The Varied Thrush – The Northern Robin

by Dave Hanks

If you are in “wild” country, and will but stop to listen, there is a whole cornucopia of sounds. Some sounds, like Elk bugling or geese honking overhead, are very intriguing. One such sound haunted my wife and I over and over again whenever we were in northern Canada. It was a bird call. We could never pin-point the location from which it came and, because it was a call we were not familiar with, could not identify the species. One evening, southward bound out of the Yukon into northern British Columbia, we were resting our bodies by lying in an open-air hot pool at Liard Hot Springs, B.C. We heard that haunting call again, very close this time. It was coming from a branch just above our pool. It was a Varied Thrush, and it was very mesmerizing to be soaking in hot water, out of doors, and having that bird serenade us!

This Thrush is slightly smaller than the American Robin, but it also has a reddish-orange breast. The breast, however, has a bluish stripe across it. The face also has a stripe across the eye, and the male’s back and crown are a bluish tint. This summer resident of the far north migrates to the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts for the winter months. We have even been lucky enough to have had one of them in our yard one spring – a rare southern Idaho occurrence.

Varied Thrushes like to nest in mature, coniferous woodlands that are dense and moist. If you have been in the far north, you will realize that there are lots of insects. These birds like to spend much time in the trees feeding upon them and will defend their feeding territory from intruders. They do this by first turning their back and giving a tail-up display. If that doesn’t work, the male will then turn to face the problem and extend his wings to display the colors on his under-wings, plus the white tips on his tail. The tail is then extended over his head.

The logging of mature forests has caused a reduction of breeding populations of this species. My wife has a love affair with this beautiful bird, and we would feel sad if we could no longer hear its eerie song.

Along the Oregon coast in February

Marsh Wren: A very vocal, perky fellow

You hear them long before you can locate where they’re at. This little “bundle-of-energy” builds a large nest for such a small bird. The nest hangs between the Bulrushes or Cattails – the habitat which they prefer. The nest is domed, but has a hole in the side for entrance. The male builds the nest. In fact, he builds several nests in hopes that one of them will appeal to a female. Or better yet – several females will be attracted to his nests. The female, after nest selection, will line it with soft materials.

It may be a little brown bird (4-5”), but it’s anything but dull. Like other wrens, its tail is striped with crossways bands and points straight up into the air. This gives the bird a very saucy demeanor. It’s an energetic singer, rarely quiet for very long. Both sexes sing. The male sings long and loud to proclaim his territory, and a softer, quieter song for courtship. The female’s song, while sitting on the nest, is the softest of all.

The female alone, incubates the eggs – which may be as many as 8 to 10 in temperate zones or as few as 2 or 3 in hot areas. Two weeks of incubation and two weeks to fledging is normal. The male helps in the feeding of the chicks, and they raise more than one brood each year.

A photo file of marsh species is not complete without a picture of this saucy little bird. They bob up and down through the marsh sedges, and you must be quick to catch one out in the open.

(This one was captured by sitting in a blind on the water’s edge)

Phainopepla or “The Black Cardinal”

by Dave Hanks

The Phainopepla only looks like a Cardinal in its body configuration and crest. It is actually in a different family – a family known as silky flycatchers. They are closely related to waxwings. The erect crest, deep red eye, silky black body, and white wing patches (seen when in flight) give it a distinctive aura. The female is a brownish-gray, but still quite distinctive. She shows evidence of the white in her wings while perched – which the male doesn’t. I personally think that the female of this species is as attractive as the male.

This bird is found in the arid regions of the south-western USA. They prefer vegetative tangles in trees, such as old Mistletoe, in which to nest. They have a special relationship with mistletoe. They not only nest in it, but feed upon the berries and spread the seeds. This black flycatcher also eats a great quantity of insects.

Their flight is fluttery but direct, and their call is a low-pitched, whistled “wurp.” They will raise two broods a year. The second nesting occurs after they have moved into habitat that is cooler and wetter.

Whenever we find ourselves in the arid regions of Southern California, we almost always experience this bird. My wife is always calling to me to come and see a bird. The bird is usually gone by the time I arrive. The bird in this picture was an exception. He sat there patiently and allowed me to photograph him.

This male is perched in Mesquite

Vivid white against dark vegetation

One animal, that was guaranteed to get student attention on high school biology field trips, was the SNOWY EGRET. The vivid whiteness, in the morning light, was a real attention getter. This 24” bird has a satiny white body, black legs with yellow feet, a yellow patch in front of the eye, and a long, narrow, dark bill. Its call is a loud, nasal squawk. A related species is the Great Egret, which is larger, has dark feet, and a yellow bill.

Their habitat is along the shallows of rivers, shallow ponds, or the shallow inlets along ocean coasts. These brackish waters furnish fish, crustaceans, amphibians, small snakes, and other aquatic forms that make up the egret’s diet. Foraging with other egrets makes for greater feeding success.

These very social birds not only feed together, but by nesting together they are provided a better alarm system against predators. Their nests may be found on the ground or 30 feet up in a tree. Breeding takes place in March and early April and is preceded with a “stretch display.” This involves the male pumping his body up and down with his bill extended skyward. He also fluffs out the feathers on his breast. Mating results in 3 to 6 eggs that both sexes incubate. The young fledge in 14 days and reach maturity in one or two years.

Egrets were nearly exterminated. This was due to a fashion trend that required feather plumes for women’s hats. They have since made a comeback. To see this beautiful bird, pay a visit along the Snake River, especially in the shallows and ditches below Minidoka Dam. They will be carefully stepping, sinister-like, through the water or standing very still and stately.

(Stalking the shallows – Yellow feet agleam)

Magpie: Our Black and White Jay

The Black-Billed Magpie is an extreme bird. People either love ‘um or hate ‘um. They probably have more detractors than supporters. However, I am one who likes this beautiful bird. Their satiny black and white feathers and long tails are most attractive. Seen in the right light, their feathers shine with an iridescence. People from the east who haven’t experienced this species are usually very impressed – much as westerners are with Blue Jays when visiting eastern states.

Like all jays, this bird is very raucous. When they are near, you can hear them “jabbering away” to each other. This intelligent species would have to be considered the valedictorian of the bird world. Very alert to their surroundings and very hard to approach, they have been known to do clever things – like the one that dropped nuts at a stop light. The nuts would be cracked when the traffic ran over them. The bird would then fly in to get the results when the light changed.

They are a year-round bird and very adaptable. As generalists, their diet covers a wide range from fruits, grains, worms, slugs, and insects to small animals like snakes and mice. They also do much scavenging and are often seen on highways taking advantage of the “road-kill”. Magpies are early nesters and build roofed, dome shaped nests of sticks that protect the eggs from the early spring weather. The same nest is used each year. Five to nine eggs are laid and are incubated for 16 to 18 days. When fledging, the young have short tails which elongate as they mature. By early nesting, they are gone from the tree when other species arrive.

We have other jays in Cassia County: the Scrub Jay which is blue and gray, the Pinyon Jay which is all blue, Clark’s Nutcracker which is gray, black, and white, the American Crow, and the Common Raven. All are raucous, opportunistic, smart, and adaptable. The Black-billed has a cousin – the Yellow-billed which is slightly smaller and found in central California. Magpie behavior is always interesting. I’ve watched them “mob” hawks and owls, sneak food away from larger animals, and even perch on the rumps of deer – getting great pleasure out of annoying their hosts.

Magic Sap Trees

by Dave Hanks

Sapsuckers are aptly named. They excavate tree cavities for nesting, and other birds use the holes after the original owners are done with them. They also drill series of small holes in a tree’s bark, which then becomes a source of sweetness for all to utilize. Cassia County has large populations of sapsuckers – Red-Naped ones. This woodpecker is especially evident at the City of Rocks. Its red chin differentiates it from other woodpeckers.

On a trip to New Mexico one winter, we camped in an out of-the-way place called Water Canyon. It was reputed to have wild turkeys, and my wife wanted to observe them. It was wintry, but that situation was disregarded. Snow limited where we could park our truck, but there was a spot just off the road by a forest service restroom. There was considerable bird activity around that restroom. We soon discovered the reason. An Arizona Black Walnut tree with brown, withered leaves that hadn’t been totally shed stood next to that outhouse. It was oozing sap and, as if by magic, a wide variety of birds were visiting that tree.

A Red-Naped Sapsucker would arrive at 20 minute intervals and work on two or three branches. There were dark areas on the bark and, with binoculars, I discovered that each spot was covered with tiny holes. Obviously, sapsuckers are not the only ones that love sap. White-Breasted Nuthatches were all over the tree. Ruby-Crowned Kinglets preferred a spot where a freshly broken limb made a large stain on the dangling branch. Other species invading that tree were: Common Bushtit, Mountain Chickadee, Bridled Titmouse, Juniper Titmouse, Stellar’s Jay, and Scrub Jay.

We didn’t find any Wild Turkeys, but it was great to get such a close-up glimpse and an expanded knowledge of sap holes. The time spent at the base of that “Magic Sap Tree” and all the many birds in it, made that short side-trip most rewarding!

His red chin identifies him as a sapsucker

The Red Crossbill: An Unusual Beak

This beak is not deformed. Nature intended it to be thus. It is an adaptation for the opening of cones. While useful for that purpose, it does make the bird into a specialist and whether the beak crosses to the right or to the left runs about 50-50. Crossbills must have coniferous forests in order to survive and because conifer cones may last on the tree up to 20 years, there is no need to migrate out of an area of good cone production. Therefore their movements are irregular and controlled by cone availability.

There are two species of crossbills in North America: the Red Crossbill and the White-Winged Crossbill. The red variety is hard to “spot”, but is very abundant in the Cassia and Twin Falls mountain areas. The more glamorous White-Winged one is an inhabitant of boreal (northern) forests.

These interesting birds may not come to seed feeders, but water can be a major attraction. They are very gregarious and will come in to drink in large groups. The all-red, mature male is pictured. Immature birds are boldly streaked brown. The females are yellowish-olive and may show patches of red. The species is 6 ¼” long, with a large head, and a short, notched tail.

Different strains of the species are each adapted to a specific tree type (i.e. Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, etc). Other species such as finches, chickadees, and siskin benefit from the nuts not consumed after a cone is opened. Crossbills are also quite vocal and will call while in flight. Each individual’s calls may vary somewhat from other individuals, giving that bird a character of its own. It gives a rapid series of harsh “jip” notes, started with several two-note phrases and followed by a warbled trill.

The female lays three eggs, but only two individuals usually fledge and there is about a 12% survival rate of the young into the second year. It is enough, however, to maintain the bird’s population numbers.

The crossbills of our south hills have the largest beaks of their kind. They are an isolated population and researchers are thinking of denoting them as a separate species. When camping, the presence of crossbills gives one a true flavor of the mountain experience. It is a truly unique bird!