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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

July 13, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Singing for your pleasure now: Swainson’s Thrush

Everyone has their favorite bird song. For me it is the haunting, plangent music of the Swainson’s Thrush.

Heading up to the Bullitt Fireplace for a dinner picnic, I was delighted to be serenaded by this bird. Close by, easy to access, this hike is a great solution for those who have to get out of the house.

sqwak at evening.jpg

Come evening, the trail beckons for a dinner picnic on Squak Mountain, Seattle’s quick getaway mountain in Issaquah.

Lynda Mapes photo

Miners dug out seams of coal and sank many tunnels on Squak in the late 1800s and early 1900s and loggers stripped the mountain’s timber in ensuring decades. But Squak is the comeback mountain, living testimony to the power of nature to heal. Never replanted as a timber plantation, Squak has regrown a diverse native forest that draws a bevy of birds. Including that neo-tropical migrant, the Swainson’s thrush. Click on the link to go to Audubon’s BirdWeb where you can hear a recording of its call.

Catharus ustulatus is a plan, grey-brown bird that is seldom seen, but so very gloriously heard. First with its whit-whit call and then its unique, upward-spiraling song.

Breeding pairs return to the same nest year after year, so if you have this bird in your day-to-day world, consider yourself lucky — and don’t change the habitat that is sustaining it. Swainson’s like brushy, messy tangles of salmonberry, thimbleberry and other Puget Sound lowland undergrowth, so if you clean up, you may also clean out this splendid bird.

Swainson’s like a closed canopy, understory cover, and good tree density with some conifers in the mix. Tidy is not their thing.

A long-distance migrant, Swainson’s breed in the western and northern U.S. and Canada and winter from southern Mexico to northern Argentina.

Only the males sing, and theirs is an advertising call, meant to bring the ladies and defend the nest.

Composed of a series of five to seven notes, the song begins with a low-pitched, quiet trill lasting just .15 of a second, so brief it is difficult to discern, according to The Birds of North America, monograph No. 540, by Diane Evans Mack and Wang Young.

Next in the song come successive notes climbing in pitch, each slightly longer and louder than the previous, and ending with one to several notes at the same, highest pitch, but at slightly lower volume.

Males will engage in competitive singing duels that are visibly tiring to the singers, so intense is their exertion.

Primarily an early morning or evening singer, their music is the perfect evening picnic accompaniment.

For more on the natural history of Squak Mountain and the history of its recovery and preservation read Squak Mountain, An Island in the Sky, A history and Trails Guide by Douglas G. Simpson.

For more on hiking and horseback riding on Squak, read my story in the Seattle Times.

To learn more about birds and habitat, read my story in the Seattle Times.

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