A Vagabond Varied Thrush

After last week’s post about “Lost Birds,” I shouldn’t be surprised this week when a bird typically found in the old growth forests along the coast from northern California to Alaska was spotted in a playground at a county park out on the eastern plains of Colorado. Talk about lost!

I’ve seen Varied Thrushes under the tall conifers of western Washington, typically in the rain. My previous photos were taken on a mid-winter trip to Washington several years ago. Between the thick clouds and the dense foliage, the light was so poor that no matter how I adjusted my settings, the photos I attempted (such as at right) were blurry and noisy. So when I realized that a Varied Thrush was hanging out a mere 30 minutes from home—on a beautiful, sunny day—I knew I had to chase it.

Arriving on site, I pulled into a parking spot, looked around, and immediately noticed three other people with funny hats, long lenses, and big smiles—just what I was hoping for! Sure enough, the bird was hopping around the playground, looking for snacks in the bark mulch. I grabbed my camera, hurried over, and quickly snapped off a number of “insurance” shots.

Then I returned to the car for my tripod and longer lens. As I hastened back to the bird, I was distracted by some workmen off to the side with a front loader and a huge pile of mulch. Oh no! Apparently, this was the day the parks department decided to add more mulch to the playground! I was sure that the loud machine would scare my subject away, not to mention the fact that the next mulch load was going exactly where the bird was happily hopping.

I increased my pace and managed a few more pictures before the maintenance crew arrived. Then, sure enough, the thrush flew.

I held my breath and tracked the bird over to the nearby picnic area. At least it hadn’t gone far. I hauled my gear over to the bird, making sure to keep my distance—the last thing I wanted to do was make it even more nervous.

It turned out that the move was a blessing. Here, the bird was in a more natural looking habitat—grass instead of cement, curbs, and bark mulch. Every so often it hopped up on a rock, making an even better shot. I trailed after it as it foraged across the field. It eventually hopped over to the manmade pond, I got a final few shots, and it was happily crunching seeds when I left.

How does a bird that belongs in a dark, wet forest end up here in Colorado? True, we have forests too, but ours are much drier. In fact, the park where it was found includes acres of Ponderosa pines, but that isn’t where the bird was. Rather, it seemed to prefer the exposed fields and cement sidewalks! And while it did spend a fair amount of time in the shade, hopping from shadow to shadow, it spent plenty of time in the sun as well.

Some Varied Thrushes are year-long residents of the Puget Sound region. Those who breed inland, where winters are more extreme, migrate, spending summers in British Columbia and Alaska and winters in Oregon and northern California—and occasionally in the Midwest, Northeast, or, apparently, Colorado.

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