A Thicket

And a Continent of Birds

Story and Photos by Shane Sater

Unless you know better, the thicket between the Boundary County road and the Kootenai River seems unremarkable. Most people hurry past, ignoring it completely. As a kid, that was how I saw it, too: a green blur as I drove by with my dad to look for moose on the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge. But things are different now. As an adult and a field biologist, I can recognize the patterns. The green blur has come into focus.

A narrow strip between sun-baked grain fields and the slow-moving river, it’s blessed with an abundance of sun and water, and it’s chock-full of native plants: a wild garden of fruiting shrubs. Here in early September, fall songbird migration is in full swing. The thicket is loaded with fruits and the bushes burst with birds whose lives span the North American continent. Let’s take a look.

Up close, the thicket shouts the abundance of the harvest season in the languages of a dozen fruits and seeds. Wood’s roses hold starbursts of firm scarlet hips, and elderberries droop with the weight of chalk-blue berries. Clematis vines clamber over everything, reaching enthusiastically above my head and cascading downwards with feathery seedheads. Below, the knee-high snowberries glow with luminous white fruits.

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Cedar waxwing with a chokecherry.
Double-crested cormorant.
Gray catbird.
House finch with blue elderberry.
Kootenai River flanked by clematis and chokecherries.
Song sparrow amid wild lettuce.
The thicket.
Western tanager and hawthorn.
White-crowned sparrow in blue elderberry.
Woods rose.


The birds are everywhere. I come to a section where the chokecherries are tall and heavily laden, flanked by a row of leafy green cottonwoods. Robins, starlings, and cedar waxwings are chatter, squeak, and lisp from the treetops, and fly down for more fruits. A juvenile waxwing, whose streaky gray breast identifies it as a youngster, holds a juicy purple chokecherry in its beak, watching me. An instant later, the chokecherry is gone—and so is the waxwing, fluttering away in search of another glistening cluster.

The chokecherries aren’t the only fruits that attract birds. Four western tanagers, dressed in subtle fall yellows and browns, gorge on the hawthorns. A few house finches pause in an elderberry to snatch juicy beakfuls. And though the fruit-eaters are impossible to miss, they’re just the beginning.

A few yellow-rumped warblers call sharply as they dart out from the upper branches of the chokecherries, pursuing invisible insects. A flock of black-capped chickadees moves through, probing the leaves with razor-sharp eyes in search of caterpillars or other juicy morsels. As I walk, I listen for the mewing of the gray catbirds and the emphatic complaints of the common yellowthroats, tallying them.

By the end of my walk, I’ve counted at least twenty-three catbirds and thirty-two yellowthroats flitting through the undergrowth. And then there are the sparrows, dozens upon dozens of them: Lincoln’s sparrows dressed in fine walnut streaks; the larger and thicker-streaked song sparrows; the first-year white-crowned sparrows with their yellow beaks and chestnut caps. In short, the thicket is bursting at the seams with migratory birds.

Fall songbird migration is complex. In an optimal thicket like this, it changes from day to day and even hour to hour as irregular waves of migrants stop over, feed, and move on. Today’s thicket birds are like travelers in a busy airport terminal, an unpredictable conjunction of strangers rubbing shoulders. All have their own stories to tell, if only we could discern them. The white-crowned sparrows carry whistled memories of haunting summer songs among the spruces and firs of the boreal forest. If they make it through fall migration, some will spend the winter as far south as Mexico City, in a place wildly different from this conifer forest.

The common yellowthroats passed the summer singing among wetlands of cattail and bulrush, where muskrats swam and dragonflies whirred. The western tanagers carry the memories of their husky songs among the ponderosa pines and Douglas firs of these Rocky Mountains. Some of the tanagers may continue as far as Costa Rica and some of the yellowthroats to Panama. Today, all these birds find themselves united here for an instant, in a fall abundance of riverside shrubs and fruits.

Another vehicle flies past on the county road and recedes into the distance, headed towards the wildlife refuge. The thicket remains mostly ignored, a green blur on the sidelines, waiting for us to notice it. I think that’s why it fascinates me so much.

There’s no interpretive sign to tell the story of the birds that stop here. The thicket hides in plain sight, unprotected and unrecognized. It’s a silent invitation to see nature wherever we are: along the road, in neighborhoods, outside of wildlife refuges and protected areas. To me, that’s worth slowing down for a closer look.

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Shane Sater

About Shane Sater

Shane Sater is a naturalist and writer who has spent the last decade learning about the birds, plants, and insects of the northwestern United States. His writing blends science and art in celebration of the natural world around us. Find more of his work at https://wildwithnature.com

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