Bird Lore: Townsend’s Solitaire

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Townsend’s Solitaire is a slender thrush with a long tail, in the same family as robins and bluebirds. It is a resident of western North America’s mountains and forests. It appears in small numbers in the Puget lowlands in winter. We know of two sightings in Edmonds, 2010 at Harbor Square and 2017 at a home in Emerald Hills. There may well be other sightings at Edmonds homes that have gone unreported.

In summer the Townsend’s Solitaire inhabits open conifer forests in the mountains. In winter it favors chaparral, pinyon-juniper, open woods and wooded streams. In the Puget lowlands it can be found in yards with appropriate vegetation, city parks, and even along shorelines where there are nearby food sources. It usually migrates late in fall and early in spring.

Diet is comprised mainly of insects and berries. It feeds on a variety of insects in summer, including ants, beetles, true bugs, caterpillars, spiders, and other invertebrates. Unlike other thrushes, the Townsend’s Solitaire will fly out from its perch to capture food, as do flycatchers. Berries and small fruits make up its winter diet. The Townsend’s Solitaire particularly favors juniper berries, but not exclusively. The third photo is of a bird that was feeding on evergreen huckleberries at a Lynnwood home in October 2016.

The Townsend’s Solitaire breeds in open conifer forests in the mountains, seeking out exposed rocky slopes or dirt banks for nest sites. The male defends his territory by singing, frequently from a high perch. He will also fly up 300 feet or more and then sing while slowly circling downward. Males feed females to preserve the pair bond. Breeding begins in early spring, which allows for renesting in case early nests fail.

The nest, built by the female, is a bulky and loosely made open cup of twigs, bark strips, pine needles, and grass, lined with finer grasses. It is usually on the ground, in a shallow depression in a dirt bank or road cut. It can also be in a cliff crevice, under a log, or among upturned roots. The three to five eggs are incubated for about 11 days. It is not known whether just the female or both adults incubate the eggs. Both adults feed the nestlings, which probably remain in the nest for about two weeks after hatching.

The Townsend’s Solitaire is a solitary bird outside of breeding season. It sets up its winter territory and defends it against other birds, including other solitaires. One study suggests that the Townsend’s Solitaire needs to consume between 42,000 and 84,000 berries to survive over winter. The oldest known Townsend’s Solitaire was at least 5 years of age when it was recaptured and re-released in a California banding operation. Collective nouns for any group of thrushes include a hermitage and a mutation of thrushes.

Populations of the Townsend’s Solitaire remained stable during the survey years from 1968 to 2015. The population is estimated at one million, with 80 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 39 percent in Canada, and 13 percent in Mexico. It is a species of low concern for conservation purposes. The species may benefit from forest thinning activities in its breeding areas.

You can watch a Townsend’s Solitaire singing from a perch in this one-minute video. Or you can just listen to its song here.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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