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Column: Winter unfolding as banner year in Shuswap for elusive species of bird

Nature Watch by John G. Woods
This wintering Varied Thrush in a Mountain Ash is easily identified by its black chest-band and bright orange stripe above the eye. (John G. Woods photo)

By John G. Woods

Special to the Observer

Throughout the Shuswap this Christmas season, Varied Thrush seem to be everywhere.

To the delight of local naturalists and as a puzzle to many others, this winter is unfolding as a banner year for a normally elusive species.

The Salmon Arm Christmas Bird Count records show a previous high of 44 Varied Thrushes in 2005. Chalking up 253 individual Varied Thrushes seen this year, the old record fell by a landslide!

Since Varied Thrush are roughly the size of a robin and have a mostly orange breast, it is no wonder that less experienced observers first think they are looking at some form of weird robin. But when you add a broad black or brown chest-band, and a bright orange eye line, you’ve just described a Varied Thrush.

As another challenge, Varied Thrushes may not be pictured in some of the less complete backyard bird guides. I think it is safe to say that few people outside of the bird-watching world have even heard their name.

Here in the Shuswap, Varied Thrushes are regular nesters at higher elevations. For example, cedar forests on the Larch Hills ring with their eerily whistled songs throughout June.

But even in prime Varied Thrush nesting habitat, these birds are rarely seen and most are presumed to winter along the coast.

Why have Varied Thrush numbers erupted in the Shuswap this winter? A great question but one that is hard to answer.

Did they have an unusually successful nesting season? Is a hyper-abundance of winter food in the valleys encouraging the thrushes to stay?

Mountain Ash berries are relished winter foods for both Varied Thrushes and American Robins. Since these berries also are superabundant in the Shuswap this winter, perhaps they have tempted many true robins and ‘weird-robins’ to stay with us for the winter.

Read more: Column: Robins are the lead singers in dawn chorus

Read more: Column: Ravens signal spring in the Shuswap
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