Varied Thrush Enduring Ontario’s Cold Winter

Bob and I had been seeing reports of a Varied Thrush sighted in Central Ontario in early December 2019.  A denizen of forests in the Pacific Northwest of Canada and continental U.S.A., the visitor was far from home and seemed to be enduring Ontario’s cold winter quite well.

We eagerly waited for an opportunity to go twitching.  Taking a gamble in early January, we made the 2-hour drive to Irondale in Haliburton County.  We hoped that the Varied Thrush was still present on the grounds of the Bark Lake Conference Centre.

Winter was just getting a firm grip on Ontario, and there was ample snow covering Bark Lake Road and the surrounding forests and lakes.

Once on Bark Lake Road, we made a couple of stops to admire the scenery and look for tracks in the pristine layer of snow on the lakes and swamps.

Never having been to the Bark Lake Conference Centre before, and having driven quite a distance off the main highway to find it, we were glad of a prominent sign advertising that we had arrived.

A handful of people were already on location seeking a look at the wayward Varied Thrush.  It delighted everyone when Conference Centre staff showed up for the sole purpose of restocking the bird feeders despite the weekend closure of the establishment.

Within minutes of our arrival, the Varied Thrush made an appearance.  It was eager to glean seeds that had spilled from the feeders.

Varied Thrushes are short-distance migrants.  Coastal populations often winter where they breed, while more northern populations travel south within the species’ breeding range often passing over the coastal populations.

It is fairly common each fall and winter for a few Varied Thrushes to stray as far east as the New England States or regions in between.  Hence our rare and welcome visitor in Ontario.

A Varied Thrush is similar in size to an American Robin but tends to be slighter in build.

Varied Thrushes, in their normal range, inhabit forests of towering conifers, so this individual was quite at home in the shadows of a White Pine Tree outside the Bark Lake Conference Centre.

During summer months, Varied Thrushes eat insects, while in winter months, they switch to consuming seeds and berries.  The well-stocked bird feeders were meeting all of this Thrush’s needs.

Known to defend feeding territories in their natural habitat, this male Varied Thrush  had to compete with about a dozen Blue Jays.  We observed it giving chase on several occasions.

Never ones to pass up photographing a nicely-perched bird, Bob and I turned our cameras onto one of the Blue Jays when the Varied Thrush would disappear for long interludes.

Normally a shy bird, the rigours of winter between frigid temperatures and short daylight hours had the Varied Thrush making frequent visits to the area of the feeding station.

You will see in the video that the Varied Thrush holds one foot up alternately with the other in order to warm them in its feathers.  I’m sure the cold snow was making it quite uncomfortable for the bird.

As the shadows grew longer, the afternoon grew colder.  The Varied Thrush needed lots of food in order to maintain its body temperature.

Varied Thrushes are considered fairly common in their own breeding range, but for birders in central Ontario, it was a rare treat to have the opportunity to see one.

Bob and I made the round trip to Bark Lake all in the same day, so we were relieved to find the Varied Thrush still at the location.  We could think of no better way to spend a cold, sunny winter’s day.  It was worth driving 4 hours, and we actually got to see the Thrush in reasonably good light.

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