SOLITARY FOR THANKSGIVING
I will start with a hypothetical question. What fairly-common bird, characteristic of the western mountains, is most overlooked by casual watchers of wildlife?
Probably almost everyone has heard of warblers and vireos, even if they are not familiar with individual species. The same might be said for buntings, finches, and flycatchers.
My nominee for most overlooked, relatively-common mountain species is the Townsend’s Solitaire. I have come to that conclusion from my own field experience and experiences leading birding walks. “There’s a Townsend’s Solitaire!” I have said, and those along with me have responded with, “a what?” Personally, it took some time until I realized how widespread they are. True to their name, they are usually solitary, and often hiding within vegetation. They are also mostly gray, although with some striking plumage characteristics which I’ll describe below.
Solitaires are members of the thrush family. I admit to having an affinity for the family. A close relative, the Black-faced Solitaire, is common in the Cloud Forests of Costa Rica, where its bell-like/squeaky-gate call is the iconic sound of this habitat. They are also nearly always solitairy, and in that thickly-vegetated environment, very difficult to see.
(Black-faced Solitaire. To hear it sing, check this YouTube video and close your eyes and imagine being in a cool Central American Cloud Forest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3YFQwkXR6c )
The Townsend’s is the only Solitaire in North America. After having observed relatives in Central and South America, I decided to determine how many close kin there are. It was difficult. I finally checked the ebird data base and found 12 birds with the right name, but one of those was a different genus altogether and extinct besides (ebird.org). Further checking, by using the Latin names, revealed there are/were seven closely-related species on Hawaii, where four are already believed extinct.
Fortunately, Townsend's Solitaires, unlike so many other native species, seem to be doing well. In our area, they seem to nest exclusively above 7000 ft in pine/aspen/spruce forests. Indeed, western National Forests could hardly have been better designed to harbor this species. Recent estimates and surveys indicate populations have been stable overall between 1966 and 2014. The global breeding population is approximately 1 million, with 80% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 39% in Canada, and 13% in Mexico.
The one million Townsend’s Solitaires breed in the Western Mountains from Arizona and New Mexico north to Alaska and the Yukon. They are not typically detected east of Colorado though they may wander somewhat in the winter.
OK, here’s a bird that is robin-sized, with one million or more in its population. It is present year-around in our area. Why aren’t more people aware of it? True to its name, and despite a beautiful robin-like song, it is mostly gray, remains up in the trees and is usually alone.
(Townsend’s Solitaire. Here are great views while it calls and sings. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ef--sUpVsVA )
If you listened to the link above and spend much time paying attention in western forests you probably said to yourself, “I’ve heard that.” Indeed you have. And, despite the bird being mostly gray, it is very easy to recognize, especially in flight. Being a “solitaire,” it often won’t let you approach too closely—but watch for what at first seems like a non-descript bird flying off and notice the wagging tail and most of all, the buffy stripe in the wings. Once you have paid some attention to it, that buffy stripe is so striking that you’ll never miss one again.
So, back to the title? Why Thanksgiving? Townsend’s Solitaires eat mostly berries. Formerly, their winter diet consisted mostly of juniper berries, but they have learned about Russian olives and crab apples. Now, as winter approaches in November, they descend into irrigated, low-elevation valleys. Ideal locations to find them near Grand Junction include in and near the Colorado National Monument and its environs. Look for one when you are walking off your turkey dinner. You might even find one in any patch of berry laden-landscape junipers.
[The Grand Junction Christmas Bird Count is December 18. The Grand Mesa Count is January 1. All abilities of birders are needed. Even if you are rookie, you can still count! If you would like to participate, please check the website or Facebook page. You will probably see a Townsend's Solitaire!]
This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]