Birder's Journal: Seduced by Dueling Thrushes

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You can hear the wood thrush, a widespread species, from a suburban yard if there is a woodlot nearby, but I seek better acoustics. To fully appreciate the forest's supreme melody, go to the forest, where traffic noise, mowers, hammering, and human voices barely penetrate. In the wood thrush's preferred concert hall of moist woods, every leaf seems to serve as his sound reflector, imparting bell-like reverberations to his clear, round notes.

Although he sings early in the morning and periodically throughout the day, my favorite time to escape the droning suburb and receive the wood thrush's soothing strains is when the warm light of a summer day fades. As other birds are piping their last notes, the voice of the wood thrush suddenly rises. Soon his song rules, and the woods, though not really silent, seem so except for this bird, because his sonorous voice commands attention.

For singing wood thrushes, summer ends early. Although they remain in my part of New England through September, by mid-August most of them have fallen silent. Perhaps the most stirring wood thrush I ever heard was singing late in the season. It was a warm day, but it hinted of fall, and I felt summer slipping away.

An orange haze filtered through the trees from where the wood thrush sang. To gaze on this pleasant light, to be bathed in it, to see the large trees reaching high into the air, their leaves hanging motionless, and to hear his ageless song rising above it all—this put me in a state of almost hypnotic serenity.

I never saw this wood thrush. I wonder what he was feeling as he sang his rhapsody in blue. I can only imagine that he was bidding the summer farewell and voicing a message of hope for summers to come.

Robert Winkler's book of essays on his adventures with birds of the "suburban wilderness," from which this is adapted, will be published in 2003 by National Geographic Books.

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