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Catharus Thrushes

by Bob Doe

Well, it’s March (or shortly will be). Winter’s over; the first flush of wildflowers are showing up along the roadsides, and the first migrant birds (swallows, Northern Parula, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler) are moving through. Many birders look forward to the colorful and active warblers encountered during spring migration, peaking in late April to May. But other spring migrants will be moving north as well. One group to look for is the Catharus thrushes.

Four members of the genus Catharus occur regularly in Bexar County: Hermit, Swainson’s, and Grey-cheeked Thrushes, and Veery. Identification of these similar species can be difficult. None of them have particularly bold or striking field marks, and as a group, they often occur in deep shadow, where it may be difficult to determine the exact color of their plumage. To top off the identification problems, 3 of the 4 species are variable. Key points to successful identification are to note the color of the upperparts, including tail; size and color of the eyering; color of the cheeks and breast; and the boldness of spotting on the breast.

The most common member of this group in Bexar County is the Hermit Thrush, which is a common winter visitor, and a good place to start in learning to identify the thrushes. You have about a month to become familiar with the Hermit Thrush before the other members begin to show up. Hermit Thrush, like all of the Catharus thrushes, is a small thrush, much smaller than a Robin, and even smaller than the larger sparrows such as Harris’s or White-crowned Sparrow. Overall color on the back varies from a rich brown to a dull grey-brown. Underparts are generally whitish, with grey or brownish flanks. The breast is fairly heavily marked with dark spots, although the spots may be blurry. There is a complete and fairly bold eyering, white or grey in color. Cheeks are generally the same color as the crown or nape; there is little or no contrast on the head. One key characteristic of the Hermit Thrush is that the tail is reddish and contrasts with the rest of the upperparts. Note that a red tail DOES NOT make the bird a Hermit Thrush; some forms of Swainson’s and Veery also have red tails, but in these birds, the tail does not contrast with the rest of the plumage.

Swainson’s Thrush is a common migrant through Bexar County, most numerous in spring. Swainson’s is generally similar to Hermit Thrush, but differs in several points. The eyering on a Swainson’s Thrush is bold and usually buffy in color, not white or grey. The buffiness extends onto the cheek and upper breast, and there is often a buffy loral line creating a spectacle look. Back color is olive brown, but western birds are more brown and may resemble Hermit Thrush in overall color. Tail color in Swainson’s Thrush is the same as the back color. The breast spotting is often fairly bold, like in Hermit Thrush, but western birds may be more lightly spotted, resembling Veery.

Veery is an uncommon spring migrant in Bexar County. It is probably the most easily identified thrush in the group, usually being a fairly bright, warm reddish-brown in color. Compared to Hermit and Swainson’s Thrush, the breast is only lightly spotted with fine spots, but may have a buffy wash similar to Swainson’s Thrush. The cheeks are grayish, and contrast rather markedly with the warm reddish brown of the crown and nape. The eyering is thin and whitish, generally not very noticeable. Western birds are duller and browner (less red), and closely resemble the western Swainson’s Thrush. Note the grey (not buffy) cheeks of the Veery and the less-distinctly-marked breast.

Grey-cheeked Thrush is probably the least common of this group in Bexar County. It is generally a cold appearing grey-brown above, lacking the warm reddish tones of Veery and some Hermit Thrushes, and lacking the olive tones of many Swainson’s Thrush. The cheeks are light grey and stand out fairly well against the darker crown and nape. The breast is fairly heavily spotted, but is less buffy than in Swainson’s Thrush. The eyering is thin, grey, and incomplete.

All of these thrushes are apt to be found on or near the ground, generally in moist woodlands. Hermit Thrush, in particular, will extend into the denser areas of South Texas brushland. Avenue A, Brackenridge Park, the Botanical Gardens, Olmos Basin, and the stream beds in McAllister Park are likely places to look for thrushes.


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