Notes on the Identification of Catharus Thrushes

Catharus thrush (Hermit, Swainson’s, Veery, Bicknell’s, and Gray-cheeked) identification can be quite a challenge.  I have uploaded some reference photos of Catharus thrushes, and included discussion of some of the key plumage details and identifying characteristics for each species.

Figure 1: Catharus thrushes, from L to R: Bicknell’s, Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s, Hermit, and Veery.

Figure 2: Upperpart colouration of Catharus thrushes, from L to R: Bicknell’s, Gray-cheeked, Hermit, Swainson’s, and Veery.


In general, Bicknell’s and Gray-cheeked are grayish (Gray-cheeked) to grayish brown (Bicknell’s) throughout the face and showcase thin, partial eye-rings. Swainson’s showcases a bold, thick, buffy eye ring, “spectacles”, and a buffy wash throughout the cheek and throat. Hermit Thrushes showcase a thin, complete eye ring and often show some buffy wash throughout the lores and cheek, too. However, the buffy tones are usually less extensive and split by a dark region between the lores and the eye-ring (Lane & Jaramillo 2000a). With Veery, the reddish suffusion throughout, pale loral patch (area between eye and base of bill), thin eye ring, and rear eye crescent offers a distinct and “soft” expression.


Breast spotting is highly variable (intensity and degree of) within  species (M. Gosselin, pers. comm., 30 April 2015) and, as such, only averages will be mentioned.  Bicknell’s and Gray-cheeked typically showcase bold, deep brownish spots. Swainson’s typically showcase a strong buffy wash throughout the breast, overlain by extensive spotting. The breast spots  tend to be more circular than Bicknell’s or Gray-cheeked but weaker and smaller than on a Hermit Thrush (Lane & Jaramillo 2000b). Hermit Thrush average extensive, blackish spotting composed of comparatively large spots, though the amount of spotting varies individually, with some individuals  being rather weakly spotted (Lane & Jaramillo, 2000b). Veery are typically washed with extensive buff  throughout the throat and breast and showcase light, weak spotting.


Bicknell’s and Gray- cheeked showcase olive-brown (Bicknell’s) and olive (Gray-cheeked) flank coloration (Sibley 2014). The olive coloration throughout the flanks of some aliciae  Gray-cheeked Thrushes can sometimes be cold, “battleship gray” in coloration (M. Gosselin, pers. comm., 30 April 2015). Swainson’s Thrush tend toward deeply olive tones throughout the flanks and generally showcase limited contrast between  the flanks and the folded wing (Lane & Jaramillo 2000b). Hermit Thrush showcase buffy brown flanksof which, like Swainson’s, contrast weakly with the folded wing (Lane & Jaramillo 2000a). Veery showcase whitish to whitish gray flanks which contrast quite starkly with the reddish tones of the folded wing (Lane & Jaramillo 2000b).


Bicknell’s average “warmer” in tone compared to Gray-cheeked with some individuals showcasing a deep reddish-brown throughout, with a slightly contrastive chestnut tail, similar to Hermit Thrush (Mclaren 1995). Gray-cheeked (C. m. aliciae) are cold grayish brown throughout. Hermit Thrush tend to be quite light reddish-brown throughout and showcase a distinctly contrastive reddish rump and tail. Swainson’s (barring “Russet-back” Swainson’s) are olivaceous and concolorous throughout. Veeries average distinctly more reddish throughout compared to other Catharus thrushes.


I thank Michel Gosselin of the Canadian Museum of Nature for kindly granting me access to the study skins in the museum collections facility.


Lane, D. and A. Jaramillo. 2000a. Field identification of Hylocichla/CatharusThrushes. Part I: Molt and aging of spotted thrushes and field ID of Wood Thrush and Hermit Thrush. Birding32: 121-135.

Lane, D. and A. Jaramillo. 2000b. Field identification of Hylocichla/Catharus Thrushes. Part II: Veeryand Swainson’s Thrush. Birding32: 242-254.

Lane, D. and A. Jaramillo. 2000c. Field identification of Hylocichla/Catharus Thrushes. Part III: Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s Thrushes. Birding 32: 318-331.

Mclaren, I. A. 1995. Field identification and taxonomy of Bicknell’s Thrush. Birding 27: 358-366.