The Hermit Thrush Catharus guttatus is an unassuming thrush to look at. Guttatus is Latin for “speckled” and the Hermit Thrush is certainly speckled on white below, with a brown back, a wagging rufous tail, pink legs and white eye ring. It is not the only Catharus thrush with spots and it is horribly disappointing that a bird with such an amazing singing voice would be given such an uninspiring scientific name. Fortunately, the common name nicely evokes a solitary bird in the wild, a fitting name for a bird that one must go out of one’s way to hear. And to actually hear a Hermit Thrush sing one must go well out of one’s way, or so says Charles T. Flugum.
To hear the song at all, one must journey to the bird’s nesting ground in the deep, dense, moist northwoods carpeted with ferns and mosses and scented with pine near some woodland swamp, stream, or lake. To hear the song at its best, one must be there at twilight, which eliminates most people. So modest and retiring is this well named woodland recluse that it will not sing if it suspects humans are taking notice of it. Perhaps it feels some measure of security from human intervention in subdued light. At any rate, its song can be heard best at this hour, when most other woodland sounds have quieted down.
-Charles T. Flugum in Birding from a Tractor Seat
Though almost every time that I have heard a Hermit Thrush sing was high in the Catskill Mountains or Adirondack Mountains I did once hear a Hermit Thrush doing a very soft version of its song in late winter in Forest Park in Queens, New York. It was a warm winter day and the bird seemed to be practicing its song for the breeding season to come. The song instantly evoked for me the high peaks of upstate New York and was the highlight of that morning’s walk through the woods.
Many naturalists, writers, and poets have felt the same way.
The cast of its song is very much like that of the wood-thrush, and a good observer might easily confound the two. But hear them together and the difference is quite marked: the song and key of the hermit is in a higher key, and is more wild and ethereal. His instrument is a silver horn, which he winds in the most solitary places…One feels that perhaps the wood thrush has more compass and power, if he would only let himself out, but, on the whole he comes a little short of the pure, serene, hymn-like strain of the hermit.
-John Burroughs in Wake Robin
In vocal powers he is regarded by many writers as the Nightingale of America, and while migrating individuals seen about Albany are silent, those that remain to breed sing freely…As its name implies, the Hermit is extremely retiring, preferring well grown woods for an abiding place; still, one will occasionally approach the farmhouse or even enter the city.
-William Webster Judd in The Birds of Albany County
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end
-Amy Clampitt in “A Hermit Thrush”
Not only are their songs of superior quality, but the setting of beautiful parks, clear lakes, and sparkling streams combine with the music to give it an emotional quality that could not prevail under more prosaic surroundings. We know of no more enchanting experience than to watch the sun set behind a jagged sky line of snow-clad peaks to the accompaniment of their ethereal songs. Surely then, if ever, one listens to the music of the stars.
-Ira N. Gabrielson and Stanley G. Jewett in Birds of Oregon
Descriptions in bird books always refer to the notes as “flutelike,” “clear,” and “ethereal,” but I prefer bird expert Kenn Kaufmann’s word, “pensive.” I imagine a bird who has realized, in the great silence of the forest at dusk, that he has been a hermit too long.
-Don Stap in Birdsong: A Natural History
Its voice is melodic and pensive, it sings in phrases, releasing then one by one to the wind. There is no lovelier sound. The elegiac periods, gently warbling, move up the scale, as if they would ascend to a higher realm, and fade away, the singer seeming to be drifting off into abstraction or falling silent to listen. You could believe it moved, as man may be moved, by the inexpressible.
-Charlton Ogburn in The Adventure of Birds
Here is an outstanding video from The Music of Nature of a singing Hermit Thrush that shows the beauty of the song far better than I or anyone could express.
This is the time of year that Hermit Thrush move through the northeastern United States on the way to their distant breeding grounds. Keep an eye out for them or, better yet, make a trip to where they breed and listen for their amazing song. It will be well worth the trip, I promise, and you will have a perfect understanding of why they are sometimes called Swamp Angels.