Our less known feathered neighbors


Editor's note: George is taking a week off. This was originally published  June 9, 2022 under the headline, "Three lesser-known bird species that are among the most interesting."

The Swainson’s Thrush is a migratory species that winters from southern Mexico south into South America. They typically return and begin to sing the first week of June. This song is one of my favorites and brings to mind warm summer evenings. The male’s song is sung primarily in the early morning and late evening. It is a series of ascending fluted notes that seem to ascend in a spiral. Just listen to his song on the Merlin app or at and see if you don’t agree.

Swainson's Thrush
Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrushes are smaller than robins but similar in shape, and much less obvious. Their head, back and wings are light brown and they have spots on their buffy breast; both sexes look alike. They are active on or near the ground, scratching up food. They are fairly common in a wide variety of habitats but because they like to stay hidden in the bushes, they are rarely seen. They do have a locator call note, “whit,” that is often heard.

You know they are around because of that evening song. And you may not have to be near some wild area to hear it. Swainson’s Thrushes live right in our cities if there is a reasonably sized clump of good habitat nearby.

Black-headed Grosbeak - male
Black-headed Grosbeak - male

Black-headed Grosbeaks

A second migratory bird, now fairly common and aggressively singing, is the Black-headed Grosbeak. It winters throughout Mexico. Just by its name you know it has a large beak suited to seed-eating. It’s related to other seed-eating finches and sparrows, but it’s larger than most other finches. Its black head, wings and tail contrast with its orange breast and sides, and there are obvious white marks on its wings. The female is a streaky brown, like many sparrows and finches, but is larger. (Incidentally, the female grosbeak also sings).

Black-headed Grosbeaks are well-known for their song, which they seem willing to sing off and on all day. To my ear, it sounds something like a robin’s song, but yet different and distinct when you hear both at about the same time and location. Again, the Merlin app or can assist you in preparing a quest to seek out this bird.

You can find these Grosbeaks in the edges of deciduous forests. The male will sing out in the open – he’s not shy; the female is more retiring.

This is a male Western Tanager.
This is a male Western Tanager.

Western Tanager

There’s a third bird singing now that is also common but seldom seen – the Western Tanager. This species is our only representative from a large songbird family found mostly in the tropics. They are smallish, brightly colored, and feed on insects and fruit. The Western Tanager migrates to our area from southern Mexico and Central America, arriving in mid-May. They are found up in firs and other conifer trees, where they both nest and feed, but might be seen elsewhere.

One of those other places is near water. Tanagers need a drink of water every day and therefore might be spotted away from their arboreal habitat, at bird baths or mud puddles.

The male tanager has an orange-red head and yellow body and contrasting black back, wings and tail. He’s really a stunning bird. The female’s yellow body is duller, and her head is not reddish. Both sexes have yellow and white wing feathers that look like bars across their black wings. You are much more likely to hear their brief locater note than their song. It’s a distinct “pir-ditit,” with emphasis on the second syllable, and is called throughout the day. Once you learn it, you might be surprised to discover how often you hear it.

These three bird species may be lesser-known, but they are among the most interesting and impressive of our bird neighbors.

George Walter is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at

Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.


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