There are certain things that that make up north feel like Up North to me: the call of a loon, birch trees, little kettle lakes tucked back in the woods, and the lonely, ethereal call of the hermit thrush. These ground foragers only breed in the far north and at higher elevations (and for some reason, a couple of small areas in Ohio). They arrive in the Northland earlier than a lot of the spring migrators, usually around mid-April. Since I moved to the Ashland area I've found them to be kind of scarce around the lakeshore. There are more of them in the higher elevations on the Bayfield Peninsula including Mt. Ashwabay, and the best location I've found to observe them is Copper Falls State Park.

Copper Falls is now open for most activities including camping, and it has a variety of habitats for birds and other critters. I usually see and hear hermit thrushes in the coniferous forest along the Doughboys Trail, the popular scenic trail and boardwalk along the waterfalls of the Bad and Tyler Forks rivers. During the spring and early summer breeding season it can be difficult to hear them over the full waterfalls, but you might see them on the ground or hopping from tree to tree trying to lead you away from a nearby nest. I've also heard hermit thrushes in the campgrounds, although they tend to be crowded out by their gregarious relative, the veery (on a side note, the south camping area is a good place for veery fans). And in the fall they will follow you along the trail as they group up ahead of their migration. The Doughboys Trail can get quite crowded, so I suggest going early in the day so you're not sharing staircases and bridges with packs of other hikers. Plus, this is a better time of day than midday to hear not only hermit thrushes but a lot of other bird species.

All the members of the thrush family have distinctive fluting calls, and I think the hermit thrush has the most ethereal and lonesome-sounding of the bunch. They sing a two-phrase song with the second phrase being a quieter echo. Their song is softer than the clear, minor-key song of the wood thrushes that can occasionally be heard this far north. Hermit thrushes also have a wheezy one-note call that's often the first sound they make as they arrive in the spring. They're slightly smaller than a robin (who they're also related to), and have less reddish coloring than the other thrushes who breed in the area. They have the spotted neck and underside typical of thrushes and can usually be seen on or close to the ground, flicking their tails and rummaging in the leaves while shaking their feet. Around here they tend to nest on the ground as well. They're a great species for hikers, hunters and foresters to observe because they like to hang out around forest openings like trails, pond edges and fallen trees. Fishing on small inland lakes in the evening is also a great way to hear them. During summer they eat insects and occasionally small reptiles and amphibians. They're the only species of thrush that overwinters in the U.S. and folks in southern states may see them around fruit trees or wild berries. They don't generally come to bird feeders so you'll need to venture out into a wooded area to see and hear them.

Hermit thrushes have done well compared to some other songbird species over the past 50 years and their populations are pretty stable. They migrate at night and are vulnerable to skyscrapers and towers, and they've been affected by abrupt global decline in insect population in recent years. While they migrate out fairly late in the fall, they stop singing by August. So if you want to hear their haunting woodwind song, make sure to spend some time in the woods before then. Go ahead, you've been cooped up long enough.

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