Birding on Bloedel: Drink your ‘teeeeeeeeea’ listening for the Towhee

“A Year of Birding in Bloedel” is a column that runs every Friday in the Bainbridge Islander. The project is planned to continue in 52 parts through 2014 to help readers find and identify birds in the island’s garden sanctuary.  Beginning with this entry on the bald eagle, each column will also be published here on the Bainbridge Conversation blog each Friday. 

The author, Ted Anderson, is a retired professor of biology, having taught at McKendree University (Ill.) for 32 years and for the University of Michigan’s summer biological station for 20 years, where he frequently taught the biology of birds.

Anderson is also the author of “Biology of the Ubiquitous House Sparrow, from Genes to Populations” (2006), and “The Life of David Lack, Father of Evolutionary Ecology” (2013). Ted and his wife Carol have been members of Bloedel Reserve for 7 years. They live in Kingston. 

Spotted Towhees almost exclusively forage on the ground.
Spotted Towhees almost exclusively forage on the ground.

It looks like a typical March week of persistent rain may keep many from visiting Bloedel for the next few days.

I will therefore focus this week on a year-round resident of Bloedel that is also a common yard bird in the Pacific Northwest, the Spotted Towhee.  The towhee is actually a sparrow, a large family of predominantly ground foraging, seed eating birds that also includes the juncos.  The name “towhee” actually comes from a cousin of the Spotted Towhee, the Eastern Towhee, that resides in eastern North America. That species has a unique alarm call that sounds as if  is coming out of a well that has been described as “towhee” or “chewink,” with the emphasis on the second syllable.

The Spotted Towhee, unlike most sparrows, has a strikingly beautiful plumage.  The head, chest, back and long tail of the male are black, the flanks are chestnut and the belly white.  There are white spots on the back, providing the basis for its name, and it has red eyes.  The head and chest of the female are deep brown instead of black.  On first sight some people confuse it with the American Robin, which is much larger, and it also resembles the male Dark-eyed Junco of the northwest, the “Oregon Junco.”

Spotted Towhees forage almost exclusively on the ground, vigorously scratching in the leaf litter in search of small insects, seeds and berries.  When I see that the mulch has been kicked out of one of our gardens onto the sidewalk, I know that a towhee has been foraging there recently.

The song of the Eastern Towhee is often described as “drink your teeeeeeeeeeeea,” the second note lower than the first and the trill that follows.  The song of the Spotted Towhee is similar, but lacks the “drink.”  Listen for the melodious trill as you walk along the forested paths in Bloedel.  When you hear a male singing, stop and search for this beautiful songster, which is usually perched at about eye level not far from the path.

About Ethan Fowler

Ethan Fowler has more than 20 years of journalism experience with 19 years of daily and weekly newspaper experience covering news, features and sports, as well as being an editor for 14 of those years. He has won several writing awards over the years in Washington state, Virginia, Texas and Georgia, including award-winning investigative journalism. Fowler was paid by the Review & Herald Publishing Association in 2009 to co-author a book, "Brushed Back: The Story of Trevor Bullock," with his wife. The book details the real life of a top minor league pitcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization and his Christian faith. "Brushed Back" has sold more than 2,000 copies since its release.