I was 11 years old, a wildly avid birder, eager to find everything I could. On a cold December morning, I walked into a grove of evergreens in a Kansas park a few miles from my parents’ house. Search as I might, I could find only a single bird in that grove, alone but beautiful: a Townsend’s Solitaire.
The name “solitaire” is singularly appropriate. While other species of thrush often form flocks (and the flocks of robins or bluebirds may be very large), solitaires seldom gather in groups of any kind. In fact, their aggressively solitary nature is noticeable at all seasons, and it’s one of the best-studied aspects of their behavior.
On their normal winter range in the West, the overwhelming majority of Townsend’s Solitaires spend the season in juniper woods. There, each individual establishes and defends a winter territory. It will actively chase away other solitaires that try to encroach and will at least try to chase away other species, such as robins or bluebirds, when they enter the territory. The reason? Juniper berries. These fruits (which technically are small fleshy cones, but even botanists usually just call them berries for convenience) make up more than 90 percent of the winter diet of solitaires in many regions.
Detailed studies in Arizona, California, and elsewhere have documented how solitaires establish their territories in fall and defend them all winter. The territories vary in size; adults hold larger and more productive areas than first-winter birds. When the berry crop is poor, the territories tend to be larger, to take in more trees and more berries. When an individual temporarily leaves its territory — for example, to fly to a distant source of water — it tends to fly high above the ground, perhaps to avoid intruding on other territories and sparking fights with other solitaires.
Because they defend territories as strongly in winter as they do in the breeding season, Townsend’s Solitaires may sing all year, with peaks in singing while they are setting up their territories in spring and fall. Both males and females sing a continuous jumbled series of rich whistles and short trills. Their most common vocalization in winter, however, is a single, clear, bell-like note. The solitaire often gives this note from the top of a tall tree, and, like the song, it probably serves a function in territorial defense.
Solitaires leave Alaska and northwestern Canada to move south in fall, and some move well out onto the Great Plains. A few go farther east; every year, scattered individuals are found in the states and provinces around the Great Lakes and east to the Atlantic Coast. To actively search for such vagrants, check areas with a good supply of small fruits. A grove of eastern redcedar — which, despite the name, is a type of juniper — might host a wintering Townsend’s Solitaire far from its normal range.
What to look for
Size and shape. Medium-sized songbird with a short bill, small head, slim body, and fairly long tail.
Overall color. Very plain gray. A bold white eye-ring is the only obvious mark.
Wing pattern. A broad buff stripe is most obvious on underside of wing, mostly hidden at rest.
Tail pattern. Blackish gray, with white on outermost feathers.
Variations. Male and female look the same all year. Juvenile plumage, worn briefly in summer, is very dark with buff spots and scales.
At first glance, Townsend’s Solitaire can be confusing because it doesn’t seem to match any group; it’s a member of the thrush family, but that isn’t apparent from its shape and behavior. Its upright posture and drab color might suggest a flycatcher, but no North American member of the flycatcher family has such a small bill. The solitaire shows few obvious field marks, aside from the noticeable white eye-ring. If the bird flies, its buff wing patch and white outer tail feathers will help to confirm the ID. Some adults have more extensive buff markings in the wings, which may even be conspicuous when the bird is perched, but most look more like the one in this photo.
Superficially, Northern Mockingbird resembles Townsend’s Solitaire: slim, gray, with a pale patch in the wing and white in the outer tail feathers. The mockingbird is larger and often more active, and it often forages on the ground, which the solitaire seldom does. The mockingbird generally lives farther south or at lower elevations than the juniper/pinyon pine woods of the foothills, where the solitaire is prevalent in winter. However, a solitaire out of its typical habitat might be mistaken for a mockingbird at first. Note the mockingbird’s paler underparts, longer bill, bigger white patch in the wing, and different face pattern, with a dark line through the eye instead of a white eye-ring.
Few songbirds are so evenly and smoothly gray as the adult Townsend’s Solitaire. The color may seem to vary from blue-gray to more brownish dusty gray, depending on lighting and on the freshness of the plumage. Males and females are identical in looks, and females sing the same rich, varied, jumbled song as males at all times of year, even sometimes in midwinter. More often, though, wintering birds are detected by their single, clear, chiming callnote. A few Townsend’s Solitaires wander east every year in late fall and winter; although they are very rare in the Southeast, they could turn up anywhere in the U.S. or Canada, so birders everywhere should be on the watch for these subtle birds.
Mountain Bluebird and Townsend’s Solitaire have similar ranges, and they are often in the same habitats, especially in winter. Like the solitaire, the Mountain Bluebird also frequently wanders far to the east in late fall or winter. The female of this species is the grayest of the bluebirds, and the combination of overall color and conspicuous white eye-ring can suggest the solitaire. However, the very long wings, with the wingtips extending more than halfway down the tail, give the Mountain Bluebird quite a different shape. It lacks the solitaire’s buff patch in the wing and white in the outer tail feathers, and with a good view, it will always show at least a tinge of blue in the wings.
Among the thrushes north of the Mexican border, Townsend’s Solitaire may seem unique. But farther south, from Mexico and the Caribbean to South America, there are seven other species of solitaires in the same genus, Myadestes. They are recognizably similar to Townsend’s in overall shape and behavior, and all are notable singers, some with beautiful or even remarkable songs. Their fine vocal abilities have led to conservation problems for some because many individuals are captured and removed from the wild to be sold as cage birds in some Latin American countries.
In addition to the eight species on the mainland and in the Caribbean, the genus Myadestes includes five species in Hawaii. These birds don’t seem so obviously similar to the familiar solitaires. The Omao on the big island of Hawaii, the only one I’ve seen, reminds me more of a Hermit Thrush in shape and behavior. Its song, though, is a short, choppy series of rich notes, more like one of the tropical solitaires.
Considering that Townsend’s Solitaire is only a short-distance migrant, and other members of the genus Myadestes known today are non-migratory, it seems odd that they would share a common ancestor with a bird that managed to colonize Hawaii long ago. But we’ll never have thorough knowledge of the Hawaiian representatives of the group because three of the five species are now probably or certainly extinct.
This article was first published in the November/December 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.