In winter, owls tend to get all the publicity. Those big – or in some cases little – round balls of feathers get even the most stubborn non-birder to notice. Yes, owls are fun, but there are other winter specialties to monitor. They may not be as charismatic as an owl, but they have their appeal.
One such interesting species is the Townsend’s solitaire from out west. According to winter bird counts and surveys, this Western species has been increasing in number, especially in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They have a tendency to set up a winter territory, so once one is reported in your area, chances are good it will stick around for several weeks, provided there are ample fruits for it to eat.
Townsend’s solitaires are strange birds when it comes to migratory patterns. There are different populations in North America and some head south; some simply shift from a higher altitude to a lower altitude; and some just plain stay put. It’s not known if the increasing number of birds showing up in the east in winter is a result of a natural range expansion or a response to changing climates and food availability.
If you are racing to your field guide to scrutinize this bird, you might be a bit disappointed. Solitaires are about the size of a robin with a soft gray body and buffy patches on the wings. But what they lack in color, they more than make up for in song, and it’s not out of the question to find them singing in their winter territory. Their warbling song is a welcomed reprieve from the mostly silent winter punctuated with crows cawing. Solitaires are my favorite family of birds when it comes to bird song. Also check out some of the songs of the Townsend’s cousin, the brown-backed solitaire.
In the summer, solitaires will eat insects, flowers, and fruit. In the winter, they’re primarily after juniper berries. When I see them in Minnesota, they’re hanging around cedar trees. As long as there’s fruit available, they will stay – whether it’s next to a lake, river, or cemetery. When not feeding, they’ll perch in the top of a tree and watch their territory, blending in with their gray color.
There have been quite a few reports of Townsend’s solitaires in Minnesota and Wisconsin. You can always check eBird or the BirdsEye app to see if any have been reported near you. Otherwise, if you happen to be near a stand of some berry-loaded cedars, see if a solitaire is making a home.