Our Winter Thrushes

We are fortunate in Northern California to have four species of thrushes join us for the winter months. Here’s a brief look at these beautiful birds.

Although Northern California is not warm in the winter, it is temperate enough that some bird species migrate here. We have driving rain and icy nights, but the sun comes out often and when it does, the birds leave their roosts in search of food.

For the thrushes, berries are a big draw.

Our four thrush species are “true thrushes,” all from the family Turidae: American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, and Western Bluebird.

Many years, especially in the last decade, if we are in a drought and haven’t had enough autumn rain, the berries don’t form. They start to grow, but without rain the berries shrivel up and drop to the ground.

But this past autumn we had plenty of rain, and consequently this winter there are berries everywhere. And thrushes everywhere.

Red berries on toyon, pyracantha, and cotoneaster shrubs; orange berries on the madrone trees.

American Robins, Turdus migratorius, are here year-round. In warm months we see them in pairs or small groups. In winter we have our local residents plus the migrants from Canada and Alaska, resulting in gloriously huge flocks.

Sometimes there will be 10 or 20 of them, rustling in the trees and bushes, plucking berries and chuckling as they engage in their lunch party. They are a big bird with whirring wingbeats, easy to hear and see.

Other times they can be flying high overhead in a flock of 60-100, often crossing the sky at the end of the day getting in one last meal before bedtime. The sky is absolutely filled with them. It’s one of my favorite winter sights, and I stop in my tracks when I hear them overhead…gaze up.

The hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) and varied thrushes (Ixoreus naevius) are migrants, spend the winter here but only if there are berries. There are many years when they arrive in autumn, having flown long distances from Canada and northern states. If they discover only shriveled berries, they leave within a day and don’t return until next season.

With the gift of rain this year, both the hermit and varied thrushes have spent the winter.

Varied thrushes are west coast birds. They spend the winter here on the coast from Northern California all the way up to northern British Columbia.

On Christmas Day in 2015 we were in a Northern California giant redwood forest when we spotted this female popping around in the undergrowth.

In the eastern parts of the country, bird aficionados associate the hermit thrushes with their melodious flute-like song. The song, however, is part of their breeding ceremonials, and has nothing to do with winter foraging.

The call of the hermit here in winter is simply “chup-chup.” The varied thrush sound is a unique two-toned call that cuts through the forest on a rainy winter day.

Hermit Thrush sound, click here.

Varied Thrush sound, click here.

The bluebirds. Many people don’t realize bluebirds are thrushes, in the Turidae family.

Sialia mexicana, western bluebirds, live here year-round. This photo was taken on a March afternoon.

In spring they breed and nest, but in the winter they are searching for insects and berries.

This past summer I wrote a post about a pair of bluebirds who were nesting in the carcass of a burned tree. Some readers may remember this. (New Life in a Dead Tree.)

The brood was successful and when the chicks were big enough, the family of four left the nest and went out into the world.

Imagine what a thrill it was this past week when we returned to that meadow, on a short walk between rains, and saw the family. They perched very near to their home spot, the dead tree, chirped a cheerful hello to us, and then off they went in search of a meal.

There is something very special about the winter birds. When the flowers are gone and landscapes are stark and temperatures make you shiver, it is heartwarming to have a little aviary friend by your side.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.


98 thoughts on “Our Winter Thrushes

    • I sure like that photo a lot too, Mike, with the berry in the robin’s mouth. That day a flock of hungry robins had descended in the shrubs around us and they were everywhere! Great to “see” you today, Mike, thank you.

  1. They’re real beauties, Jet, and Athena caught some wonderful shots of them. One of the things I always enjoyed about winter in the Midwest (or anywhere else that trees lost their leaves) was the it was so much easier to spot the birds. πŸ™‚ In summer, I’d hear them but not be able to find them anywhere.

    Happy 2022!


    • You bring up an excellent point about spotting birds in winter when the leaves are absent, Janet. I also like seeing the shapes of trees when the leaves are gone. Many thanks for your insightful visit today, Janet.

      • I also like moon gazing in the winter. My area is quite wooded and only in the winter can I catch a glimpse of a waxing crescent because the sun often drowns out the little sliver (or clouds) but noon set after sunset in winter is a real treat.

    • The varied thrushes are one of the most stunning birds we have in North America, and I am absolutely thrilled when they come here for the winter. They are difficult to spot because they’re quiet, I rarely hear a call to focus my attention. I have found, too, that they’re often mixed into the robin flocks, when you are in their territory. Hopefully these hints will help you spot one soon. Thanks very much, Ron, and good luck.

  2. Very interesting post. Didn’t realize these birds were all thrushes. Always learn something from you, Jet! What fun to hear that the Bluebird Family have returned!

  3. The robin is a life-long favorite, and I’m hoping that we’ll have a good population this year, since the berries are thick as can be. The last two years the yaupon and such haven’t been so productive, but pyracantha, peppervine, possumhaw — so many varieties are producing beautifully.

    On the other hand, that varied thrush is an absolute knockout. It’s such a beautiful bird: one that I don’t remember seeing before. It’s another example of something I’ll not see in our area, so I’m especially grateful for Athena’s photos and your words of introduction.

    • I, too, adore the robins, Linda. Good news to hear some of the berry bushes are producing and that the robins are abundant. As for the varied thrush, they are such a treat to behold. Few people are familiar with them, so I am glad I could share a little bit about them here with you today. Many thanks, Linda, good to have you stop by.

  4. How wonderful that you have robins there in the winter. They are so entertaining and they really do chuckle! Bluebirds are lovely too – all the birds have such distinct personalities!

    • I agree, Meg, it is great fun to witness the distinct personalities of the different birds. And yes, the robins are so entertaining. Wonderful to have you stop by today to check in our thrushes. Thank you so much.

  5. These birds are so beautiful, thank you for the photos and the audio recording. It sounds familiar, maybe I heard this bird in Michigan? ❀️

    • The Avenue of the Giants is one of my happy places, too, Jan. Athena and I have gone up there many times for a birthday celebration, as it’s where we always feel young in comparison to those giant old trees. They’re so solid and earthly. Thanks Jan.

  6. These are all lovely looking birds, but goodness, isn’t the varied thrush a pretty one?! I enjoyed learning about your feathered winter companions today, Jet, and the photographs to accompany the text are delightful – thank you!

    • It’s possible you might spot varied thrushes up where you live, pc. I agree, they are pretty ones. I can never ever get enough of them, and I’m so glad I could share them with you today. My friend, I hope your weekend has some outdoor beauty and adventure. Many thanks.

    • I’m oh so glad you enjoyed the post and the thrush songs today, Jo. It is interesting how different some of these species in the same family can be. My warmest thanks and cheers to you.

    • Wonderful to see you today, Amy. Your gravatar is different, wonderful to see your smiling face. We are so relieved to have rain this year, thanks. And many thanks for your visit.

  7. I really enjoyed the photos and learning about your thrushes. I am amazed that the American Robins congregate in such large numbers. The call of the beautiful varied thrush is extraordinary!

    • Oh so nice to have you visit today, Carol. In America we are brought up at age 5 to learn that robins are a spring bird. They’re known as the first bird of the season; every child’s alphabet uses robin to learn “R.” But that’s an east coast thing, which I find very interesting. Makes me smile. Out here in the west, they congregate in the winter in huge numbers. Like you, I find that amazing. Standing there and having a hundred robins flying over you is truly a thrill. I am so glad I could share it with you here today. Thank you, Carol.

      • Hi Jet, thanks for the additional info. It is amazing – I have not heard of thrushes congregating before. Here in SA the European colonialists named some orange-breasted birds ‘robins’, but they are now more properly called robin-chats (although there are three species called diminutive robins.) There are true thrushes here too, some with orange breasts, but they are usually solitary or in pairs and are ground-foraging birds. The American robin seems to be a rather special bird! Seeing large numbers together must be incredible.

      • It was great fun sharing robin words with you, Carol. I liked hearing about the true thrushes in SA, for that species never stops fascinating me. My warmest thanks for your visits here this weekend, I always enjoy our exchanges. Sending warm smiles to you and your beautiful continent.

      • Thanks very much Jet. Warm greetings from a part of SA that is either very warm or very wet! I hope there has been some snow or rain to alleviate the drought in your region.

  8. Beautiful thrush companions, Jet. I agree that having avian visitors in winter makes the days so much brighter. Lately, we’ve seen a few robins and eastern bluebirds feasting on winterberry and crabapples. I count myself lucky to hear the haunting, melodic songs of breeding wood and hermit thrushes in spring. Probably my favorite spring song!

    • It’s great to hear your description of the breeding wood and hermit thrushes, Eliza. I am so familiar with their winter sounds, but I have never heard them in the spring. As I was composing this post I made that realization, and will have to rectify that situation, make a trip east to where I can witness this phenomenon that gets high praises from many. Sending smiles and thanks for your visit today.

      • The month of May around New England is what to shoot for and deep woods are their preferred breeding grounds. Though I suppose their range is quite large all across the northern US and Canada. πŸ™‚

  9. In addition to our regular robins, Jet, we have two migrations a year where they seem to be everywhere. I was thrilled this past year to look our at our birdbath and see robins packed in shouter to shoulder. There must have been 20 of them.
    I am one of those people who didn’t realize that the bluebird is a member of the thrush family. Thanks for your fun and informative post. –Curt

    • I am oh so glad to hear about the robin migrations you witness in OR, Curt. It was fun to read your description, and I know exactly what you’re talking about because they behave similarly here. Big and beautiful and sociable and entertaining. Thank you very much.

      • I always find our local and migrating birds entertaining, Jet. The bird bath and bird feeder are both outside my library window where I write. In the summer the birdbath becomes a watering hole for deer, squirrels, and other wild animals. Always fun. Especially when the fawns come by to drink.

  10. How wonderful to have winter berries & thrushes “everywhere”! And such a fine display of thrushes, one of my favorite avian families. Here in the winter wilds of western New York, birds are few & far between for a while, and I can only dream of those sweet spring notes issued by E. bluebird, A. Robin, and my absolute favorite the hermit thrush. Someday I may even find my first varied thrush while reinvestigating the Pacific coast. Your post has allowed me to recharge my avian dreams, and for that I can only say, thanks so much!

    • I so enjoyed your wonderful words, Walt, thank you. I, too, just love the thrushes. When I was composing this post I thought to myself, “I don’t suppose anyone will share my fervent joy of the thrushes,” but I went ahead and wrote it anyway. And I have been pleasantly surprised by the many people who find joy in the thrushes, including your beautiful comment. I love knowing that I have “recharged” your avian dreams…I am smiling as I type, Walt. While you dream about finding the varied thrush on the west coast, I dream about hearing the hermit thrush song on a spring day in the east. It’s a wonderful range of hopes to contemplate. Dear friend, thank you so much.

  11. Oh… it’s getting late and my eyes are telling me it’s time to give them a rest, but I’ll need to come back for a closer look and listen to the audio bits. I always learn and enjoy, but for now… πŸ˜΄πŸ›Œ

    • I think if I were to spend a bit more time at the site with the bird recordings, I might learn to identify more of them by sound, but I seem to mostly think about it when I’m outside with nary a computer anywhere to be found! Fortunately I seem to be picking up on some of the more obvious ones around here. Our wary kingfisher buzzing up or down the creek seems to be one I notice far more by sound than sight. I love the honk I get from the nuthatches. Then there’s the familiar buzz of the hummingbirds as they try to chase me from the feeder! Way better than TV!!! 😊
      I know we have all four of these winged ones around here on occasion. My favorite is the Varied… not absolutely sure about the Hermit (possibly because it’s a bit of a hermit, like us! 😏)
      Thanks, once again, for a highly entertaining and informative post. πŸ™
      The shot of Athena at the Avenue of the Giants makes me want to head down there (it’s SO CLOSE to us!!!)

      • It sounds like you’ve done a great job of identifying birds in your area by their sounds, Gunta. I enjoyed your apt descriptions and enthusiasm. I am sure you have the hermit thrush, because your weather is what they gravitate and migrate to the most. Their sound is subtle and they can be tricky to spot because they stay close to the ground and can be hidden in the underbrush. And how wonderful that you have the varied thrush. We are lucky on our coast to have them here. Have fun with your birds, my friend, and thanks so much for stopping by.

  12. Pingback: Our Winter Thrushes β€” Jet Eliot – Echoes in the Mist

    • Varied thrushes are tricky to spot, Platypus Man. They’re quiet, skulking forest birds and they’re only here when it’s winter and very wet. As I gaze at your gravatar, I am reminded of my goal years back of finding a platypus in the wild in Aus. Even after consulting books and following rangers’ advice and spending a day hiking around in an area that supposedly had them, we didn’t see any the first time we visited Aus. (We went to the Tarongo Zoo, though, to at least see one in captivity.) Eleven years later we returned to Aus., still determined to find one. But this time we hired a guide and he took us to a creek in a residential neighborhood on a rainy day at dawn, and he taught us how to spot one and at long last we saw several. We returned to that spot days later and saw them again. We get our thrills in nature and never forget them, eh, Platypus Man?

      • Hi Jet. When we made our only trip to Australia, in 2016, my #1 ambition was to see a wild platypus, but I never believed it would happen. And yet, within 24 hours of arriving in Tasmania, we stumbled across one without even looking for it (we were on our way to buy lunch at a brewery on the outskirts of Hobart). Amazing, and totally unforgettable…like the wild Tasmanian Devil we saw later in that trip, some of the bears we’ve seen in the US, and humpback whales off Newfoundland. Nature is wonderful, isn’t it, and so full of surprises. For interest, I blogged about my first platypus sighting (yes, there were others!) here: https://platypuspandemonium.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/platypus-spotted/
        Thank you for sharing your own story (“Close Encounters of the Platypus Kind”!) with me, Jet. Hope you have a great day populated by some great birds.

      • Thanks for the link to your platypus story, PM, I really enjoyed it a lot. There is a big smile on my face. I loved hearing about your other wildlife findings. For some reason I wasn’t “following” your blog, so by going to your link here I was able to click “follow.” Look forward to hearing more of your wildlife stories. Thanks so much.

      • Hi Jet. Glad you liked the story. Tasmania was wonderful. I’d love to go back, but I don’t suppose I shall so “Platypus Pandemonium” – my first ever attempt at blogging – sits on the WordPress server in suspended animation, but still gets a few hits. I think you’re already following my current blog (“Now I’m 64”) so you should pick up my latest wildlife writings there, although its remit covers a much broader range of topics than my road-trip blog. Thank you so much for taking an interest, you’ve made an old blogger very happy!

    • I’m smiling broadly, Frank, very glad you enjoyed Athena’s photos. Thrushes are tricky because they’re ground birds and the background is difficult because they’re always in lots of grass and debris that doesn’t highlight them well. Very glad you stopped by, it is always a joy to see you.

  13. Jet, I am so happy to see all these beautiful birds. Being a birdlover myself it is quite a treat to see
    them and so wonderfully depicted. Your giant tree there is one I often dreamt of seeing in reality and touch.
    wonderful post.


    • How wonderful to have you visit today, Miriam, thank you. I am happy I could share the winter thrushes with you, and the giant redwoods. The world of nature is such a gift, it is an honor to share it with you.

  14. Love reading about your birding. I didn’t realize an American Robin was a type of thrush. I always know spring has arrived when I first see the robins. We have bluejays and cardinals here, overwintering. I don’t have a good enough camera to get pix of them, though. I just see them perching in the trees from my breakfast table. πŸ™‚

    • It was wonderful to hear about your birds, Brenda, and to share our west coast birds with you. We don’t have bluejays or cardinals in No. Calif., so I liked hearing about your birds as much as you liked hearing about ours. Delightful. Thanks very much.

    • How fun to share the hermit and varied thrushes with you, Donna. And that American robin in flight photo is a winner, isn’t it? I’m glad you liked it. One year we had an enormous toyon bush outside a window, and we waited and waited for it to get berries. And when it did, we removed the screen from the window and she set up the tripod right there on the carpet and for weeks she captured many great photos, including that robin in flight. Eventually every berry was plucked. Great to have you stop by, Donna, thank you.

  15. So beautiful! Love seeing birds enjoying themselves. Thank you Jet πŸ’•πŸ™πŸ’• I didn’t know they were all thrushes! (Love how I always learn from you x)

  16. Birdlife surrounds us if we would only listen. Their calls give them away.
    Here, there, they may be far, they may be near, but circling overhead
    are the masters of flight! Great photos (as usual, thank you!) give us
    superior sights of these perfect airborne beauties! Thank you so much Jet!

    • I so enjoyed your comment today, Eddie, as always. It is so true, your words: “Birdlife surrounds us if we would only listen.” Fortunately I have spent my adult life listening and observing and learning and studying this, and what a melodic and enlightening adventure it has been. I am so happy I can share it with you. Thanks so much for your appreciation and kindness, my friend.

  17. Those are beautiful images, and lovely details about them, Jet. I really enjoyed the sound files too. Now I’ll be listening for them. I didn’t realize Western Bluebirds were in the Thrush family! Thanks for teaching me something new today. πŸ˜€

    • Oh how wonderful that you enjoyed the sound files and photos and facts about the thrushes, Deborah. I am quite certain with all the time you spend outdoors and the birding that you do, you will discover more and more about this magnificent bird family, the thrushes. How exciting that is. Thanks very much, Deborah.

    • Hi Craig, I’m delighted you learned some thrush info today and even took the time to listen to their calls. Often with thrushes we hear them before we see them, because they are ground birds and tend to be hidden in the undergrowth. You might start seeing more thrushes, and how wonderful that would be. My cheers and thanks to you, dear friend.

  18. I enjoyed the text and the photos. Thanks for adding the recordings of the two varieties of thrushes. I’ve never heard those chirps but will listen. Do they ever live in the north Midwest?

    • Yes, that varied thrush is a beauty. And how fun that I could share its beauty with you, BJ. Athena and I watch the berries start to grow in autumn and get so excited every year about the prospect of the varied thrushes coming in to eat them. This year we were rewarded with their presence and it has been a true joy. Thank you, BJ, always great fun to “see” you.

  19. That shot of the flying robin in the Toyon is amazing! I don’t think I’ve ever seen flocks of them as large as what you see. Have only seen a varied thrush once. I think it was in Alaska, but maybe BC. Unfortunately I didn’t record it in my book!

    • Hi Eilene. I’m glad you liked the flying robin photo. One winter there was a toyon bush by our living room window filled with berries. Athena had great luck with photos by taking the screen off and setting up her tripod/camera. And how wonderful that you have seen a varied thrush in the wild. A sight we don’t forget. Thank you, Eilene, lovely to see you.

    • Hi Sherry. Yes, the varied thrush is gorgeous, and I hope you do get a chance to see it someday. Until then, I am glad I could share it here with you, my friend. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  20. Loved your bluebird story! What a privilege for you to see them over a longer period! We are noticing here in Massachusetts that, although bluebirds were always considered “Spring birds”, more and more are starting to winter over. I love seeing them, but worry about climate change, of course.
    And, whoa…I totally agree with the comments about the varied thrush–so beautiful!

    • I really like that bluebird story, too, Julie. We were so thrilled to see them that day. Yes, the bird life is shifting with the climate change, like everybody else on this planet, so I am not surprised to hear you have bluebirds arriving earlier now. Thanks so very much for your visit, it was nice to “see” you today.

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