Nature Watch: Dawn Chorus

Author: Jessica | 04/18/22

About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.


It begins before first light with the arias of American Robins. Soon the buzzy trills of juncos and towhees mingle with songs of sparrows and warblers. Now the dawn chorus is in full voice. Up to 20 species can be heard vocalizing in our local forests.

Each male songbird is proclaiming a breeding territory and announcing his suitability as a mate. In a handful of species, such as Purple Finch, the female sings as well.

Songs may be as simple as the three-note whistles of the Olive-sided Flycatcher or as complex as the pattern of notes performed by the Pacific Wren. Some species even sing while in flight. Common Yellowthroat, a small bird of cattail marshes, is an example of a species with a flight song.

Plants rely on a palette of colors to attract the attention of pollinators. Oregon grape and western buttercup show yellow, while big, bright clusters of Pacific rhododendron and solitary blossoms of Nootka rose are pink. Forest floors are carpeted with the tiny white blooms of Siberian candy flower.

Red Elderberry by Snohomish Conservation District.

Flora: Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa

This leggy shrub sometimes becomes a small tree, growing to a height of 18 feet. Elderberry leaves are divided into lance-shaped leaflets reaching six inches. Clusters of small white to creamy flowers become tiny red berries.

Red elderberry is a host plant for echo blue butterflies. A wide variety of bird species eat the berries, including Band-tailed Pigeons, American Robins and Purple Finch. As the leaves turn yellow and begin to fall, deer eat them as a supplement to their autumnal diet.

Look for red elderberry in open forests, clearings and along road shoulders.

Swainson’s Thrust by Andrew Redding.

Fauna: Swainson’s Thrush, Catharus ustulatus

The most glorious voice in the dawn chorus belongs to the Swainson’s Thrush. Measuring seven inches long, these birds have a reddish-brown back and tail. The breast has brown spots; the eyes are circled with a pale buffy ring.

Swainson’s Thrush have a sharp, whistled “whit” call. They’re best known, however, for their haunting, flute-like song that spirals upward. Dusk and dawn are favored times for singing. As with their American Robin cousins, large eyes allow them to be active in poor lighting conditions.

These amazing singers winter from central Mexico to South America. They can be heard vocalizing from dense cover in mixed and conifer woods. Sometimes known as “salmonberry birds” for their fondness for those fruits, they also seek out red elderberries.

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