Full Moon Serenades

Swainson's Thrush & Western Meadowlark Courtesy US NPS Robbie Hannawacker, Photographer (thrush) Albert Myran, Photographer (meadowlark) Combined by Patrick Kelly
Swainson’s Thrush & Western Meadowlark
Courtesy US NPS
Robbie Hannawacker, Photographer (thrush)
Albert Myran, Photographer (meadowlark)
Combined by Patrick Kelly
The serenades around where I live begin early. Today it was during the full moon at 3am, in a break from the blessed rain. The chorus is mostly of robins, but one voice sticks out as new; a call I do not know; a love letter to curiosity of who could make such a call. I have hope that I’ll be able to find who sings like a Geddy Lee who has found Xanadu. It isn’t the first mystery bird I’ve encountered though.

I do remember my first, how can one not, that first call which bamboozled and hypnotized me years ago, both awakening and soothing that inside of me which makes me human. I used to live in a small cabin in the middle of Alaska, and during the eternal summers I’d hear this bird’s haunting call lull me to sleep. It was a Weddell seal of the woods. A UAP that sang.

At first, I didn’t want to know who it was filling the woods with quicksilver honeydew, drop by drop. I somehow felt that the magic would be lost, that by knowing the source I would ruin the spring. But then one day, the music maker appeareth. He was brown, squat, with a small thin beak, just sitting on a spruce branch at my eye level. When he sang, I found I was not disappointed. The Eden of unknowing bliss was not left behind. Instead, where once I saw an it, now I saw a thou. He was singing. The noble, sylvan Swainson’s Thrush.

This trend continued on for me, and once I moved to Utah, I found even more new strange songs. I learned to let the choir sing from their perches, and wait for them to show themselves. The newest singer I discovered was last summer, out in the last intact meadows which border the Bonneville Shoreline trail in Cache Valley, fast disappearing to the grind of half-acre plots and four-car garages which confuse godliness with gaudiness. In their loss, also deplete becomes their song.

Once I heard this new serenader, an avian Van Halen, I began repeating the trail just to hear his song. Like the thrush, which at this point was many years prior, his song seemed to have no source, it simply emanated from the golden grasses and muted sage which, pressed by wind, created a woven mat of gestalt terroir and echoed off the small crevices which led to the mountainsides.

So days and weeks went by as I hiked with my dogs. I’d keep an ear to the pastures and when I heard him, or his premonition upon the wind, I’d freeze and bend in. And sure enough, a certain day came where on this hike I listened, heard, and then saw him. Speckled brown back, golden chest with a black chevron, perched atop a scrubby little juniper calling into the wind. A Western Meadowlark at work.

So if this summer you hear a new sound in the full moon morning and don’t know who makes it, don’t shy, ignore, nor give up. The best thing you can do is to keep listening and keep waiting, be it your first or just most recent. Eventually the caller will pull the curtain back of their own accord and be revealed. So here’s my wish of good luck to you, that you will find what you’re listening for out in the world.

I’m Patrick Kelly, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Images: Courtesy US National Park Service(NPS) Robbie Hannawacker, Photographer (thrush) & Albert Myran, Photographer (meadowlark)
Audio: Courtesy US NPS Media / David Betchkal (thrush) & US NPS & MSU Acoustic Atlas/Jennifer Jerrett (meadowlark)
Additional Audio Courtesy & © Kevin Colver, J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin.
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://www.logannature.org
Included Links: Patrick Kelly & Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Posts by Patrick Kelly

Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon, https://www.logannature.org/

Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Logan Canyon Hiking, Bridgerland Audubon & Cache Hikers, site per Sarah Ohms, https://logancanyonhiking.com/bonneville.htm

Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Cache Hikers, http://www.cachehikers.org/Descriptions/BonnevilleShorelineTrail.html

Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Official Site(2016), http://www.bonnevilleshorelinetrail.org/

Swainson’s Thrush, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Swainsons_Thrush/overview

Swainson’s Thrush, American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org/bird/swainsons-thrush/

Swainson’s Thrush, UtahBirds.org, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesS-Z/SwainsonsThrush.htm

Western Meadowlark, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Meadowlark

See Western Meadowlark in Sagebrush Communities in the Intermountain West, Bird Habitat Guide, American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/SagebrushGuide.pdf

Western Meadowlark, UtahBirds.org, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesS-Z/WesternMeadowlark.htm

Discerning the Glorious Songs of our Thrushes

Hermit Thrush
Lee Karney, US Fish & Wildlife Service
Hermit Thrush
Dave Menke, US Fish & Wildlife Service

Utah is blessed with many melodious songbirds, but which one sings most beautifully of all? I vote for the haunting, achingly beautiful melodies of our two common thrushes, Swainson’s Thrush and Hermit Thrush. These birds have been leisurely migrating northward from the tropics since early spring. By June, males are singing on their forested territories.

Thrushes are a bit secretive, but if you re lucky, you ll see a bird a tad smaller than a robin clothed in rich brown back feathers that contrast with a pale breast sporting descending lines of fat brown spots the size of raindrops. Both thrush species look much the same, however. To distinguish them, you need to listen. Their haunting melodies arise deep in their chests, in the syrinx. Their syrinx works something like our larynx, using vibrating membranes that can be stretched taut or relaxed to produce different notes. Unlike our larynx, the bird’s syrinx sits where it’s two tracheae meet the windpipe. The most skilled songsters, like these thrushes, can work the two sides of their syrinx independently to produce two simultaneous notes.

The song of the Swainson’s Thrush always ends in a spiral of ascending notes.

[Audio: Swainson’s Thrush #61 Songbirds of Yellowstone and the High Rockies]

Now listen to the song of the Hermit Thrush. It ends with a warbling flourish that alternately rises or falls in pitch.

[Audio: Hermit Thrush #27 Songbirds of the Rocky Mountains]

It helps me to remember the song of the Hermit Thrush as being a lonely hermit talking to himself in two different voices, one ending high, the other low.

The glorious songs of thrushes grace our woodlands all through the weeks of early summer. So listen carefully and see if you too can now distinguish the song of Swainson’s Thrush from that of the Hermit.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Photos: Courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service Online Digital Media Library


Audio: Dr. Kevin Colver, www.wildsanctuary.com

Text: Jim Cane & Jason Pietrzak, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:

Hermit Thrush



Swainson’s Thrush