

For me, birding is a lot more than just seeing birds or taking their photos. It’s about listening to them, watching what they do and how they interact with the world around them. It’s “slow” birding, as I have come to call it.

For me, it’s not the numbers or the ticks on a list. It’s the absolute and incredible joy I feel when birding and the deep respect I hold for the natural world and often the surprises it presents. It’s that constant excitement–that mystery–of just being in their world and experiencing a wee glimpse of it. It’s the quiet that allows their sounds to engulf the land and sky wrapping me in a blanket of wonder, a witness to the pleasant seeming chaos and sometimes sheer cacophony that is their life. It’s my complete detachment from all things that I cannot see or hear.

Back at home, it’s about making sure they have a world to live in. That their habitats are not destroyed, their lives ended for all the wrong reasons; reasons we humans generally and wrongly seem to believe take precedence over all things.

Spots may fly hundreds or thousands of miles to his/her breeding grounds. And maybe–just maybe–late next fall I will hear a “chuck” that might be familiar. I have set the bird’s special dish aside for now to summer in the cabinet, but the mere sight of it draws a smile. As almost a holy artifact, I touched the dish this morning softly issuing a blessing, “Fly well, Spots. Fly well.”


4 thoughts on “The Winter Bird That Stole My Heart

  1. Love reading the blog. One thing- in the first sentence here you call it a Hermit Warbler when you obviously meant Hermit Thrush! As I always tell people, “Don’t listen to what I said, listen to what I meant!”


    • Thanks so much Mike for the correction and the nice compliment! I’m terrible at proofreading my own writing, so you’re hired!


  2. Me again–I love what you said about the way birds make you feel. Most of my best memories involve birds. I saw a townhouse advertised that I thought would suit my daughter and her 6 year old when she was forced to move early from a rental. We went to look at it and as my daughter walked up the stairs she cried out,”There’s a bird in here.” A terrified ruddy ground dove who had been scared from her nest above the door. A lucky bird because she was discovered by a wildlife biologist who knew just what to do. The former owner had built a nesting platform for her under the eve above the porch light. It was a sign. My daughter was able to purchase the house after being outbid on everything else she had wanted. she and the former owner were obviously kindred spirits. “Martha’s 2 kids fledged last week with “george” in proud attendance.


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