Habitat and Behavior: black-headed nightingale-thrush is much like other Catharus thrushes, being terrestrial and reclusive unless singing. These birds’ natural habitats are subtropical/tropical moist lowland forest and subtropical/tropical moist montane forest.
Vocalizations: Song is a slightly tinny, jumbled warble, pleasant-sounding though slightly scratchy, and at times runs into a warbled trill. Common call a buzzy, fairly harsh complaining mew, rreahr or meahh.
Summary: Texas: 1 spring-fall record from Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Taxonomy: At least 5 ssp, not known to be distinguishable in the field; US record presumably of northernmost ssp, smithi.
Distribution and Status: Subtropical humid montane forest found in Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.
Comments: The black-headed nightingale-thrush (Catharus mexicanus) belongs to the family Turdidae. In Mexico, this species breeds only about 250 km (150 miles) s. of the US border, where it is an elevational migrant that may withdraw in winter from the n. parts of its range. Most birds return to Mexico in mid-late April, a month or so earlier than the TX bird was found.
However, 1st-year birds may return later and are perhaps more prone to overshoot (cf. Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush); the TX bird also may have been present sometime before being found. This species breeds in the cloud forest and subtropical humid montane forest; thus, the Texas elevation and habitat were atypical, which may further suggest a 1st-year bird was involved.
Remarkably, the Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush’s date of discovery (28 May 2004) was the same as that of the 2nd N American record of Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, also found in s. TX.
The TX Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush sang during May-early August, and again in late October, before vanishing. This fall ‘disappearance’ and subsequent bout of the song suggest a bird becoming secretive during its pre-basic molt, rather than departing and returning.
Field Identification: Similar size and shape to Hermit Thrush but with distinctive plumage, orange bill, and orbital ring.
Similar Species: A fairly distinctive species, although in low light, such as late in the day or in the dark understory, a dull female Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush might be mistaken for an Orange-billed; note Black-headed’s dark cap, offsetting It’s an orange orbital ring.
Age/Sex/Season: Ages differ; sexes differ slightly; no seasonal variation. Molts not well known; presumed complex basic strategy with complete pre-basic and partial preformative molts in the fall.
Male brighter overall with blackish cap and grayish chest. Female duller overall with blackish-brown cap, brown-washed chest. 1st-year resembles adult but flight feathers are juv, and thus rectrices more tapered (although not as distinctly different from an adult as on North American breeding Catharus) Juv (plumage held briefly and unrecorded in the US) upperparts flecked cinnamon-buff; throat and underparts whitish; mottled brown and buff on chest and flanks.