Posted by: atowhee | June 30, 2020


On our Malheur Field Station birding trip in mid-June we glimpsed brief flashes of flying Sage Thrasher, time and again.   Not one would post or pose when a camera was around.  Only a couple times we heard one sing, far away in the sagebrush, unseen. The final day on our way west, Albert Ryckman and I pulled into Chickahominy.  There on the entrance sign was our singing Sage Thrasher. He sang from the right end of the sign, then moved down and sang from the left end.  In the passenger side nearest the sign I shot some images without moving toward the open window.  The songster was fifteen feet away.  He flew off to the fence, came back, turned his back and continued to sing.   By now Albert was out of the car, getting good shots…of back and shoulder and nape of neck.  The loud, complex melodies poured forth. Please, Albert, pleaded look at me, give me your best angle. The thrasher sang on, thrashing through his repertoire, trashing Albert’s hopes of a frontal shot.

Albert said he suspected the bird was being  by the song, a rep of the Harney Chamber of Commerce.  He was still singing as an exasperated, musically battered Albert got back in the car and we went off to consort with more compliant Horned Larks and phalarope.  Sitting in the window seat, getting a free ride, I kept my smugness to myself.  Patience is a crucial virtue in nature photography, but luck often brings an unearned dividend.

Dr. Donald Kroodsma is a master student of avian song.  His books thereon are rightfully respected as classic though no one work could ever be definitive, because song birds keep inventing.  Kroodsma did grad work at Oregon State. He heard his first Sage Thrasher at Cabin Lake, Oregon, in 1969.  Yet it was over thirty years later that he finally got to record a singing male:
He swoops into the sage next to me and then out again, bounding from sage to sky as he circles his territory, constantly singing.  Constantly, as in never ceasing…he continues that way for the hour and a half that I chose to strand and absorb it all.

What I hear is hard to believe…I listen to the tape again in the afternoon, dumbfounded at all this bird can do [remember Kroodsma now has three decades of bird song study in his past]… Ninety minutes isn’t enough, so back I go the next morning, now awakened at 2:30 A.M…. Entranced for two full  hours, I track him from sage to sage as he works his territory… That afternoon I listen to the morning’s tapes for two full hours, immersing myself in his revelry… [Next day Kroodsma does four hours, obsesssion is a requirement for this kind of field work, and tracks the many imitations, from Sora to nighthawk to meadowlark]

Kroodsma finally concludes that this thrasher has over 700 distinct song units that he can string together in myriad chains of music. Quotes are from his book, The Singing Life of Birds.



  1. Reblogged this on Wolf's Birding and Bonsai Blog.

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