April 2017

Vol. 45, No. 2

Field Notes: Townsend's Solitaire

Jonathan Eckerson

The morning of December 6, 2016, had started with me sleeping through an alarm and when I finally did raise myself, it was getting past my preferred time for birding. Hitting the road, I decided to head toward the Taunton River in hopes of turning up some waterfowl. I pulled into Broad Cove rather halfheartedly, still not completely convinced I wanted to bird here. The following turn of events changed my thinking.

I sauntered up the trail and made my way to a grove of cedars and a thicket that was active with a feeding flock of robins and other birds. The thicket looked half decent for a Yellow-breasted Chat and in my experience, chats take quite a bit of time to emerge out of a thicket, so I continued to stay and watch even as the action was dying down. That was when it happened: in flew a delicate bluebird-looking bird, but completely gray. I immediately knew it was something I had never seen before. Townsend’s Solitaire was my first thought, although Townsend’s Solitaire is a bird of the west, seen annually in Massachusetts, but quite rare. I had been fooled by angled robins with their backs turned, though, and I had to make sure the light wasn’t deceiving me. Steadying my binoculars on the bird, I noted the slim shape, uniform gray color, white flecking on the breast, white eye ring, bluebird-like bill, and long tail. The Townsend’s Solitaire is a simple and straightforward identification, but I personally had never found an actual mega-rarity, so I had to give it a long look before I convinced myself that it was indeed such a find.

The bird perched in the top of the short oak it had flown into but soon began to move around in the tops of surrounding oaks. With shaking hands and keeping a close eye on the bird, I ripped the lens cap off and flipped on the camera, and snagged some photos. I rattled away and made sure that I had many acceptable images before pausing. The solitaire moved on down the trail towards the road, finally giving me a view of its back, and I was able to see the distinct buff coloring on the wing. After it moved out of sight, it may have flown off with the flock of robins.

It seemed to me that the solitaire was associating with the flock of robins feeding in the cedars. Or possibly this particular area could become its wintering territory. Doing some research, I found that Townsend’s Solitaires usually make their winter territory in patches of junipers and are very defensive of them (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015). As of January 2017, however, I have not seen the bird again.

Not only was the Townsend’s Solitaire a life bird for me, it was also a first Bristol County record for eBird. What also added to the satisfaction was that I had made up a fairly reasonable list of birds that had been seen in Massachusetts but not Bristol County, and Townsend’s Solitaire was on that list. I was quite pleased to remove a species from the list and am looking forward to finding the next.

Finding rare birds can take a lot of luck, but also consistency and repetition. Too often the fallacy is that you have to bird the well-known places such as Plum Island to find rare birds, but the reality is that rare birds can be found anywhere. I’ve always been a supporter of local birding and I encourage everyone to do likewise. You may be surprised by what birds you turn up or the patch you discover and there could be a mega-rarity just waiting to be found.


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