Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Thing About Varied Thrushes, Part 5, 6 & 7

Where art thou, sweet sylvan songstress? For over two weeks, once-ubiquitous Varied Thrushes seem to have disappeared. Not a single sighting. Not one clue of the bird's distinctive presence, near or far, high and low, after months of seeing them. Then boom! boom! and boom! Back to back sightings in a week! It was good to see them again enjoying Berkeley-perfect habitat for their diminishing kind.
Varied Thrush spotted in Tilden Nature Area near Boardwalk
On February 14, biking rural El Toyonal Road below Vollmer ridge, two fine birds appear briefly near the bridge over the tiny gorge then fly off into the forest, vanishing in deep cover. At least I got a glimpse and could add them to my sightings for the day. Moments later, to my surprise, a beauty bounds up from low brush landing on thin branches, remaining motionless for a nice 3 sec gander for a not so great shot. They're hard birds to pin down, I've been told. But they will occasionally hop into open view for some really great looks, be-bopping up and down logs or fearlessly ground feeding for seeds, insects and other earthly comestibles comprising their varied omnivorous diet.

Varied Thrush in Codornices Park
A few days later in Codornices Park, a Berkeley gem, two or three, can't tell, are at play in the sloping meadow area I like to call the Aviary - an overgrown patch of the park where only dog walkers, birders and stoner teenagers wander off to. The secluded refuge is protected by dense stands of trees and snarls of brush, in a vibrant riparian setting attracting dozens of species of birds. I've spotted Varied Thrushes here often, to the point of commonness, over the past few months. These birds today are sporty and elusive, and I'm barely able to capture a decent image or shoot off a round of digital ammo.

Varied Thrush, Wildcat Gorge Trail, Tilden Regional Park
To digress, my usage of the words and phrases "boom", "shoot", "pin down", "capture" and "shoot off" evokes the profession's rather execrable legacy when early ornithologists' brutish approach to "studying birds" was to wipe them out!  Elite dandies like Lionel Walter Rothschild and Charles Willson Peale exemplified the violent, brainless bent of overzealous collectors of bird "specimens" and eggs. These birdbrains (wait! that's an insult to birds!) stupidly and inexplicably killed off entire flocks of beautiful birds, in some instances extremely rare birds and, amazingly, the last one of its kind in a difficult to get your head around case of the murdering of Hawaii's Greater Koa and Lesser Koa Finches. As Bill Bryson entertainingly writes of the shameful episode: "The last of the species vanished in 1896, killed by Rothschild's ace collector Harry Palmer, five years after the disappearance of its cousin the lesser koa finch, a bird so sublimely rare that only one has ever been seen: the one shot for Rothschild's collection. Altogether during the decade or so of Rothschild's most intensive collecting, at least nine species of Hawaiian birds vanished, but it may have been more."

Varied Thrush along El Toyonal Road
Well, about a week ago, in Tilden Nature Area, a birds' eden, I'm disappointed over not seeing anything of note, when suddenly I espy movement in the high branches with a brief flash of recognition: my boy, the Varied Thrush, this one of specially fine plumage and mien, posing just long enough for one of my best photos of the bird before flying away never to be seen again.

And that is the question: will we never be seeing again the Varied Thrushes this season? Are they largely gone . . . for now? A web search just now came up with the possible answer to my serial conundrum in related posts - their populations go up and down on a 2-year cycle. Or in some places, maybe a 3 or 5-year cycle. This would explain why I had not ever seen one until about three years ago. So there you have it, Varied Thrush lovers, an exhaustive inquiry into - not good! - a "Common Bird in Steep Decline" as reported in The State of the Birds Report 2014. A sobering fact is that in a few short decades the Varied Thrush's population - along with 32 other birds - has plunged by 50%. Although designated as a species of "least concern", we are most fortunate to enjoy the rarefied company of the Varied Thrush.

BONUS FOOTAGE of Varied Thrush hopping up a branch: