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Flight Lines: Celebrated songster makes surprise appearance

Wood thrush is an uncommon bird in eastern North Dakota. This individual showed up last week in a West Fargo yard. Keith Corliss / West Fargo Pioneer

I remember the occasion vividly but couldn't recall the date; luckily I kept notes - August 19, 1995. It was back in the days when I was getting around quite a bit as a military aviator. The location was Andrews AFB in Maryland, just outside of Washington D. C. I'd had an overnight stay and was walking across a partially wooded area on my way to the BX. Then I heard it - a rich ethereal song coming out of the trees. I stopped for a time to listen when out of the brush and onto the ground popped a robust but alert bird. Its breast was arrayed in black spots on a field of white. The rest of the creature was feathered in rich brown, brightening to a head of stunning russet-red. Even without binoculars I knew instantly what it was. After all, I'd seen it hundreds of times while thumbing through field guides. At that moment I was staring at my first wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina).

The wood thrush is on the short list of favorite eastern birds, primarily because of its singing ability. Researchers tell us the bird has a complicated syrinx (song box) which allows it to sing two notes at once, giving it a rather harmonious quality, a quality not lost on early Americans. Thoreau wrote: "Whenever a man hears it he is young, and nature is in her spring."

Modern writers have added to the aura surrounded the song of the wood thrush. John Terres said, "It is famous for its beautiful song...loud, sweet, liquid, calm, unhurried, peaceful." Kenn Kaufman weighs in with, "Its flutelike songs add music to summer mornings." Pete Dunne: " ensemble of rising-and-falling short phrases that have a dreamlike surreal quality." Even Cornell University's website, usually reserved in a scientific sort of way, says of the wood thrush, " known for its hauntingly beautiful song." You get the picture.

Wood thrushes are unfamiliar birds to inhabitants of the West. This is a bird with a rather strict adherence to its eastern range. A north/south line drawn through about Kansas City would quite accurately delineate the haves and the have-nots of the wood thrush world.

Among the 300 or so thrushes worldwide, North America boasts about 15 species. Most familiar among this group is the American robin. A half-dozen, loosely known as the spot-breasted thrushes, are just now approaching breeding territory. All but one (Bicknell's thrush) give eastern North Dakota at least a brief appearance.

The spot-breasted thrushes share common traits: Tawny brown backs, a penchant for spending considerable time on the ground, liquid varied songs, whitish breasts with at least some darker spotting, and the uncanny ability to hide behind something when someone with binoculars wants to see them.

Wood thrushes, however, should be easy to differentiate among this frustratingly similar group for three reasons. First, that song is unmistakable. Second, its bold breast spots extend all the way to its legs. Finally, its head color is unmistakable in the right light. Dunne describes the bird as "a standout among the spot-breasted thrushes - seems almost to have a Day-Glo quality."

Since that first sighting back in Maryland I've seen quite a few more wood thrushes. I've even found a tiny handful in West Fargo; lone individuals slightly overshooting their normal ranges. Yes, I've even heard a couple sing locally. Last week, though, I won the lottery. One made a brief appearance in my back yard.

After spending the winter in Central America feeding on fruits and invertebrates, a wood thrush began its northward migration. Once it reached the tip of the Yucatan peninsula it launched a non-stop evening flight across the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall somewhere on the Gulf Coast. After a few days of refueling and replacing lost energy stores it moved north again, always flying at night. A week or two later I awoke to find a now-familiar bird but in a most unfamiliar location.

It's not that my yard is more special than any other. It was just pure randomness at work. But I'm certainly grateful for the hour it decided to find respite there. I can only think of one downside to the experience. Unfortunately, it didn't sing.