Magic Mountain Thrush

In June of 2011 I visited the Uncompahgre Mountains of western Colorado to record nature soundscapes. On my last day there, I stopped my car in a dense forested area at around 10,000 feet elevation, where there was still a considerable amount of snow on the ground. That’s when I heard him, way off in the distance, a lone Hermit Thrush singing. This was not unusual by any means, but his song was different from any others I have ever heard:

Hermit Thrush song. Uncompahgre Plateau near Montrose, CO. June 15, 2011. Lang Elliott.

I headed in his direction, scurrying up a steep hill with all my gear, trying not to break through the crusty snow. Luckily, he kept singing and even though I was tired and exhausted, I finally got close enough to capture a good recording. The thrush was low in a spruce tree. I couldn’t see him, but his reverberant song rang clear against a backdrop of subtle meltwater trickle. I could hear a robin singing in the distance. “Nice,” I remember thinking,”very, very nice.”

photo of mountain forest with snowIt took me awhile to realize what was uniquely different about his singing. Like all Hermit Thrushes, each song begins with a clear whistle and ends with a jumble of flutey notes. But almost always, there is a lot of variability in pitch between songs. Low introductory notes may be followed by higher jumbles, high introductory notes by lower jumbles, with obvious and sometimes fairly radical pitch changes between songs (see example of normal singing below). But this bird started each and every song with a high-pitched note that was ALWAYS followed by a lower jumble. In fact, most of the flutey jumbles were quite low and rather delicate and simple in structure, at least according to normal Hermit Thrush standards.

Upon later analysis, I verified that every song followed this pattern, with an introductory whistle at around 3500 Hz followed by a low jumble that was usually centered at around 2000 Hz. This was no typical Hermit Thrush, and the effect of his performance, given in the cool, snow-covered mountain forest, was magical indeed.

Below is an example of another Hermit Thrush from the Uncompahgre Plateau, recorded within two miles of the male featured above. Notice the large pitch changes between subsequent songs and the robust flutey jumbles. This male is singing as Hermit males typically do. Quite a difference in singing pattern from the Magic Mountain Thrush, wouldn’t you agree?:

Hermit Thrush song. Uncompahgre Mountains near Montrose, CO. June 15, 2011. Lang Elliott.

Comments

  1. Ohhhhhh !
    I am 61 , and since I heard my first hermit thrush, 30 years ago, it still is THE song.
    I heard it 2 or 3 times in the wood, in my whole life.
    Today, thousand thanks to you, I am able to listen it on your site, my tears are simply pouring out.
    You know, the effect that bird’s song have on souls, . Mr Lang, thank you.
    The Paradise.

  2. That’s the most unusual Hermit Thrush I’ve even heard Lang. If I would’ve heard that I would’ve assumed it was something else.

  3. hi lang, he sounds like a veery to me. I know he’s a hermit thrush but he sounds like a veery in his song patterns.

  4. Wow, Lang, that is one special thrush! I probably wouldn’t have even guessed it was a hermit if I would have heard it myself, probably thinking it was some other sort of thrush that I had never heard before. It certainly is interesting, as Wil pointed out, to think about why these rebels develop the song types that are so different from others in their species. I, however, love to listen to these “rebels” and I sure do appreciate when you post recordings such as this that portray the miracles of nature so finely.

    • The interesting thing to me is that I find the songs musically-intriguing. I like the way they sound, in particular the reverberant jumbles, where the individual notes making them up are somewhat ill-defined. Maybe it’s the echoey quality of the jumbles that delight my ear.

      Wil, your use of the term “malnourished” is interesting … but do you feel the song itself sounds malnourished? While it is certainly “incorrect” in terms of the norm, it is captivating to me. Maybe even “brilliant”, at least to my ear. So my question is: Is this individual a complete misfit, a clear case of “something gone wrong”? Or is this a rare genius of minimalist leanings, pushing the edge and challenging the norm?

  5. What an unusual song. I wonder what happened during his learning experience that caused such a radical song to develop. Perhaps he was malnourished at a young age and that affected his ability to learn, memorize, or produce the “correct” form of the hermit thrush song. Certain a great recording of a very rare performance.

  6. That is one strange Hermit Thrush song. I’ve only heard them in the east (Vermont, NH, MA) but their songs were always the typical songs, like your second recording, not like this. Almost sounds like a broken record!

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