Have you ever been walking in a forest near Nanaimo when, out of the corner of your eye, you see an orange-black blur dart through the trees? If so, you may have spotted quite an elusive bird. The Varied Thrush, or Ixoreus Naevius, comes out of hiding on Vancouver Island in October.
The males are well-known for their distinctively coloured plumage. The bird itself has a black or blue-black body with bright burnt orange colours on their belly, above their eyes, below their beak, and in stripes along their wings. These black and orange colours help to give them their very fitting nickname—the “Halloween Bird”.
Varied Thrush have been referred to as “winter robins” due to their similar size. However, the Varied Thrush are much more shy than a common American Robin is. They tend to fly short distances, often hiding in tree brush. These birds are all over the Pacific Northwest, preferring to live deep among the mature forests where it is dark and damp, making them very difficult to spot. However, a place that I have seen Varied Thrush at before is Buttertubs Marsh in Nanaimo.
If you go for a walk around Buttertubs trying to spot one, be sure to look down among the fallen leaves on the ground. They are most active there, feeding on insects, earthworms, seeds, and fallen fruit. Their nests, usually composed of moss, twigs, and grass, also tend to sit on the lower branches near the trunks of trees. Have your eyes ready, they are quite skittish once they feel they have been detected. If you are hoping to snap a picture of these boldly coloured birds, be sure to have plenty of patience as they don’t make for the best models, often keeping their backs to you.
“Halloween Birds” are thus named not only for their appearance, but also their mating call come the springtime. The Varied Thrush sings the spookiest songs early in the morning twilight. If you don’t manage to spot one in the autumn or are perhaps missing the Halloween spirit come springtime, head over to Buttertubs Marsh one morning and open your ears to their eerie whistling mating song. It often comes in seemingly random notes, reminiscent of the sound of a gust of wind playing the harmonica. The most uncanny thing is hearing their songs deep within the woods of the island, so if you want an extra ghostly experience, head far into the trees with a friend come the spring.
Until then, they will continue sounding their little chirps. But despite the lack of song now, their black and orange colours and elusive nature make them the spookiest birds of all.