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Blane Klemek column: Spring bird songs delight avid listener

I have a confession to make. I think I'm guilty of expressing affections for a certain species of bird, or groups of birds, on a frequent basis, evidently forgetting devotions already spoken for, only to make similar comments regarding another species a week or two later.

Truth be known, I find all birds fascinating; each of them unique in its own right, each possessing characteristics that I'm drawn to regardless of the species. Indeed, it's precisely because of those differences that undoubtedly contribute to such consternation.

Such is life.

But . . . there really is an avian assembly of woodland wonders that I find especially appealing. With us only part of the year, arriving in the Northland by late April and early May and departing in late summer and early fall, this week's favorite forest friends are a handful of thrushes and one particular warbler.

I honestly look forward to observing each of these species every spring and summer. Most of all, it's their voices that captivate me. And how could they not? The songs and calls of these woodland thrushes and warbler, not to mention the nest-type of the latter, put these exceptional birds in a class by themselves.

When we talk about thrushes, most are large-bodied, robin-like birds that range throughout North and Central America. Here in northern Minnesota, seven thrushes can be found: American robin, eastern bluebird, veery, wood thrush, Swainson's thrush, gray-cheeked thrush and hermit thrush. (Every once in awhile an eighth, the varied thrush, makes surprising, though rare, brief appearances in our backyards).

Yet it's those with thrush as part of their namesake - the wood, Swainson's, gray-cheeked, hermit, in addition to the veery -that I most enjoy. For sure, their voices alone epitomize the deep dark forest as do the yodels of loons echoing from Border Country lakes. At least for yours truly, the flute-songs of these thrushes evoke a sense of wonderment that I can scarcely express.

While all thrushes have beautiful songs, three particular species come to mind -Swainson's thrush, hermit thrush and the veery. Each of these birds are common in Minnesota, and especially so throughout the forests and woodlands that I frequent in Bemidji and the surrounding area. More often heard than observed, the songs of these delightful species of thrushes are memorable and a joy to listen to.

To describe, however, their songs through the written word with the hope of conveying any semblance of meaning to a reader is, in my opinion, the ultimate test of a writer's true grit. In fact, most writers don't even try.

Still, it isn't too difficult to distinguish between the songs of at least the veery and other of its kin, like for example the veery song compared to the songs of thrushes Swainson's and hermit. It's easy to remember that all of them share the distinctive flute-like sound, but it's the veery's song that descends, or spirals downward if you will, while the Swainson's and hermit's ascend, or spiral upward.

Better yet, go to You Tube and type into its search window these species' names and you will find several very good videos of singing thrushes. I found a number of Lang Elliot and Beth Bannister videos that are excellent viewing. Watching and listening to these videos will provide your eyes and ears with the physical characteristics and treasured notes I write of, in addition to giving you up-close looks of these relatively secretive, hard-to-see birds. (While listening and watching, pay close attention to the background birds' calls and songs, too).

To physically describe the veery, for example, which remind me of ovenbirds when I see them, are less spotted on the belly than their relatives and perhaps the easiest thrush to visually identify. Hermit thrushes, on the other hand, are the only thrush with dull brown upper parts and a rusty tail. And the Swainson's thrush is distinguished between other thrushes by the prominent eye-ring and buffy face. But back to their voices, I think the hermit thrush has the most beautiful of all the thrush songs.

Lastly, another bird, a species of warbler, definitely belongs in the same conversation, and that's the ovenbird. Belonging to the large family of wood-warblers, ovenbirds get their unique name from the style of the nest they build. Lucky is the soul who happens upon the neatly domed nest constructed from plant stems and dead leaves of the ovenbird. Built on the ground and lined inside with hair, it has the look of a miniature Dutch oven, hence the name.

In the spring and summer when males arrive from their wintering grounds, their calls echo continuously throughout the forest, sometimes even at nighttime. Loud and distinct phrases of teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher resound everywhere in ascending crescendos as male birds call in near-unison with one another.

The olive-brown birds are, as I've mentioned, thrush-like in appearance. Both males and females resemble each other and are short-tailed with black streaks on white under parts. They also have especially noticeable white-eye rings below an orange crown bordered by dark crown stripes. Again, search You Tube for ovenbirds and you will see and hear what I mean.

However, capturing the true essence of these birds cannot be done with any justice from the comfort of a desk chair and computer monitor but, rather, from a short hike in your favorite woodland or state park on a winding trail.

The ovenbird is vocal all day long, but the thrushes are generally most musical in the early morning and late evening hours. Truly, these Minnesota wonders are worth our time to seek and learn about as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at