When the Thrushes Return

Varied Thrush, male, California

Varied Thrush, male, California

It is in the autumn when the birds have left their summer breeding grounds, that we gratefully receive the thrushes in northern California.


We watch all summer long as the toyon bushes and madrone trees flower, then bear fruit. Toward late summer the berries grow bigger and start to turn from green to orange and red.  Here’s what we say, “It looks like the berries will be just right for the thrushes.”


Hermit Thrush on Toyon

Hermit Thrush on Toyon

If we are so lucky to get rain–and we have been this year–then the berries grow plump and they are perfect for the thrushes.


Not every year does it all turn out so well. If we have drought, the berries wither and drop to the ground. And the thrushes do not come.


But right now, our hillsides and forests are bright with the fresh new berries ripening in the autumn sun.


Our first hermit thrush arrived about two weeks ago — this is an event worth noting (and I do), for soon more will follow.  In the past few years there has been one quirky individual who arrives first and leaves last every season.


He’s not eating the berries yet, apparently they’re not perfectly ripe.


As ground birds, they can be seen hopping on the ground, or tugging at berries in the bushes. In addition to the berries, thrushes eat insects, worms, and snails.


And it is not just the hermit and varied thrushes that winter here, we also look forward to greeting the robins.


American Robin, Calif.

American Robin, Calif.

Robins, also in the Turdidae thrush family, come in flocks.  Whereas the hermit and varied thrushes are often individuals or in pairs, the robins come in very large flocks, sometimes as much as 100.


There are many genera and species of Turdidae in the world. (For more info click here.)


But here in northern California, we treasure our three fall thrushes, and avidly listen for the “chirrup” and chipping sounds, joining us for yet another winter.


American Robin eating toyon berry, Calif.

American Robin eating toyon berry, Calif.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander



60 thoughts on “When the Thrushes Return

    • We do love our varied thrushes, and it’s a great celebration with them here in the winter. I also liked hearing about your thrushes, Sherry. We don’t get a lot of the flutey thrush songs, like you do in NYC, because they start to move on in the spring. I am particularly thrilled to hear the Swainson’s singing. Thanks, Sherry, as always.

  1. That was a lovely post to read Jet, thank you 😄 We love thrushes here too of course but our robins are different to yours and quite solitary birds. I was quite surprised to hear the American robin flies in flocks!

    • It is a pure joy to see the robins in such large flocks, it only happens in the winter and not every winter. Last year the largest flock was only about 25, other years there are more. They fly high and when the sun is setting it lights up their orange breasts in the most magical way. You would enjoy their sounds, lots of chuckling and chirruping. Thanks so much, Alastair.

  2. How wonderful to receive such colourful visitors, and that the current cooperative climate will ensure there’s enough for them to eat and so stick around. Loved the photographs – a different take on fall colours, and each bird is beautiful.
    Thanks, Jet, and enjoy your weekend!

    • The thrushes do have the essence of autumn in their colors, I hadn’t thought of that. Great to receive your wonderful and insightful comments, pc, thank you so much. I am enjoying the weekend, I hope you are too. And I hope you get to have some outdoor experiences…always a treat.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story and photos of berry growth and thrush arrivals, Jet. I liked imagining it :-). I am wondering if you see robins in the summer too but in smaller numbers? Here (Calgary), a few robins stay all year but most spend the winter elsewhere.

    • Hi Myriam! Thanks for your great comment and question. Yes, we do have robins in the summer, but not, as you suspected, in the large flocks. Your robins in Calgary…guess where they come in winter. 😉

  4. It must be beautiful to have thrushes near you through the winter. I can never get enough of the upstate bluebirds, robins, wood and hermit thrushes in the spring and summer, and always look forward to their return in spring. Someday I hope to study your varied thrush, as well.

  5. Until the neighbor cut down the holly tree next door, I used to have dozens of robins lined up on my fence waiting their turn at the holly berries. Seemed like they also got a tad tipsy on them, too. One crashed into my window and left a couple of beautiful orange and white bits of fluff. I bet she had more than a hangover from that. 😀

    • Although I am not a good photographer, it is my understanding that photographing thrushes is a bit easier than say, warblers or hummingbirds, because they are bigger and not as twitchy. I’m glad you enjoyed the thrushes today, HJ — thanks so much for your visit.

  6. How lucky you are that not only do you get Thrushes but our Robins as well. Beautiful post, Jet. I don’t think Thrushes come our way but I could be wrong. I’ll have to check. Thank you for the share! 🙂 ❤

  7. Here in the Midwest, the robins are our harbingers of spring! I love the cycle of flora and fauna that keeps the year moving! Thanks, Jet.

    • Our world is a better place with robins, isn’t it? Across the pond the robins look different, but their message of peace and rightness rings strong. Thanks so much, dear Nan.

  8. Jet. The madrone trees on Whidbey Island are plentiful due to the dry, sandy and rocky soil. We pronounce them madrona. I have heard other people pronounce them as madrone so maybe in the northern hemisphere the species might have characteristics of its own. The flowers hang in clusters that cover the branches then in December those white flower clusters turn into bright beautiful berries against the dark green leaves. The color is lovely during the dark cold days of winter. Several of the birds in our area migrate south during the winter except for a few robins and other small birds who have the stamina to within our cold wet winters. I am not aware whether the few local birds harvest the berries off the trees but the berries do remain on the trees for a long period of time. Also the varied thrust show up in our yards during the early spring.

    Thanks again for sharing your interesting information.

    • Oh how I enjoyed hearing about your madrona and the seasonal events, as well as the bird activity on Whidbey Island. From our exchanges I have deducted that many of the birds we have, you have; but quite a different story with the thrushes in winter. Thanks so much for sharing this info, SWI. Much enjoyed!

  9. We have a thrush in the small park at the end of the road that seems to come back every spring – we believe it’s the same one! And they are beautiful, but not quite so beautiful as your varied thrush, which is lovely.

    • I would not be surprised if it is the same individual who comes back every spring, Andrea. They seem to do that, and a small park at the end of the road sounds pretty dreamy, so probably a good idea to keep coming back to the same prosperous spot. I love knowing this, thanks for the image.

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