A Celebrated Hermit: An Unexpected Winter Presence

In the previous 14 years, I saw not a single Hermit Thrush in Eliza Howell Park in January or in March and only once, about a decade ago, in February. This year there has been one, probably the same one, present each of these three months.

True to the name “hermit,” it has been solitary, quiet, and unobtrusive, but its very presence in winter is noteworthy.

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       Photo by Margaret Weber

The Hermit Thrush, though considered quiet and withdrawn, has been recognized and celebrated, especially for its song. It is the state bird of Vermont. And it is the thrush in Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln in 1865,  “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” An excerpt:

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It is not easy to become familiar with the Hermit Thrush’s song here in Detroit as it is not present in the breeding season. It can usually be seen only a few times as it passes through twice a year, in April/May and again in October.

We are situated about halfway between the southern end of its summer range and the northern end of its winter range, neither of which is more than a couple hundred miles away. It is not extremely rare that one shows up in southeast Michigan in winter, but it is unexpected. (The range map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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The Hermit Thrush is a forest bird that spends most of its time on the ground or among the lower branches of trees, foraging for insects. In the winter, when insects are less plentiful, it often eats berries. In Eliza Howell this winter, I have seen it both on the ground, scratching among the fallen leaves, and in branches of shrubs and vines, seeking whatever fruit remains, such as the last of the bittersweet.

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There is no need to hear its song at this time of the year; I celebrate the Hermit Thrush simply for being present this winter.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker: Common, Conspicuous, and Misnamed

I am this month completing 14 years of careful record keeping on the birds of Eliza Howell Park in Detroit, close to 1200 observation days. There are a number of species that are present every season, but there is only one species that I have seen in every one of the last 168 months: the Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Note: The bird pictures below were all taken by Margaret Weber. 

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Red-bellied Woodpeckers are recognized by their bright red caps and napes. They are often seen flying, in their undulating flight pattern, from tree to tree near the park road, but they are also found deep in the woods. They are also very comfortable in urban and suburban neighborhoods, especially where there are large trees. They are attracted to bird feeders for seeds and provide a bright and colorful presence during winter.

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Red-bellied Woodpeckers were not always so common in Michigan. When I was young, they were considered a southeastern U.S. bird. In the second half of the 20th century, they expanded their range northward and a little westward, a development that appears to be continuing.

The first of the two range maps here is a poor image taken from a bird book published in 1966; the second is from current on-line information at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Note how the species has moved up almost the entire Lower Peninsula of Michigan in 50 years. (It does not migrate seasonally.)

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What is most noticeable about the Red-bellied Woodpecker is the red on the head, not the red on the belly, which is rarely visible. It is easy for beginning or casual bird watchers to think the bird as “red-headed,” but the name “Red-headed Woodpecker” is assigned to another species, one with a whole head of red. The Red-headed Woodpecker visits EHP only occasionally, perhaps once a year.

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The basis of the label “red-bellied” is sometimes visible, as in the next picture.

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In the fall, Red-bellied Woodpeckers harvest acorns in Eliza Howell, which they store in crevices of trees for later eating. In the spring they drill deep holes in dead trees, for nesting (and sometimes, it seems, just for the fun of it!).

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Different bird species get my attention in Eliza Howell in different seasons of the year, but the Red-bellied Woodpecker is a constant highlight.