Wild Side: Townsend’s solitaire

The best bird of the year is spotted in the State Forest.

The Townsend's solitaire perches on the tip of a branch. — Matt Pelikan

So far, 2023 has been a bit of a snoozer from the birdwatching perspective. Not much unusual has been reported, and at least in the areas where I’ve been birding, numbers even of expected species have seemed on the low side.

But the local birding community got jolted into action on Feb. 21, when the best bird of the year so far was found in Correllus State Forest. Birding near the forest headquarters off Barnes Road, Bridget Dunnigan and “Sea” Williams found Townsend’s solitaire. They reported the sighting to the community science platform eBird, which is an excellent way to get out word of a rarity, and the following day, Vineyard birding stalwarts Lanny McDowell and Bob Shriber relocated the bird on the fringe of the cleared area around the northeastern end of the airport’s landing light array.

Since then, adverse weather — rain, high winds, or both — have complicated the search for the bird. But many observers, including at least one from off-Island, have persisted long enough to find the elusive visitor. Multiple observers reported the bird as recently as this past Sunday, March 5.

Townsend’s solitaire presents a bit of a paradox in terms of its appearance: While it is a drab bird, grayish-brown overall, with no strong markings, it is nevertheless a very distinctive bird, easily recognized even at a quick glance. It sports a notably tiny bill and features a bold white ring around each eye. Combined with a small and very rounded head, these marks give it, to my eye, a gentle and perpetually slightly startled expression. White outer tail feathers show readily in flight, and sometimes when a solitaire is perched. And in flight, a buffy stripe crosses each wing.

There’s really nothing else occurring in our region that looks similar, a fact that reflects the taxonomic status of this bird. Its closest relatives are Hawaiian species, at least one of them extinct, and a smattering of solitaires that occur in the Caribbean and Central and South America, according to the definitive “Birds of North America” website. Probably the closest thing to a solitaire among our normally occurring birds would be the Eastern bluebird, somewhat similar to a solitaire in structure, and a species with which vagrant solitaires sometimes associate.

Townsend’s solitaire is a breeding bird of higher elevations in western North America, usually in conifer woodland. In winter, some populations migrate south, with the northernmost birds probably engaging in a fairly long migration; other populations move less dramatically, mainly downslope to lower elevations.

For reasons that are not at all clear, the species has always been prone to vagrancy, with a well-established pattern of occurrence all the way to the East Coast. Massachusetts has about 25 fully accepted records, with solitaires turning up roughly annually in the Bay State in recent years. There is some evidence that the frequency of records in parts of the East has been increasing, but if that’s true, there is no indication of what is driving the trend.

The bird in the State Forest will be the Vineyard’s third fully accepted record; there have been several other reports over the years that could not be confirmed, though given how distinctive this bird is, some of those may very well have been correct.

During the warmer months, solitaires feed mainly on invertebrates, which they capture using a wide range of tactics. They can drop on prey from a perch, like bluebirds often do; they can root for food items in the leaf litter, a favorite tactic of many sparrow and thrush species (taxonomically, the solitaire is a thrush of sorts); they can even pluck flying insects out of the air, like a flycatcher. But the winter diet of the species, including that of most vagrant birds, is dramatically different: mostly berries, with cedar “berries” (technically, they’re cones, but never mind) a particular favorite.

When I caught up with the State Forest solitaire, a few hundred yards south of the headquarters buildings, it didn’t appear to be feeding at all. A small flock of bluebirds in the area were merrily perch-hunting, seemingly finding an abundance of prey in the low vegetation of an extensive grassy area. But the solitaire, when it appeared, simply sat on the top of a small tree and looked at me.

After briefly relocating to another tree, the bird dropped down into a thicket of pine trees and disappeared. I didn’t survey the area in any detail, but I didn’t notice any cedars offhand. As far as I know, nobody else has seen it eat anything, either, though its persistence through two weeks of challenging winter weather argues that it must be feeding successfully on something. Perhaps it’s finding food on the ground in the thicket it’s been inhabiting.

Vagrant solitaires often remain in one area for a long time; the first Vineyard record, during the winter of 1981 to ’82, lingered for weeks before it apparently succumbed to the cold. So local birders may still be able to enjoy this rarity for a while longer.