Though I’ve spent two weeks roaming the Colorado Rockies every October for the past 14 years, I’ve never visited the state at any other time of the year. And so the bird life that I observe each October in Colorado is typically year ‘round avian residents.
Standard among these species should be familiar to most Minnesotans — black-capped chickadee, downy woodpecker, gray jay, common raven, American crow, black-billed magpie, northern goshawk, red-tailed hawk, bald eagle, and many other familiar feather friends.
Those species that we don’t observe here at home, but are common year around resident birds in northwest Colorado include, but are not limited to, Clark’s nutcracker, dusky grouse, mountain chickadee, mountain bluebird, and two subspecies of wild turkey that are not found in Minnesota — Merriam’s and Rio Grande.
Yet another species of bird that we don’t see in Minnesota is a bird that belongs to the thrush family, which includes bluebirds and robins. Indeed, the Townsend’s solitaire, an attractive and elegant bird of primarily the American West, is a species aptly named and a joy to see and hear.
Interesting is the bird’s common name, which, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was named after naturalist John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851) who collected the first specimen of the bird in 1835 along Oregon’s Willamette River. A few years later, John Audubon honored Mr. Townsend and named the species after him.
As their name suggests, Townsend’s solitaires are generally observed either alone or in pairs. The mostly gray bird is identified by a particular physical diagnostic trait — a prominent white eye-ring, as well as a behavior that is uniquely its own. Townsend’s solitaires are commonly observed perching on the very tips of trees, often atop various junipers, pines, spruces, and firs throughout their mountain habitat.
There are a couple of other characteristics of the Townsend’s solitaire that anyone can appreciate, and that’s the species’ penchant for singing its warbler-like sing-song phrases at all times of the year, and the manner in which they hunt for food. Uncommon among thrushes, the solitaire chooses to capture flying insects in flycatcher fashion, by perching in open and conspicuous places in order to more easily snare them.
Mated pairs of Townsend’s solitaires are fiercely territorial, especially during the wintertime, as pairs defend their territory’s food supply from avian competitors, including other solitaires.
They feed almost exclusively on juniper berries in the winter, and the larger the patch and territory, the better chance a pair of solitaires have in surviving. Research has shown that solitaires with smaller territories and juniper patches have lower survivability than those with larger territories.
I remember the first Townsend’s solitaire I observed many years ago, while hiking across a sagebrush-covered mountain ridgetop high above a small stream. A calm and sunny afternoon, the day was made even more pleasant when I heard an unfamiliar and delightful birdsong coming from somewhere nearby.
Stopping to use my binoculars to locate the bird, I soon found it perched at the very top of a lone lodgepole pine tree singing its heart out. Though I hadn’t ever before observed the species, I immediately recognized it as a Townsend’s solitaire from what I’ve gleaned and retained from scouring countless bird field guidebooks since I was a boy.
I was able to clearly see the white eye-ring and was thrilled to add the bird to my species checklist.
Thankfully, the Townsend’s solitaire doesn’t appear to be a songbird in peril. The global population is estimated at over one million strong, with about 80% of the population occurring in the United States, 39% in Canada, and 13% in Mexico.
What with the grim news lately about massive population declines of familiar species of songbirds and other birds throughout the world, it’s reassuring that Townsend’s solitaires appear to be doing well.
Whether at home or abroad, observing new species of birds is always special. Jotting down notes inside the pages of our favorite bird guidebook of the time and place, and then being able to recognize the species once again during another chance encounter, is what it’s all about, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.