The voice message a couple of weeks ago asked about a bright orange "Baltimore oriole" with a black necklace that was visiting her backyard feeder.
Baltimore orioles and hooded orioles are reported to be very rare winter vagrants and visitors to Coos County. Bullock's orioles are reported to be uncommon breeders here, but aren't found in winter. None of the orioles have a horizontal necklace.
I e-mailed a couple of local birding experts to see if I'd overlooked something; their consensus was that my caller had most likely seen a varied thrush.
Varied thrushes are here all year long, but far more common in winter. This robin-sized brown bird has a harlequin look about it: jaunty orange stripe though the eye, orange bars and marks on the wings, an orange chin and belly, and, yes, a wide black necklace at the throat.
Sometimes it's the movement of the brightly colored varied thrushes that catches people's eyes as the birds scratch through fallen leaves with their two-footed, shuffling hop. Intermittently, the birds will toss through the loosened duff with their bill, sharply throwing bits left and right in the search for lunch - invertebrates, such as worms and pill bugs, and seeds.
Thrushes, widely distributed around the world, are songbirds that typically feed on insects and other invertebrates on the ground, dashing a short distance then stopping abruptly. Most American thrushes are brownish, robin-sized and robin-shaped.
Thrushes are known for beautiful songs. (The nightingale, for example, is a European thrush.) The song of the varied thrush is remarkable for its slowness. So slow as to sound like one note drawn out as long as possible before being followed by the next, a varied thrush's song may last several minutes.
Both Swainson's thrushes and hermit thrushes are "spotted breasted thrushes" - mostly brown birds with white bellies sporting prominent spots on the breast. Spotted breasted thrushes are birds of the forest understory.
Swainson's thrushes have a buff-colored ring around the eye and a slightly buffy face, and their tails and backs are about the same color; Swainson's thrushes breed widely in Coos County forests. Hermit thrushes have a white eye-ring and their tails are redder than their backs; hermit thrushes are generally less common than Swainson's thrushes in Coos County.
Townsend's solitaire, an uncommon Coos County resident, is rather long-tailed and sleek, nearly solid brown but with a white ring around the eye. Petite, brilliantly hued bluebirds are also members of the thrush family. Though described as rare or uncommon in Coos County, western bluebirds do live and breed in some of our meadows. Both Townsend's solitaires and western bluebirds are unlike other thrushes in that they snatch insects from the air.
Our best-known thrush is the American robin, icon of yard and garden.
By the way, the robins now in Oregon Coast yards are not the same birds we watched last summer. Oregon's summer robins are spending the winter further south; our winter robins will return to their nesting areas further north. (Careful observers may notice our winter robins are a little grayer than our summer robins, and they have slightly larger white spots on the outer corners of their tails.) Apparently Oregon's hermit thrushes follow the same north/south migration pattern as robins.
Varied thrushes migrate, too, but in a different direction. Come spring, most of the varied thrushes now shuffling for lunch at the edges of our yards will return to their breeding areas deeper in the woods, at higher elevations.
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