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Wood thrush sings in morning and evening

Not everyone appreciates being up and about at 5 a.m. But with long days that we now have at this time in June with sunrise at nearly 5:15 a.m., the day gets off to an early start. Typically, this is the coolest and often the calmest time of day....

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A wood thrush feeds on the ground. Note all the dark spots on the underside. (Photo by Mark "Sparky" Stensaas.)

Not everyone appreciates being up and about at 5 a.m. But with long days that we now have at this time in June with sunrise at nearly 5:15 a.m., the day gets off to an early start. Typically, this is the coolest and often the calmest time of day. And many of the Northland's avian residents use these quiet hours to proclaim their territorial ownership with vocal sounds we call songs.

Without the rustle in the newly grown leaves in the winds, their songs of ownership go out far, telling others of their kind that this site is taken for nesting and raising a family. Bird songs lessen a bit as we go through the day, though never completely ceasing. And many put on a repeat performance as they sing serenades to the setting sun, shortly before 9 p.m. On early June days, birds can be heard singing from before 5 a.m. until after 9 p.m.

During a recent 5 a.m. walk, I paused to hear their proclamations from the trees. The temperature was in the low 40s in the calm sunrise as I listened in on the songs of about two dozen species of resident birds. These included thrushes, chickadees, flycatchers, catbirds, warblers, vireos, blackbirds, tanagers, orioles, doves, sparrows and other finches. And the sounds of ruffed grouse, woodpeckers and hummingbirds blended in as well. They varied in pitch, loudness, length and clarity, but still each was accomplishing the same goal.

These early morning sounds are ones of territory possession and each needs a site to live where food and shelter are available. Such places need to be defended. In nearly every case, the male proclaims the ownership. He is usually more colorful in plumage than the female. She is harder to see, as she stays with the nest.

With some practice, it is possible for us to determine vocal recognition of the songsters. Taking morning walks regularly tells us what kinds are living here. We often use words like "beautiful" and "melodious" in describing the songs. We may even use a phrase of words to help remember the songs. Lately, I have been hearing one that is often regarded as a "beautiful" song, from the wood thrush.

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Thrushes are quite common in the Northland. They may range from ones that we see in our yards and parks regularly to others that are only glimpsed deep within the woods. Probably the two best-known members of this group are robins and bluebirds. Both have reddish-orange undersides and do not shy from our homes. Both are well-loved and are state birds. But their colorfulness is a bit different from the rest of the group.

The other five species of thrushes that we might see in the region are more drab, brown or gray on the back with spots of varying amounts on the underside. Early migrating hermit thrushes show up in our April woods; some remain. These are followed by the similar Swainson's and gray-cheeked thrushes that pause in their northbound trek and move on.

The veery and wood thrush are May arrivals and stay as residents. Veeries are more common to the north while the wood thrush is a resident of the forest more to the south and east. Indeed, we may on the northern edge of the nesting range of this bird.

My morning walks allow me to listen to a thrush trio regularly. The veery, with its unmistakable churning rolling phrases that identifies this small brown bird, blends with the flute-like series of notes from the hermit and wood thrushes. I find the wood thrush as being louder and with an add-on note at the end. I expect to hear their songs at 5 a.m., but not being content with this early show, they sing again at dusk. Frequently notes from this trio are the finale of the day, often after 9 p.m.

Wood thrushes are about 8 inches long. Body feathers are brown on the back and head with numerous black spots on the undersides. While the veery is the least spotted of these thrushes, the wood thrush is the most spotted. The song is described as being a loud and liquid with three to five notes ending with a "tee." As a relative of the robin, they make a nest quite similar. These homes are made of mud, leaves and bark and placed at the base of tree branches about 10 feet from the ground. Also like the robin, the eggs are blue.

At this latitude, wood thrushes will have only one brood per season. As the nest is made, the eggs are deposited and incubated and the nestlings fed and raised, the wood thrushes will continue to sing. This means we can look forward to these melodious songs throughout June and into July.

In the Northland, most songbirds stop their singing on territory in midsummer. But for now, I plan to listen to the avian chorus as often as I can in early mornings and the evening encore.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com .

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