From Glacier National Park to Oregon’s coastal forests, one bird sings its way into our hearts all summer long. Wes and I wake to their spiraling aria at Rising Sun Campground on the east side of Glacier as wild rose hues mist the soaring peaks where adjectives like “majestic” are not enough.
If I were to conduct the crescendo of the Swainson’s Thrush, I’d raise both arms slowly from my side, with hands outstretched, rotating my wrists with as much elegance and grace as I could muster, until my arms stretch high over my head with fingertips cast wide to the universe.
“A fluting, smooth, rolling po rer reer reer re-e-e-e-e-e….rising” are the mnemonics in my Sibley field guide. I try singing them and alas, like the peaks of Glacier, all descriptors fall short. It’s better to tune into a recording that can hint at the live performance.
Within the Sitka spruce forests crowning the Pacific cliffs, the Swainson’s Thrush song is the cresting wave. The last lingering note drifts away like parting fog.
By the upper Imnaha River of northeast Oregon, where the Belted Kingfisher’s concatenation of notes celebrates the whitewater rush, the melody climbs the mightiest of ponderosa pines that exhale the scent of heated vanilla and rum.
If the Swainson’s thrush song had a fragrance, its perfume would waft all the tender yearning of its surroundings. On the Oregon coastal trail in the green light of ferns and salal, of moss and lichen-cloaked spruce trunks, its chorus is the spicy resin of spruce laced with the salt of the sea.
Here in Glacier in late July is the time of ripe berries—of thimbleberry, huckleberry , and Saskatoon, and yes the perfume is most like the burst of tangy thimbleberry melting on your tongue in fine complexity of juicy ecstasy. And if I could taste the song? It’s a fine Irish whiskey. Within each note is the honey of wild bees, the wood smoke from our campfire, the sparks of larch flame arrowing up into the starry night, the sunrise of huckleberries, and the candelabra of beargrass bloom.
Of all the melodious songbirds of spring and summer–the warblers, vireos, finches, sparrows and tanagers–the Swainson’s Thrush accompanies our journeys even in the heat of the day. When other birds still their songs to feed hungry nestlings, the thrush cannot keep from singing, beyond all practical explanation of courtship and territory defense.
And why not? Like the Wood, Hermit, and Varied Thrush, this is the bird that can sing a chorded note. The secret lies in the syrinx, a sort of double voice box unique to birds and supremely developed in thrushes. Rather than a box, the syrinx is composed of two pipes. Thrushes can sing from each half of its syrinx singly or simultaneously. The result is nature’s finest harmony.
The song that sweeps me up on feathery wings ought to stem from a bird of sumptuous colors and radiant dazzle. Instead, all thrush singers are similarly muted with variations of earthy tans, grays, or slightly russet backs and speckled breasts. American Robins are thrushes, too, and all share the same upright pose, and longish legs and tails.
The Swainson’s Thrush is three inches smaller than a robin, and often blends into the forest. Sometimes I can glimpse the white “spectacles” around its liquid black eyes gazing at the world sideways. If fortunate, I can watch the head tip backward a bit, and the slender bill open wide and then listen to the spire of notes. No matter where I am this summer, it is the thrush that braids my day in love and gratitude.