For the Birds Radio Program: Dawn Birding

Original Air Date: May 19, 1989

Hear some of the haunting melodies of dawn on today’s “For the Birds.”

Audio missing


(Recording of a Hermit Thrush)

Probably the loveliest of all bird songs is that of the Hermit Thrush. The eminent popular ornithologist John Terres describes the song as opening: “with a clear flutelike note, followed by ethereal, bell-like tones, ascending and descending in no fixed order, rising until reaching dizzying vocal heights and the notes fade away in silvery tinkle.”

(Recording of a Hermit Thrush)

Early in the morning this exquisite song can already be heard in spruce woods and sphagnum bogs, often in harmony with the tinkling, silver-threaded song of the Winter Wren.

(Recording of a Winter Wren)

Both of these matchless singers are rather drab in plumage, and neither of them sings much if at all on migration—their songs are two of the many rewards we have for living in the Northland, but a reward we can claim only if we go out at dawn.

Sometimes when I hear one of these singers I stop, transfixed by the sheer beauty of creation. But sometimes my ornithological instincts just won’t allow me to listen without searching out the singer. It’s a little tricky to track down a Hermit Thrush—he sings well within the woods, and often holds still for many minutes at a time, appearing more like a dead branch than a feathered angel. But the thrushes I have found aren’t particularly shy—after I finally locate them, they often allow me to watch for many long minutes as they sing again and again.

Singing Winter Wrens, on the other hand, are extraordinarily difficult to locate. In all my years of birding, I’ve only managed to catch them in the act three times. The first time was the best—I was scanning the tree tops with my naked eye when I suddenly caught a glimpse of a tiny bright red berry near the tip of a tall, thin spruce. I pulled up my binoculars to see what kind of fruit could possibly grow on a spruce when I realized that it wasn’t a berry at all—it was the open mouth of a singing Winter Wren. This tiny singer—only 4 inches from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail, sings one of the longest of all bird songs, with 108-113 separate notes, and it’s whole body seems to vibrate with the effort. When my mind’s eye riffles through its files of most memorable moments, that first discovery of a singing Winter Wren is always on top.

Being out early in the morning, watching the sky transformed from gray to pink to soft blue, there’s a feeling of oneness with the woods that vanishes with the brightness of day, the rumble of cars, and the rustle of hikers. Animals are less wary by the dawn’s early light—early in the morning I’ve approached deer, fox, and even coyotes that would have vanished long before I even noticed them in daylight. The first time a Golden-crowned Kinglet alighted on my finger was at dawn. It’s the witching hour—and it’s ours for the keeping, if only we drag our weary bones out of bed early enough to enjoy it before work or family demands take over. The dawn is a gift from on high, but its only ours if we accept it.

(Recording of a Hermit Thrush)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”