A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


The Hermit Thrush is more common than it seems, but because it sticks to heavily wooded areas and tends to skulk in dense, low vegetation, it's often missed. Present year-round, but scarce in the summer. Much more common in the winter months and during migration, although present mostly near the coast during migration. Known to nest in the county and believed to nest more commonly than breeding census data suggest simply because--true to its name--Hermit Thrush is secretive and nests are well hidden. According to the Breeding Bird Atlas, the subspecies that nests locally is C. guttatus sleveni, which heads south after breeding. These birds are then replaced by larger numbers from two subspecies that breed further north (C. guttatus nanus and C. guttatus guttatus) and seek warmer weather here for the winter. Occasionally Hermit Thrush may perch in trees, but it's usually seen low to the ground on logs or perched on low brush, or foraging bymhopping and scraping in leaf litter. When not foraging, has a habit of standing quite upright, often with its bill pointed a little upward, giving the bird an alert, somewhat wary look. On a perch, may be seen flicking its tail up and then letting it drop slowly. During the summer months in Sonoma County, the extremely similar-looking Swainson's Thrush is also present (although far more commonly heard than seen), when that bird migrates north from its wintering grounds in Central and South America.

Hermit Thrush is a mostly plain, reddish brown bird but distinctive for its white breast with large, widely spaced brown spots. Fine white eyering. Yellowish bill with black tip. The overall color is somewhat variable, with some subspecies warmer in tone, others more grey, but the tail and rump should be a markedly warmer red-brown than the rest of the bird--a feature lacking in Swainson's Thrush, which is more uniformly reddish brown. The two birds have subtly different facial patterns, although these may be hard to see in the field (field guide illustrations allow a leisurely comparison). Swainson's Thrush has a more pronounced eyering than Hermit Thrush and the eyering is more buff-colored. Swainson's Thrush is somewhat less distinctly spotted than Hermit Thrush and the upper breast and cheeks are washed with buff as well. Voice is often the most reliable way to separate the two birds. Hermit Thrush is noted for a pretty song with a flute-like quality. Both sing beautifully, but we most commonly hear the Hermit Thrush's chip note frequently described as sounding like a water droplet falling into still water. Compare the Cornell Lab recordings (links below), but the note in the Cornell Hermit Thrush recording sounds rather less liquid than the sound made by birds in Sonoma County (to my ears, anyway). Guidebooks often describe the sound as tchup! or chuck!

Hermit Thrush may also be confused with Fox Sparrow (Passerela iliaca), but that bird is stouter, darker, and has a heavy sparrow's bill, quite unlike the pointed bill of Hermit Thrush (or Swainson’s Thrush). 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 97

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 398

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 134

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 356

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 398

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 500-502

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 460

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 300

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 360

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 258

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 23, 97, 105, 121

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 227-228

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 58

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 246

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 290

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 276

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 349

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 560

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 328

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Hermit Thrush

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Swainson's Thrush



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Hermit Thrush, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, March 28, 2012

Hermit Thrush

Catharus guttatus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 15, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County