Bird Watcher's General Store

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Townsend Solitaire

My turn:

Hobbies are what we like to do in our spare time. They help us unwind. But let’s face it; even when we are doing stuff to relax, most of us are still pretty competitive. The golfer always wants to get a hole-in-one, a gardener strives for the showiest garden, a numismatist dreams of finding that special coin (or stamp, I don’t really know what a numismatist is) and a birder hopes to find a bird that he or she not only hasn’t seen before, but also a bird that other birders will want to see. The thought of finding a rare bird is what gets us going in the morning. And for the last few months, the local birders have been doing quite well. Boreal Chickadees, Painted Buntings and Rufous Hummingbirds are just a few of the unusual birds that Cape birders have been finding lately. When I hear of such sightings, I become a bit jealous. When is it going to be my turn to find something cool? For some reason, I’m never the first one to find a rare bird…until yesterday.

I was at home in the late afternoon, finishing a pile of tax forms (which is yet another fun reason to have your own business). There was still some daylight left, so I decided to take a quick walk around a saltwater pond near my house. The walk produced the usual sightings of winter ducks, including some American Widgeons, Buffleheads and Red-breasted Mergansers, but it was a small bird in the bushes that caught my attention. I could see it peering back at me, although it was too obscured by the branches to identify. Since no one else was around to hear me, I began pishing. Pishing is when birders make strange sounds in an effort to draw a bird out into the open. Sometimes pishing works; other times we just look weird. This time it worked. The bird flew up into a cedar tree, allowing me to have a perfect view of it. It was a, ah…hmm. I didn’t know what it was. The bird was mostly soft gray, with a long tail and a rather thin body, like a Mourning Dove that had lost thirty pounds at Jenny Craig. I grabbed for my camera.

About once a month I have a dream where I come upon an amazing bird, but as soon as I try to take a photograph, there’s camera trouble. Either the battery is dead, or the memory card is full or the camera simply doesn’t work. This time it worked. Through the camera lens I knew exactly what the bird was. It was a Townsend’s Solitaire. Exciting, eh? Right now any birder who is reading this is thinking, “Wow,” while everyone else probably thinks a Townsend’s Solitaire is some kind of new card game. I watched the bird for a minute or so, until it flew back into the woods. With a big smile on my face, I ran home to tell my wife the news. When I showed her my photos of the solitaire she tried to be as excited as I was, but I could tell she would rather be talking about a new card game.

When it comes to beauty, the Townsend’s Solitaire is not a head-turner. It’s basically gray, with bold white eye-rings and buff patches on the wings. What makes this sighting notable is that solitaires are western birds, more often associated with the Rocky Mountains. Only occasionally will one wander to our part of the world. According to eBird, the online birding database, the last solitaire seen in Orleans was twenty-three years ago. This is why I was so excited. Not only did I see a cool bird, but I’ll also receive a check for a thousand dollars from the Chamber of Commerce for making this rare discovery…or at least I should.

With their gray feathers, long tails and buff wing-patches, solitaires somewhat resemble mockingbirds. However, they are actually more closely related to robins, bluebirds and other thrushes. But unlike robins and bluebirds, which are often found in winter flocks, solitaires, as their name indicates, are loners. Outside of the breeding season, solitaires keep to themselves. They travel alone, sleep alone, forage alone and most certainly, play cards alone. Being a recluse all winter sounds a little sad, but there’s an advantage to it. When a large flock of, say, robins finds a berry bush, they will strip it clean in a matter of hours. Then they’ll have to move on and find another source of food. A solitaire, on the other hand, only needs a table for one. A single berry bush will keep the lone bird fed for quite a while. They will also vigorously defend the bush if another bird encroaches. It’s hard to know for sure if the bird’s aggression is simply to protect its food supply or because it just hates having company at dinner. It’s probably both.

The first naturalist to “discover” the Townsend’s Solitaire was a guy named “Townsend.” (How surprising.) John Kirk Townsend collected the bird in 1835, in what is now Oregon. He sent it back to JJ Audubon, who eventually named the bird after Townsend. Apparently, Townsend was a good naturalist, but also a bit of an egotist. In addition to the solitaire, his name has also been added to several other creatures, including a Townsend’s Warbler, bat, squirrel, gopher, and mole (but no casinos). Speaking of egotist, back to me.

I don’t post on social media, but I did mention the solitaire to a few birding friends and they were happy to see it. Then, today, a customer told me that WCAI’s Mindy Todd actually talked about “my” solitaire on this week’s Bird News radio program. Cool Beans! Hearing Mindy chat on her show about the bird I found has been the best part of the New Year for me. Well, it will be the best part until I get that check for a thousand dollars from the Chamber of Commerce. I hope they don’t forget.