On gray mornings in winter, the haunting two-note trill of one of the Northwest’s most secretive birds pierces the chilly air.
It’s the varied thrush, a cousin of the American robin, but with distinctive blue-gray, black, and orange markings.
“To me, it’s always been a really eerie sound,” said Joe Meche, a local birder who often leads guided walks around Whatcom County. “Before I learned what I was hearing, I wondered ‘What the heck was that?’”
Northwest Washington lies on the border of the varied thrush’s permanent resident/breeding resident range, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They are common in northwestern North America, especially Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
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“If you go hiking in the mountains after the snow is gone, you’ll hear them calling, because that’s where they nest,” Meche said.
Although varied thrushes sing from a high perch, they feed on the ground, where they forage for insects and berries in dense cover and small forest openings. Their orange and blue coloration provides excellent camouflage on a sun-dappled forest floor or under low scrub.
Meche said that varied thrushes are extremely common in Whatcom County in winter because of snowfall in the mountains.
“If the snowpack is pretty deep, they can’t get to food, because they’re primarily ground feeders. That’s what brings them to our feeders,” Meche said.