For the Birds Radio Program: Costa Rican Robin, the Clay-colored Thrush
I went to Costa Rica this spring, lighting out during an April Fool’s snowstorm on April first to drive down to Milwaukee to meet the birders I would be traveling with. As excited as I was about going, I felt a little sad the day I left because I hadn’t seen a robin in Duluth yet. Weeks before I’d seen and heard robins down in Milwaukee when I picked up my son from college for spring break, but there’s something necessary about hearing the first robin of spring in my own backyard. Rachel Carson wrote that “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” And there is something infinitely healing in waking up to the first robin song one lovely March or April morning after a long winter. I was sad knowing that this year I wouldn’t hear the first one.
Our flight out of Milwaukee was cancelled due to bad weather, and so American shipped my group down to O’Hare in a van and a limo that almost did fly, the two drivers literally racing each other on the Interstate and Tollway. Even though we were going between 80 and 90 miles per hour and despite the rain, red-winged blackbirds, kestrels, and other early spring birds were all over the place, along with robins.
Our flight out of O’Hare was delayed, and we barely arrived in Miami in time to make our flight, so I thought I was done thinking about robins for a couple of weeks. We arrived in Costa Rica after dark, filled with anticipation about the coming dawn and all the tropical birds it would reveal. The sounds of dozens of species of insects, frogs, and toads filled the tropical night with delight.
First thing in the morning, before there was even a gleam of light on the horizon, I woke up to the sound of a robin singing at full throttle! I was confused and disoriented, but yes, here I was, in Costa Rica, listening to a robin. Of course, this wasn’t an American Robin. Although shaped the same and sharing many of the same habits, this robin lacked the robin red breast that makes our northland robin, the state bird of Wisconsin, so distinct.
This Costa Rican robin was the color of dirt, and indeed is named the Clay-colored Robin. Costa Rica is the land of birds–there are over 800 species in a country smaller than West Virginia, including such spectacular birds as toucans, aracaris, trogons, dozens of hummingbirds, and the Resplendent Quetzal. But of all those 840 species, the one that was chosen to be the national bird of Costa Rica is the Clay-colored Robin. And waking up on my first day in Costa Rica to the sound of that familiar song, I could understand why. The beginning of April is the very beginning of the rainy season in Costa Rica, when the parched land on the Pacific side greens up again, and when birds throughout the country begin nesting. Clay-colored Robins quiet down during the dry season, but when the warm rains commence, so does their singing. And the Costa Rican people respond to that happy sound the way we northerners do to hearing our own robin-with lightness of heart and warm recollections of earlier springs.
I was to see over 400 species of birds, several snakes and lizards and frogs, and a host of other tropical wonders in the coming days. But waking to the simple, homey sweetness of a robin’s song was a lovely and reassuring way to begin my excellent adventure.