A relative of bluebirds and other thrushes, the Townsend’s Solitaire sometimes wanders widely in winter, and vigorously defends a favored feeding site that is usually a juniper tree loaded with berries. Different populations of Townsend’s Solitaires can be migratory, nonmigratory, or make altitudinal movements.
As female Townsend’s Solitaires approach the time for egg laying, they may spend several hours a day in incubation posture on their nest even before they lay their eggs. Nest parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird is rare.
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Description of the Townsend’s Solitaire
The Townsend’s Solitaire is a slender thrush with a long tail. It is uniformly gray with a bold white eye ring and buffy patches in the wing. In flight, it shows a bold buffy stripe in each wing.
Seasonal change in appearance
Townsend’s Solitaires are found in coniferous forest, pinyon-juniper woodlands, and brushy areas with junipers.
Townsend’s Solitaires feed on insects and berries. In the winter, juniper berries can represent well over 90% of the diet.
Townsend’s Solitaires occasionally flycatch for insects, a behavior unique among thrushes. They also pick berries from trees.
Townsend’s Solitaires occur throughout much of the western U.S. and Canada. The North American population appears stable overall.
Living up to their name, Townsend’s Solitaires are usually seen singly, with each bird defending a wintering area containing trees with berries.
Young Townsend’s Solitaires are less successful than adults at defending a feeding territory for the whole winter.
The song is an elaborate, warbling series of notes. The call is a soft whistled toot.
- Northern Mockingbirds have much paler underparts than upperparts, and lack bold white eye rings.
The nest is a bulky cup of twigs, pine needles, and grass. It is usually placed on the ground, in a cliff crevice, under a log, or on a dirt road cut.
Number: Usually lay 4 eggs.
Color: Whitish or pale blue with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 11 days, and leave the nest in another 14 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time
Bent Life History of the Townsend’s Solitaire
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Townsend’s Solitaire – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
MYADESTES TOWNSENDI (Audubon)
Audubon (1840) named and figured this rather puzzling bird from a single female obtained by that pioneer naturalist J. K. Townsend near the Columbia River; this one specimen remained for a long time unique. it is now known to have a wide distribution in the mountain regions of the West, from central eastern Alaska and southwestern Mackenzie to southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Its status has at last been fixed as a member of the thrush family, though at first glance it would hardly seem to belong there. It looks and acts much like a flycatcher, with its somber colors and flycatching habits. In flight the light patches in its wings and the white in the tail suggest the mockingbird. Its feeding habits remind one of the bluebirds. But its song is decidedly thrushlike, though not equal to the songs of the star performers in this gifted group, and its spotted young proclaim its close relationship to the thrushes.
During the breeding season the solitaire is a bird of the mountains, at various altitudes in different parts of its range. In New Mexico it breeds mostly above 8,000 feet and from there up to 12,000 feet, ranging up to timberline and above it, among the stunted spruces and dwarfed willows, in summer. In Colorado, its breeding range is not much lower, from 7,000 to 10,000 feet. In his notes from Zion National Park, Utah, Russell K. Grater says: “This bird is resident throughout the year in elevations from 7,500 to 10,500 feet and is commonly seen in the lower canyons in the winter. It appears to frequent the more deeply shaded, narrow canyons much more than the more open situations.” Farther north it breeds at much lower altitudes.
Its favorite haunts in the mountains are the open forests of pines and firs on the gentle slopes, which it seems to prefer to the more densely wooded and more shady forests, though it is sometimes found there also. Steep, rocky, fir-covered slopes are often favored, within the Canadian Zone. And it sometimes finds a congenial summer home in the wider canyons, where the high rocky walls support a scattered growth of stunted cedars and offer suitable crevices for nesting.
Nesting: Townsend’s solitaire is a lowly nester. It usually places its nest on or near the ground, often sunken into it, but generally the nest is protected from above by some form of overhanging shelter, which also helps to conceal it. Many nests have been found partially concealed at the base of a fir or pine, where a small cavity had rotted out or been burned out by forest fires; many such cavities exist on the fir-clad slopes of the mountains. Another common nesting site is under the overhanging bank on the side of a narrow mountain trail, where the sitting bird may be flushed by a passer-by; in such a situation the nest may be sunken into a hollow in the earth and is often concealed under the overhanging roots. A cavity under a rock or a crevice among rocks is sometimes chosen, or a rotted out cavity in a dead stump, rarely as high as 10 feet above the ground, may be used. Among the tangled roots of a fallen tree the birds may find a suitable cavity, especially if a large stone has fallen out and left a tempting hollow.
Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) mention a nest, found close to Lake Helen in the Lassen Peak region in California, that “was in a nook (20 by 20 centimeters) formed by three rocks on a dry, rocky ridge. The cavity had a little dry moss in the back part of it and a spray of grass at the entrance. A few hemlocks stood above and below the site on the slope, but none was nearer than fifty meters. The nest, composed of sticks and twigs, was lined with needles from silver pine.”
Mrs. Bailey (1928) says of a nest in New Mexico: “When climbing Pecos Baldy, on a flat-topped grassy ridge at 12,000 feet, where Pipits were nesting, and Horned Larks flying around with grown young, we flushed one of the Solitaires from an old charred log and to our surprise discovered its nest fitted into a burned hollow underneath, resting on the ground roofed over by the log. In this case the nest was made from material close at hand: grass and weed stems.”
A most unusual nesting site is illustrated by C. Andresen (1942), who published a photograph of “a solitaire’s nest built in an open cupboard of a table in a camp ground at Lake Almanor, Plumas County, California. On June 12, 1942, the nest had 3 eggs and one of the birds was incubating.”
A very good description of a nest of Townsend’s solitaire is published by A. W. Anthony (1903), furnished by J. W. Preston, to whom the nest was sent:
At the base of the nest is a quantity of disintegrated trash such as bits of bark, pieces of weed stalks and finely broken old grass stems and blades, with some dirt and dust which had evidently been scratched up from the bottom of the cavity. On this slight platform are dead sticks and twigs, from larch and pine, intermixed with much old faded grass, pine needles and leaves of fir, and with some bulbs and rootlets of different grass-like sedges. The materials have been drawn into the burrowed-out cavity in the bank, leaving two-thirds of the material outward from the true nest, which is of fine dry grass stems and blades finely shredded and formed into a neat, well-rounded rather shallow cup. I note a few sprays of the long, black moss so common among the fir trees of the mountains. The structure before me is oblong in outline, being ten inches long by five wide, and three and onehalf inches deep. In the inner end is formed the neat, symmetrical nest, cunningly resting in so great an amount of superfluous matter. The inside measurements are one and one-half inches deep by two and nine-tenths across. The structure is of course, somewhat compressed in boxing.
Grinnell and Storer (1924) describe a typical nest, as follows: “It was in a cut bank, three feet above the road and two feet below the top of the bank, in a depression in the earth between rocks and at the base of a young fir tree the outstretching roots of which partially concealed the nest. As is usual with the solitaire, a straggling ‘tail’ or apron of material extended down the bank a foot or so from the nest proper. The constituent materials of the latter were slender dead fir twigs and old, brown needles of sugar and Jeffrey pines. Inside, the nest was about 3 inches (80 mm.) across and 2 inches (50 mm.) deep.”
The nests are not all as large as the one so fully described above; they vary greatly in size to fit the cavity occupied; the material used may amount to merely a few handfuls or less, and rarely cione at all is used; the material is often only carelessly thrown into the cavity, so that it looks like a wind-blown mass of rubbish that had lodged in a depression; and the long tail or apron straggling out below adds to the delusion.
J. K. Jensen (1923) reports a nest in which no nesting material was used: “It was in a clay bank beside the road in the Santa Fe Canyon. The bird had evidently scratched the little pocket out in which the eggs were deposited. The four eggs were resting on the bare ground, and there was not even a suggestion of nest building.”
Eggs: Townsend’s solitaire lays three to five eggs, most commonly four and only rarely five. They are usually ovate but sometimes short-ovate or elongate-ovate, and very rarely slightly pointed. They are only slightly glossy. The eggs are entirely different from the eggs of other North American thrushes and are often very beautiful. The ground color is usually dull white, but sometimes a very pale light blue or bluish white, or more rarely greenish white or yellowish white, and very rarely with a shade of pinkish white. They are more or less evenly covered with small spots or very small blotches or scrawls of various shades of brown, reddish brown, yellowish brown, or darker browns, together with underlying spots or blotches of “ecru-drab” or “lavender-gray.” The markings are sometimes concentrated at the larger end, or consolidated into a ring of spots.
Two published descriptions are worth quoting. The eggs sent to J. W. Preston, of Baxter, Iowa, are described by Mr. Anthony (1903) as follows: “The ground color of the eggs is faint greenish-blue, blotched and marked with pale chestnut and lavender. Some of the spots are large, and a number of irregular markings resembling written characters appear, well scattered over the surface, but heavier about the larger end. Two of the eggs are less heavily marked, the specks and spots being smaller. These eggs appear somewhat elongate.”
Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1908) says of the eggs taken in the San Bernardino Mountains:
The four sets of eggs taken, conform to one general type of coloration, though there is some variation. All the eggs of each of the four sets are practically identical among themselves. Two extremes of coloration may he described. In one style the ground color is white, with the palest possible tint of grayish-blue. The markings are so profuse as nearly to obscure the ground, doing so completely about the larger ends. These markings vary from brick red, through an unbroken series of tints to very pale lavender; but a vinaceous tint prevails. The markings are in the nature of blotches and finer dots and points, often blurred together. In the other style of egg the ground is white with a decided pale blue tint, spattered with blotches and spots of lengthwise trend. These are thickest at the large end, bold and distinct, not running together, and are in color lavender, vinaceous, brick red and burnt sienna.
The measurements of 50 eggs average 23.5 by 17.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 26.5 by 18.1, 22.9 by 18.3, 20.8 by 17.3, and 22.8 by 16.2 millimeters.
Young: No one seems to have worked out the incubation period for the Townsend’s solitaire. Probably what nests have been found have been robbed by egg collectors. Nor does it seem to be known how long the young remain in the nest, nor at what rate they develop. Mrs. Wheelock’s (1904) brief experience with a brood of young solitaires would seem to indicate that both parents assist in the care of the young and are very solicitous for their welfare. The late dates at which fresh eggs have been found suggest that two broods are often raised in a season, but the evidence is not conclusive.
Plumages: Ridgway (1907) describes the striking juvenal plumage very well, as follows: “Pileum, hindneck, back, scapulars, rump, upper tail-coverts, and lesser and middle wing-coverts conspicuously spotted with buff, each feather having a single spot of this color, approximately rhomboid or cordate in shape, the feathers broadly margined with blackish, causing a somewhat squamate effect; under parts pale buff or grayish buff, the feathers margined with black or sooty.” The wings, except the coverts, and the tail are as in the adult; the greater wing coverts, which are not renewed at the postjuvenal molt, are tipped with buff, which fades out to white during winter, and the tips are largely worn away before spring.
The postjuvenal molt begins early in August and is usually completed before the end of September. This involves all the contour plumages and the lesser and median wing coverts but not the rest of the wings nor the tail. It produces a first winter plumage, which is practically indistinguishable from that of the adult.
Adults have one complete postnuptial molt, beginning sometimes as early as the middle of July and continuing mainly through August. June and July birds are usually in much-worn plumage, and many are in fresh plumage again before the end of September. There is but little seasonal change in plumage; there is, apparently, no spring molt, but wear reduces the extent of the white on the greater coverts and the tertials, and the body plumage is somewhat grayer, less brownish. The sexes are alike in all plumages.
Food: Professor Beal (19 15b) examined only 41 stomachs of Townsend’s solitaire, too few in his opinion to “draw general conclusions.” The food was made up of 35.90 percent of animal matter and 64.10 percent of vegetable. Of the animal food, Lepidoptera in the form of caterpillars made up the largest item, 12.95 percent for the year; one stomach, taken in May, held 72 percent caterpillars. Beetles constituted the second largest item, 10.74 percent, of which 5.89 percent were the useful predatory ground beetles (Carabidae), 95 percent of the contents of one January stomach and 93 percent of the food in an October stomach consisted of Carabidac. Ants were eaten to the extent of 4.71 percent, bees and wasps amounted to less than 0.5 percent, and he found only a trace of flies (Diptera); it seems strange that a bird, supposed to take so much of its food on the wing, should have eaten so few of these flying insects. Hemiptera were found to the extent of 3.51 percent, grasshoppers amounted to less than 1 percent, and there was only a trifle of other insects. Spiders were eaten to the extent 2.94 percent, and there was one hairworm (Gordius).
More than half of the vegetable food was wild fruit or berries, and there was no evidence that any cultivated food had been taken. He found cedar berries in six stomachs, madrona berries in five, hackberries and rose haws in two each, and serviceberries, wild cherries, sumac berries, poison ivy, waxwork, honeysuckle berries, and elderberries in one stomach each.
Strangely enough, he does not mention mistletoe seeds, which others have referred to as a favorite food; these viscid seeds are swallowed whole and passed through the alimentary canal to adhere where they fall; thus these birds help to spread this parasite, as well as the poisonivy. Pine seeds, pinyon seeds, and kinnikinnick berries have been mentioned by other observers.
Dr. G. F. Knowlton has sent me the following note on the contents of two stomachs: “Recognizable stomach contents consisted of one nymphal Orthoptera, six Hemiptera, one being a scutellerid and another a, mind; three adult caddisfijes; 11 beetles, one being a weevil and another a click bettle; four lepidopterous larvae, apparently cutworms; two Diptera, one being a crane fly; 17 Hymenoptera, all but two of which were ants, three being carpenter ants. One stomach held four berries; the other contained plant pulp and plant fragments.” The birds were taken on June 20 and July 2, in Utah.
I. MeT. Cowan (1942) includes Townsend’s solitaire among the birds that feed on the termite Zootermopsis arigusticollis. And Leslie L. Haskin (1919) adds angleworms to the list, “which it secured Robin fashion, except that instead of watching for them from the ground it would drop down upon them from the lower limbs of the fruit trees, returning immediately to its perch. In fact, during the entire time I watched it, I did not see it take more than half a dozen hops along the ground.” He also watched it “taking its prey in Bluebird fashion, by watching for it from fence-posts and stumps, and dropping to the ground only when an insect had been located, returning immediately to its point of observation.~~ Many observers have referred to the solitaire’s flycatching habits, and it has been called the “flycatching thrush.” Samuel F. Rathbun watched a pair thus engaged for nearly half an hour and says in his notes: “In their actions these birds were almost identical with flycatchers, sitting erect on or near the extremity of some limb, well toward the top of the tree, and from this location they would fly out and catch the passing insects. At all tines the birds were perfectly silent, for during the entire time of observation neither uttered a note.”
H. W. Henshaw (1875) evidently never observed this habit, for he says: “The habit of catching insects on the wing, after the manner of the Flycatchers, which is attributed to this bird, appears to be not a common one, or, as is likely the case the bird varies its habits in different localities, as, of hundreds I have seen at different seasons, none were ever thus engaged, nor have I ever seen them searching among the leaves for insects, like the tbrushes. In their usual manner of procuring food, as in their habits and motions generally, they have always seemed to me nearly allied to the Bluebirds.”
Behavior: Many of the solitaire’s traits have been referred to above, as well as some of the points on which it resembles other species in appearance and manners. Dawson and Bowles (1909) have summed this up very well, as follows:
Barring the matter of structure, which the scientists have now pretty well thrashed out, the bird is everything by turns. He is Flycatcher in that he delights to sit quietly on exposed limbs and watch for passing insects. These he meets in mid-air and bags with an emphatic snap of the mandibles. He is a Shrike in appearance and manner, when he takes up a station on a fence-post and studies the ground intently. When its prey is sighted at distances varying from ten to thirty feet, it dives directly to the spot, lights, snatches, and swallows, in an instant; or, if the catch is unmanageable, it returns to its post to thrash and kill and swallow at leisure. During this pouncing foray, the display of white in the Solitaire’s tail reminds one of the Lark Sparrow. Like the silly Cedar-bird, the Solitaire gorges itself on fruit and berries in season. Like a Thrush, when the mood is on, the Solitaire skulks in the thickets or woodsy depths, and flies at the suggestion of approach. Upon alighting it stands quietly, in expectation that the eye of the beholder will thus lose sight of its ghostly tints among the interlacing shadows.
It is generally regarded as a solitary, quiet, retiring bird, often being seen singly, in pairs, or in family groups, but at times, mainly on the fall migration, it is sometimes seen in larger groups. Henshaw (1875) mentions such a gathering: “At the Old Crater, fortymiles, south of Zuni, N. Mex., they had congregated in very large numbers about a spring of fresh water, the only supply for many miles around; and hundreds were to be seen sitting on the bare volcanic rocks, apparently too timid to venture down and slake their thirst while we were camped near by.”
Ridgway (1877) records the thrushlike behavior of the solitaire in the vicinity of its nest: “As we walked along the embankment of a mining-sluice it flitted before us, now and then alighting upon the ground, and, with drooping and quivering wings, running gracefully, in the manner of a Robin, then flying to a low branch, and, after facing about, repeating the same maneuvers: evidently trying to entice us away from the spot.”
The flight of the solitaire is not swift, probably not over 20 miles an hour in direct flight; but the flight is usually not direct or much protracted, and is more or less erratic; Grinnell and Storer (1924) say that it reminds one of Say’s phoebe, “in that the wings are widely spread and flapped rather slowly, and the flight course is irregularly circuitous.”
It is ordinarily a gentle bird and not inclined to quarrel with its neighbors, but it is very solicitous in the defense of its home and will often drive away other birds from the vicinity of its nest or young.
Voice: Much has appeared in the literature in praise of the charming song of Townsend’s solitaire, and I have some interesting contributed notes on it. Aretas A. Saunders (MS.) praises it as “one of the most glorious and beautiful of bird songs” and says that it “is a rather prolonged, warblelike series of rapid notes, each note on a different pitch than the last. The notes are clear, sweet, and loud, and follow each other almost as rapidly as those of the winter wren.”
Samuel F. Rathbun heard one singing in the Olympic Mountains, on July 19, 1920, and says in his notes: “While we were eating lunch the song of this bird suddenly rang out not far away. It seemed to come from near the top of one of the trees in a nearby grove of conifers. The song was most beautiful, full and clear, with sparkling, ringing notes, some of which remind one of the song of the purple finch at its best. But the solitaire’s song has much more volume and is more brilliant. It was given a number of times, and well fitted its surroundings, for there was a swing to it that went with the expanse of the mountain heights.”
Dr. Louis B. Bishop (1900) praises it highly in the following words, as he heard it in Alaska: “On the hot noon of June 26, while seated on the sunmiit of a hill some 1,500 feet above Caribou Crossing, I heard the most beautiful bird song that has ever delighted my ear. It seemed to combine the strength of the robin, the joyousness and soaring quality of the bobolink, and the sweetness and purity of the wood thrush. Starting low and apparently far away, it gained in intensity and volume until it filled the air, and I looked for the singer just above my head. I finally traced the song to a Townsend solitaire that was seated on a dead tree about 150 yards away, pouring forth this volume of melody without leaving its perch.”
Ralph Hoffmann (1927) says that it has “the quality of the Blackheaded Grosbeak’s song and a tempo between that of the Warbling Vireo and the Purple Finch.” The song has been said by others to resemble the warbling of the bluebird, a decided compliment to the bluebird, and also the mockingbird, the California thrasher, and the sage thrasher, all of which seems a bit fanciful.
Forrest S. Hanford (1917) writes thus attractively of the songster in the solitude of its mountain retreat:
The little shadowy canyon wherein I rested enjoyed a hushed and solemn tranquility not diminished, but rather added to, by a drowsy murmuring from a bright brook splashing on its way to the lake. This, I thought, could be none other than the haunt of a Solitaire, and I wished that I might see the bird; and as in answer to my prayer came one, a small gray ghost of a bird that flitted silently in and out the leafy corridors of its retreat, finally resting on the limb of a pine not ten feet away. And as I watched, the feathers of his breast and throat rose with a song that softly echoed the beautiful voices of the brook, the gurgling of eddies, the silvery tinkle of tiny cascades, and the deeper medley of miniature falls. Infinitely fine and sweet was this rendering of mountain music. At times the song of the bird rose above the sound of the water in rippling cadences not shrill, but in an infinite number of runs and modulated trills, dying away again and again to low plaintive whispering notes suggestive of tender memories.
The star performance of the solitaire is its flight song, which has been referred to by only a few observers. Mr. Saunders says in his notes: “The flight that accompanies the song varies greatly. As I have observed it, the bird hovers for a long time high in the air and sings continuously while doing so.” Charles L. Whittle (1922) who observed it, also in Montana, has published a diagram of the flight, and has written the following description of it:
On May 15 my attention was attracted to the Solitaires by hearing them sing as they were migrating northerly over the mountains as single birds and in pairs. They commonly flew well above the mountains so that identification was made by their songs. * * * A number of times on this date a Solitaire could be heard singing high in the air and well above us up the mountain, and sometimes it could be seen coming down the steep slope just over the trees with great velocity, alighting suddenly on a tree top, when he would again burst into song. On May 24 I witnessed the beginning of a song-flight, no doubt a courtship performance, of which the precipitate descent over the tree tops just described is the termination, although at that time the birds appeared to have mated.
I was standing on a nearly treeless ridge, at an elevation of 7,300 feet, when a Solitaire which was singing close by on a stunted pine, flew upward in two series of irregular spirals. The first series was made by circling to the left, and the second series by circling to the right, as shown diagramatically in figure 30. By this method the bird mounted to a height of perhaps 500 feet, singing at intervals. Then he started off as though to leave the vicinity, when, suddenly and with astonishing velocity, he plunged downward, apparently with set wings, in a succession of steeply-pitched zigzags, almost to the ground, and then turned abruptly upward again in a second series of spirals of the same character, which ended in another zigzag drop of at least 700 feet when he disappeared down the slope.
Authorities seem to differ greatly as to the singing season of the solitaire; several have reported its singing in fall and winter, and some state that it ceases to sing during the normal song period of other birds, late in spring and early in summer. Mr. Whittle (1922) quotes a number of observers on the subject, and then sums up the evidence, as follows: “The Solitaire is thus reported, by the combined testimony of several observers, to be in song, at least at intervals, from September to February inclusive, and by two observers to be silent during the customary singing season. Others, however, including the writer, find the species quite normal in the matter of ha’ting the usual spring singing period. It is difficult to account for the reports that this species does not sing during the courting and nesting seasons.”
Mr. Saunders (MS.) says on this subject: “The season of song of the Solitaire, judged from the small amount of data I have, begins in March or April and continues to the middle of July, my earliest and latest dates being March 15, 1910, and July 20, 1911. It frequently sings in fall. In most years I heard it early in October, but in 1908 I heard it front September 7 to October 23, which are my earliest and latest dates for fall singing.”
Russell K. Grater writes to me: “At Cedar Breaks National Monument, at an elevation of over 10,000 feet and in the dead of winter, I have heard solitaires singing loud and clear from the trees, while snow several feet in depth covers the ground. This song was the same familiar one heard in the warmer months.”
Dr. Coues (1874) quotes T. M. Trippe as saying:
Toward the middle and latter part of winter, as the snow begins to fall, the Flycatching Thrush delights to sing, choosing for its rostrum a pine tree in some elevated position, high up above the valleys; and not all the fields and groves, and hills and valleys of the Eastern States, can boast a more exquisite song. * * * At first it sings only on bright, clear mornings; hut once fairly in the mood, it sings at all hours and during the most inclement weather. Often while travelling aver the narrow, winding mountain roads, toward the close of winter, I have been overtaken and half-blinded by sudden, furious storms of wind and snow, and compelled to seek the nearest tree or projecting rock for shelter. In such situations I have frequently listened to the song of this bird, and forgot the cold and wet in its enjoyment. Toward spring, as soon as the other birds begin to sing, it becomes silent as though disdainful of joining the common chorus.
Townsend’s solitaire also has some short, metallic calls or alarm notes, which have been written as tin/c, tin/c, or clink, or peet, and which are somewhat ventriloquiel in effect. They suggest similar notes from some of the other thrushes. Harry S. Swarth (1922) writes, referring to the Stikine River region: “The solitaires did not sing much but the call note was uttered continually. From our rooms in town at Telegraph Creek, this was one bird note that could be heard hour after hour, monotonously repeated nearly the whole day through. To our ears it sounded so nearly like the distant barking of a California ground squirrel (Cite//us beecheyi) that the sound would surely have been disregarded as a bird call had we been in a region where the squirrels occur.”
Field marks: The solitaire can be distinguished as a long, slim, brownish-gray bird with a long tail, a short bill, and a light eye ring. In flight the white outer tail feathers and the buff areas in the wings show conspicuously. It suggests a mockingbird, but its coloration is much duller.
Fall: Henshaw (1875) writes: “They are quite common, in the fall, in Eastern Arizona and Western New Mexico. Having reared their young, these birds appear to forsake the pine woods, which constitute their summer abode, and appear lower down on the hill sides, covered with piflons and cedars. Their food at this season appears to consist almost exclusively of berries, particularly from the pifions and cedars, and the crops of many examined contained little else save a few insects.”
Grinnell and Storer (1924) say: “The Townsend Solitaire as a species does not, in the Yosemite region, make much of a change in its haunts with the passage of the seasons. In summer the majority are to be found in and about the red fir forests of the Canadian Zone. At other times of year the birds forage and live in the western junipers which often grow close by on rocky slopes, or else they drop to the Transition Zone where mistletoe berries on the golden oaks afford bounteous forage. There are no solitaires in Yosemite Valley during the summer months, but with the coming of winter the oaks on the talus slopes become tenanted by numbers of the birds.”
Frank M. Drew (1881) says that, in Colorado, “in fall the Solitaire comes out of the woods and can be found around houses, or in low bushes near water.”
Winter: Townsend’s solitaire does not seem to be much affected by low temperature, its haunts and its movements in winter being dependent on the food supply in the shape of fruit and berries, in search of which it wanders about in large or small groups or in family parties. It spends the winter throughout most of its summer range, except in the most northern part of it, but at lower levels than it occupies in summer. It has been known to winter as far north as Montana, during the severest seasons, even when the thermometer is flirting with zero and winter storms are howling.
In the vicinity of his ranch, in the lowlands of Montana, E. S. Cameron (1908) records the solitaire as a winter resident, and evidently not present in summer, He says that it arrives the “second week in September and leaves middle of April. * * * A pair frequented my ranch in Dawson County during November 1904, and throughout October and November in 1905. On November 25, these were joined by two others when all four seemed to live near the water troughs and playfully chased each other round and round the cedars. They were not seen after a blizzard on Nov. 28, when the temperature fell to 140 below zero, but they are able to withstand severe cold, as a pair returned at the end of January and remained until April 14.”
Frank Bond (1889) gives the following account of a great gathering of solitaires in a canyon near Cheyenne, Wyo., in winter:
On the walls of the caffson, especially in the less precipitous places, there flourishes a scattering growth of scrub cedar whose branches were well laden with the dark hiuc cedar berry. Living, I believe, almost entirely upon these berries, for a winter diet, were countless thousands of Townsend’s Solitaire (Myicdestes townsendii~ and Robins (Alerule migrotorie pro pinquc). I saw also Sine cenedesssis and several Long-crested Jays (Cyenecitte s. macrole p/ic). Both the Solitaires and Robins were acting like school children out for a holiday. They would chase one another hither and thither, now up to the brow of the caflon 500 or 600 feet above, now hack and forth across the mirrored ice of the river below, and all the while singing and chattering like mad. It warms one’s heart to enter such a vale of melody in cold December.” [The birds were still there up to February 7.]
In El Paso County, Cob., according to Aiken and Warren (1914), the solitaire is “a solitary bird in summer, but sometimes they congregate in flocks of 20 or more in waim, sheltered cailons and gulches in winter. Early in 1911 Solitaires were seen in the residence portion of Colorado Springs several times; which is something unusual.”
Range: Western No:rth America from the Arctic Circle to central Mexlco.
Breeding range: The Townsend’s solitaire breeds north to central eastern Alaska (Yukon River 20 miles above Circle); northwestern Yukon (Bern Creek, Selwyn River, and the Semenof Hills); and southwestern Mackenzie (Mount Tha-on-tha, at the mouth of the Nahanni River). East to southwestern Mackenzie (mouth of the Nahanni River); the mountains of western Alberta (Jasper Park, Banif, and Calgary); western Montana (Lake McDonald, Flathead Lake, Billings, and Kirby); northeastern Wyoming (Bear Lodge Mountains); western South Dakota (Black Hills); northwestern Nebraska (Squaw Canyon and Pine Ridge, in Sioux County); southeastern Wyoming (Wheatland and Laramie); central Colorado (Estes Park, Buffalo Creek, Manitou, and Fort Garland); and central northern New Mexico (Taos Mountains and Pecos Baldy). South to northern New Mexico (Pecos Baldy, Santa Fe, and Fort Wingate); central Arizona (White Mountains and Fort Whipple); and southern California (San Jacinto Mountains, San Bernardino Mountains, and Mount Pinos); also in the Sierra Madre of Mexico from northwest Chihuahua (Colonia Garcia) to northwestern Zacatecas (Sierra Madre). West to southern California (Mount Pinos), the Sierra and Cascade ranges in California (King’s Canyon, Yosemite, Fyffe, Butte Lake, and Salmon Mountains); Oregon (Pinehurst and Prospect); Washington (Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, Tacoma, and Seattle); western British Columbia (Mount Benson, Vancouver Island; Glenora, Telegraph Creek, and Atlin); southwestern Yukon (Carcross and Burward Landing); and eastern Alaska (Chitina Moraine, Joseph Village, and the Yukon River above Circle).
Winter range: Ln southern British Columbia and in most of the United States range of the solitaire the migration seems to be principally altitudinal. The species winters north to southern British Columbia (Victoria, Sumas, the Okanagan Valley, and Arrow Lakes); northern Idaho (St. Joe National Forest near St. Manes); and central eastern Montana (Terry). East to eastern Montana (Terry and Kirby); eastern Wyoming (Platte Canyon and Laramie); eastern Colorado (Fort Morgan and Manitou); rare or accidental east to southeastern South Dakota (Vermilion); eastern Nebraska (Omaha and Lincoln), and Kansas (Topeka); western Texas (Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Guadalupe Mountains, and Chisos Mountains; rarely to Kerrville); and southwestern Chihuahua (Maquerichic). South to southern Chihuahua (probably to the limit of the breeding range in Zacatecas); northern Sonora (15 miles south of Nogales); and northern Lower California (Sierra San Pedro M~rtir, and Guadalupe Island, one record). West to northwestern Lower California (Tecate), central California and occasionally the coastal region (Indio, Claremont, Santa Barbara, the valleys of the Sierra Nevada, Berkeley, Davis, and Paynes Creek); Oregon (Klamath Basin); western Washington (Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellingham); and southwestern British Columbia (Victoria).
Migration: Some late dates of spring departure are: Texas: Kerrvile, April 17. Kansas: Hays, April 6. Nebraska : Hastings, May 26. Utah: Ogden, April 30.
Some early dates of spring arrival are: Colorado : Durango, March 25. Wyoming: Yellowstone Park, April 11. Montana: Big Sandy, March 31. Saskatchewan: Eastend, April 19. Alberta: BanfE, April 20. Idaho: Ratlidrum, March 4. Oregon: Corvallis, March 4. British Columbia: Chilliwack, March 29; Atlin, April 30.
Some late dates of fall departure are: British Columbia: Atlin Lake, September 9; Okanagan Lake, November 22. Washington: Pullman, October 22. Oregon: Weston, October 28. Alberta: Banfl, October 20. Montana: Missoula, November 25. Wyoming: Wheatland, October 30. Colorado: Yuma, November 5.
Some early dates of fall arrival are: Montana: Terry, September 9. Colorado: Fort Morgan, September 27. Nebraska: Long Pine, October 10. Kansas: Hays, October 12. Texas: 20 miles northwest of Amarillo, September 27.
The migratory movements of the solitaire seem to be rather erratic and during migration it is often found far east of its normal range; as at Lake Johnston, Saskatchewan; Stonewall, Manitoba; one banded at Wilton, N. Dak., on October 7,1937; Falls Creek, Murray County, Okia.; and Dallas, Tex.
Casual records: There are three records of the occurrence of the solitaire in Minnesota: a specimen collected at Collegeville, Stearns County, December 20, 1909; another taken near Fairmont, Martin County, November 30, 1916; and one at a feeding station near Groveland from January to the middle of March 1922. A specimen was collected at West Point, Wis., in February, 1910; and another in Lake County, Ill., December 16, 1875. An individual was under observation near Toledo, Objo, from December 26, 1938 to January 14, 1939. The easternmost record is from Long Island, where a specimen was collected November 25, 1905, at Kings Park.
Egg dates: California: 24 records, May 2 to August 7; 14 records, June 2 to June 20, iadicating the height of the season.
Colorado: 20 records, May 16 to July 10; 11 records, May 30 to June 15.
New Mexico: 6 records, June 3 to July 12. Washington: 7 records, May 22 to June 17.