Tales of the wood thrush and spicebush

Published 3:10 pm Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Are the wood thrushes back yet?” This hopeful inquiry was posed by an Arboretum visitor in early April. Their next breath described the incredible experience it is to hear the beautiful song this bird is known for. Being unacquainted with the bird at the time, I couldn’t offer an update. Little did I know that only a few weeks later, I would be singing an entirely different tune!

Because our Visitor Center is nestled in the forest, we’re immersed in the activities of wildlife, especially birds. Our adjacent woods abounds with chirpings and stirrings, especially when a fresh meal of black sunflower seed appears on the deck railing. Rabbits and squirrels, chickadees, cardinals, doves, and woodpeckers are commonly seen. We’ve become used to this hubbub and consider it our steady “background noise”. 

But everything shifted one late April day when I was rousted from my computer reverie by one of the loudest bird calls I’ve ever heard in my life: “O-lay-o-lee!” On and on it went. It sounded like this bird had swiped a set of stereo speakers and had turned the volume up to ten. Round and round the building it traveled, until, there it was – sitting on the feeder post right outside my window perched a large brown bird with a white underside. As I watched, he opened his mouth, and out again came that sweet trill.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Like the Pied Piper, this bird held me mesmerized. Somehow, I mustered the strength to grab the camera and snap some pictures before he disappeared. He looked familiar. Retrieving my bird guide and flipping the pages, my premonition proved true. I had just seen – and heard – a wood thrush.

Over the next few weeks I was treated to an occasional serenade from the forest surrounding our building, but never again as close. Searching the Internet, I found websites such as www.birdjam.com and www.wildmusic.org, where I could listen again to the call. Now, I’ve joined those who will be waiting for the spring call of this bird.

This week I unearthed a children’s book I’d purchased years ago and never read, drawn to the illustrations and the fact that the story was about a migrating bird. Can you guess the title? “Flute’s Journey: The life of a wood thrush”, written and illustrated by Lynne Cherry. Tucking myself into bed with the book, I read about the life of Flute, who had emerged from a turquoise egg in a dogwood tree in a Maryland forest. The story was set in a real place called the Belt Woods, an old-growth forest much loved by Seton Belt, whose family had owned the property since colonial times. A 515 acre portion of the woods is now preserved, and provides breeding habitat for wood thrushes and other species.

The book follows Flute as he prepares for fall migration, feeding on insects, snails, and slugs while traveling from Maryland to the coast of Texas. Here, he gorges on lipid-rich spicebush fruits that will provide energy for his twenty hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Later, after a rest on the Yucatan Peninsula, Flute continues south through the Central American forests until reaching the Monteverde rain forest in Costa Rica where he overwinters with colorful tropical birds that live there year-round. Flute’s tropical vacation lasts from October to March, and then he returns again to the Belt Woods to begin his own family.

The forest where Flute overwintered is also a real place in Costa Rica known as the Bosque Eterno de los Niños (the Eternal Forest of the Children). This forest began in 1987 with an idea from a 9 year old child named Roland Teinsuu, a student at a small primary school in rural Sweden. Roland’s class was studying tropical rain forests and the effect that their fragmentation and loss were having on reducing habitat for migratory birds. The children wondered what they might do to help. It just so happened that a tropical biologist was in the right place at the right time in Sweden. Roland and his class contacted this biologist, who helped to arrange a way that the students could make a difference by purchasing forest land to preserve it from development. The children raised $1,500 and bought 100 acres. Today, many people travel to Costa Rica just to visit this incredible forest that has grown to 54,000 acres, due to the fundraising efforts of children throughout the world.

Wood thrushes spend time in fall gorging on berries and fruits along the Gulf Coast of the United States, in order to prepare for fueling their journey across the Gulf of Mexico. One of the native plants they prefer is spicebush. Steep Hollow, one of the Crosby Arboretum natural areas located in eastern Pearl River County, is home to the rare bog spicebush (Lindera subcoriacea). Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is the common variety. When the leaves of this native plant are crushed, they yield a lemony scent. Spicebush is also a larval host for the Eastern swallowtail and spicebush swallowtail butterflies, and thrives in moist, shady, areas and well-drained soils. A bit more sun results in heavier fruit production. If you include these plants in your schoolyard or wildlife garden, a wood thrush might just pay you a visit.

Come walk our paths and see how many birds you can spot! The Crosby Arboretum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and is located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, on Ridge Road (between Wal-Mart and I-59.) For information, call the Arboretum office at (601) 799-2311, or visit www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu for directions and site information.

For further exploration:

1) Search the Internet to read more about the many species of plants and animals found in the Eternal Forest of the Children in Costa Rica. Do you know a teacher who may be interested in organizing a fundraising project for students to purchase an acre of forest land?

2) Teachers can search the Web for a lesson plan called “Journey of a Wood Thrush” (Grades 4 through 6, adaptable for Grades 2 and 3) from the David Marr Wells Village School in Vermont that presents the relationship between two ecosystems, uses maps as tools for measuring distances, and more.