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Elusive Townsend’s solitaires guard their juniper berry stash

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By Sylvia Brockner

We moved into this house on April 19, 1965. That’s nearly 48 years ago, but many of you may recall the article I wrote about trying to find a pygmy owl that we heard calling that first night.

Unfortunately, I do not hear pygmy owls calling as much as I used to. Their call is much more often heard than the owls are seen, for these tiny owls can disappear in a clump of pine needles or other foliage, and they are ventriloquists. They are not where you think they are.

However, their call note is a short whistled “whoo” that often continues monotonously until you are sick of hearing it. The owl usually calls at night or evening, and the very similar call note of the Townsend’s solitaire is heard during the day.

The Townsend’s solitaire is a western member of the thrush family. They breed only in the Rocky Mountain region from central Alaska well into Mexico. They usually nest in a cut bank along a road or creek, or in a natural rock cavity that makes them vulnerable to being disturbed by people. When there were more homes being constructed in the area, I often had people call me because a solitaire had started or built a nest in the foundation cut for the house or in the cellar that they could not close up without cutting off the birds’ approach to the nest. Often, they would delay work for two or more weeks to allow the young birds to fledge.

The Townsend’s solitaire is not a very thrush-like bird in either color or actions. It looks and acts most like a female mountain bluebird. It can be confused with this bird or immature mountain bluebirds, however, bluebirds always show some degree of blue in the primary wing feathers. The solitaire is all brownish gray. It has light creamy, buffy, salmon-colored patches in the wings, which do not show much when the bird is sitting but shows when in flight, as well as white along the side of the tail, like the juncos have but not as pronounced.

On the first day we were in the house, I took a break from unpacking and went outside. It was a beautiful spring day, and birds were singing everywhere. On the east side of the house, the ground slopes down to Little Cub Creek. I saw a bird flitting from a mullein stalk near the road. I moved closer and sat down beneath a ponderosa pine to look at the bird through my binoculars. It was a Townsend’s solitaire, the first one I had ever seen, but I knew it immediately from its wing patches.

However, I wondered if I might be wrong because it was acting like a flycatcher. I went back to the house, unpacked the bird books and soon discovered that every book referred to their acting like flycatchers. I went back outside, and it was still there. I watched for some time as it repeatedly flew out, grabbed up some insect and then flew back to its original perch.

It was great fun to see this new bird from our yard and later it came around so Bill could see it too. I later discovered it was a resident that probably had a nest somewhere on my neighbor’s property for it sang from there all the time. In fact, this was one of its regular song perches from which it called its single, whistled call note so constantly that I used to ask it to please stop when I was working in the garden. I presume he was not only defending territory but was also reassuring his mate, who must have been sitting on a nest nearby, that he was till around doing his job.

Although they remained in the area for many years, I only found their nest twice. Once it was beneath an overhanging clump of grass along the road bank, and the second time, I slipped on pine needles as I was going around a big glacial boulder that had several holes in it where a stone had weathered out. I put out my hand to catch my balance and accidentally put my hand into a bird nest in one of the holes. Since she never returned to that site, I made a point of not going near any area where I thought there might be a nest because I didn’t want to disturb them. I think they are easily upset by people in the area for they have declined in many of the populated areas.

They have a lovely song, which is melodious like a black-headed grosbeak but more rapid. They nest from about 7,000 to 10,000 feet or just beyond timberline as the mountain bluebirds do. Townsend’s solitaires do migrate from the most northern part of their range, but some seem to just migrate up and down from a higher nesting site to a lower wintering area where they can find Rocky Mountain juniper berries, which is their staple supply of food for the winter.

They are very territorial about their winter supply of juniper berries and will fight any intruder who comes near, even themselves if they see their reflections in a window. They sing quite frequently in winter and early spring, but are less vocal once they start nesting. It is then that they do so much of the endless whistle that sounds like an owl. I enjoy these western thrushes. I hope you do, too.