While a rather plain looking bird, when the Townsend’s solitaire sings, it becomes beautiful indeed.
Cathy heard him first. He was singing his heart out from the top of a tall juniper next to our campsite in Sinks Canyon, near Lander, Wyoming. With my less than perfect hearing, I really had to concentrate to hear his song after she pointed him out in the top of the tree. I thought it strange to have a songbird belting out a love song in late September, long after breeding season had ended, but there he was. Later, we would find numerous of his species in this same canyon.
This bird was a Townsend’s solitaire, a relatively common, but rather plain looking bird. It has a slender profile, smaller than a blackbird but larger than a sparrow, with a mostly gray body. There is a splash of buff on the wing, easily seen when it flies, but still visible, bordered by a little black, at rest. The secondary wing feathers are lined with white along one edge and the underbelly is lighter gray, but overall, it isn’t a physically remarkable bird except for one thing: a solid, white eye ring around the eye. This characteristic, while not limited to Townsend’s solitaire, is quite obvious and diagnostic.
But plain-looking isn’t what a Townsend’s solitaire should be remembered for. It is their song, melodic and complex and as beautiful as any you will hear, that creates the best memory. And the fact that these birds sing throughout the summer and winter to establish and maintain territories is a wonderful bonus.
The Townsend’s solitaire is a fairly commonplace Western bird and is one of a handful of songbirds that are common all year long in much of the Rocky Mountains—meaning that they don’t migrate a lot. Some will migrate downslope, and some will end up in Mexico for the winter, and Alaskan and Canadian birds do move south, but most will face winter with aplomb so long as there are berries, especially juniper berries, to eat. In the summer, insects make up a large part of their diet.
Townsend’s solitaires nest on the ground and seem to prefer cut banks along roads and waterways. They will always build their nest under some type of overhang and will lay three to five eggs. Both parents raise the brood. When the juveniles leave the nest, they look almost nothing like the adults. A juvenile is dark gray and heavily spotted with buff, white and black to the point where it looks scaly and can be mistaken for a different species. They do have the white eye ring though.
It is interesting to note that Townsend’s solitaires begin nesting early. This is easy to understand given their choice of nest locations on the ground. All manner of mammalian predators can raid these nests and having to start over is a common occurrence. A pair may have to start several nests before having a successful one.
Birders say that there is a “spark” bird, a single bird or experience that starts a person down the wonderful road of bird watching. I honestly can’t figure out my spark bird. I have been interested in birds most of my life and birding slowly became more and more interesting. However, seeing, recognizing and hearing birds like the Townsend’s solitaire are certainly the experiences that keep my birding fires stoked.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho