Exploring The Last Green Valley, The Hermit of the Forest

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Exploring The Last Green Valley, The Hermit of the Forest

Exploring The Last Green Valley, The Hermit of the Forest

Readers of this column may recall my fondness for bluebirds and the bluebird boxes on our property in Putnam. The bluebird is one of the more familiar species of the thrush family, a diverse group that also includes the American robin, one of our most recognizable and popular birds. The thrush family also includes the wood thrush and the hermit thrush, which can be heard but not often seen in The Last Green Valley.

My “go to” guidebook about birds, the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, describes most thrushes as “having short, blunt tipped beaks and relatively long legs and are known for their beautiful fluting songs.”

Whenever I see the bright flash of the bluebird, I stop whatever outdoor task I am doing to follow its flight.  And I always view the first sighting of an American robin in late winter with an exclamation that spring will soon arrive. It is, however, the summer fluting songs of the wood thrush and most especially the hermit thrush that catch my attention and strain my ears to the nearby woods.

“If we take the quality of melody as the test, the wood thrush, hermit thrush and veery thrush stand at the head of the class of our list of songsters… the song of the hermit is in a higher key, and is more wild and ethereal. His instrument is a silver horn which he winds in the most solitary places.” John Burroughs, Wake Robin

It took me a while to distinguish the song of the wood thrush from his secretive cousin the hermit thrush.  Burroughs is correct that the tune sung by the hermit thrush is more beautiful. To learn bird songs, I refer to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, “All About Birds,” which includes recordings of bird songs that I used to learn the slight differences between the hermit and the wood thrush. The website is www.allaboutbirds.org. Simply type the name of a bird and a recording of the bird’s song is available for playback. After a while I was able to distinguish between the hermit and wood thrush songs, though I will admit to still relying on the “All About Birds” website from time to time.

To see a hermit thrush is a rare sight. They get their name due to their secretive nature and prefer deep woods habitat. “All About Birds” describes the hermit thrush as “an unassuming bird with a lovely, melancholy song, the hermit thrush lurks in the understories of far northern forests in summer and is a frequent winter companion across much of the country. It forages on the forest floor by rummaging through leaf litter or seizing insects with its bill. The hermit thrush has a rich brown upper body and smudged spots on the breast, with a reddish tail that sets it apart from similar species in its genus.”

I first heard the song of the hermit thrush at my grandparents’ old farm in Fitzwilliam, NH. Several years ago a friend pointed out the song to me as we were sitting outside enjoying the sunset of a warm summer evening. The beautiful sound emanated from the woods but the bird did not show itself. In fact I have only seen the hermit thrush on one occasion. Clearly it likes the deep woods and takes its name seriously!

Now-a-days during my summer visits to the farm, I make a point to venture outdoors right before dusk and strain my ears for the melody. Just beyond the house is a dense thicket of woods and wetlands. The hermit thrush returns to our forest each year to feed, build a nest and fledge its young. On most summer evenings from the deep woods it performs a concert as if for my ears only.

I was pleasantly surprised last summer when I heard the song of the hermit thrush near our house in Putnam. There are several acres of thick dense brambles and woods across the road and just before sundown I heard it sing from within the trees and shrubs. It continued the joyful chorus to the fading light, stopping only when darkness finally encompassed the forest.

Perhaps the little hermit had always been hiding there but my ears were not yet in tune to its song. I like to think it is the same bird from my grandparents’ farm or perhaps an offspring sent to keep me company – as if a gentle reminder of our first encounter years ago. An ethereal tune sung just for me, coaxing me back again to familial land, to return again to the forest of my family.

Every day our senses can discover something new in nature to catch our attention and pique our insatiable human curiosity. Our eyes give witness to the wonders of a hillside sunrise. Our hands touch and feel the flora alongside woodsy trails. The scent of spring buds and summer blooms lifts our spirits. But to me it is the sound of nature that draws me in, gives me pause and reason to smile. The hair-raising coyote call in a winter night, the rush of wind through the tops of tall pines, the unexpected yet familiar sunset melody of the hermit thrush.

We live in a beautiful region that is still 77% forests, fields and farms. We truly have the natural world at our doorstep. I hope you’ll join me in sharing it with family and friends. Let us also work together to pass it on to the next generation.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work

 

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