I love a patch of woods with a thick dogwood understory, especially in the fall. Dogwood fruits are an important food for migrating birds, especially fruit-loving migrants such as thrushes and tanagers. The red color acts like a magnet in the low-light woods that thrushes seek out.
Though thrushes are not especially small birds, they can be tough to see. A flushed thrush will often sit still after lighting on a branch instead of flitting nervously like a warbler. Unless you can keep your eyes on the flying bird as it perches, the next time you see it may be when it flies again, often away for good. Couple this with the habitat of shadowy woods and you can be presented with a significant birding challenge. But add a nice stand of dogwoods, and you might be able to leisurely observe the five species of spotted thrushes as they gorge uninhibited in the low trees.
I visited such a woodland at Idlewild Road Park last week. I discovered this thrush hotspot years ago and have found the time to visit each October in search of migrants. The area around the picnic shelter is best. As I walked the path I soon spied some dogwood fruits a few feet in front of me. As I looked up my eye caught a movement that turned into a nice gray-cheeked thrush. Another thing about thrushes is that sometimes even with a decent and cooperative look, identification can be a challenge. Just a little shifting on my part clinched the ID though.
Another movement off to my left caught my attention but I couldn’t find the bird. Wait a few seconds … there it moved again. Wood thrush. Wait, two wood thrushes.
It was late afternoon and as it got darker the birds started to give their calls, each distinctive and identifiable as to species. I think they may have been quarreling over who had what claim to which dogwood tree. Up to five more wood thrushes gave guttural chuckles. Another gray-cheeked thrush gave a sharp “churk.” Several Swainson’s thrushes joined in with higher pitched “peeks.” An American robin, another thrush, even joined in.
I missed out on two more spotted thrush species. The veeries may have already passed through while the hermit thrushes may not have arrived quite yet. Still, a very enjoyable bit of birding on a late afternoon fall day.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.