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In Badlands, a Bird of Winter: Townsend’s Solitaire

a 1907 watercolor painting of a Townsend's solitaire by master bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes

I was at work before dawn this morning in order to drive two hours to the town of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, with Badlands National Park Artist in Residence Jessica Bryant.  We spent the day working with high school students in the art classes of the Red Cloud Indian School, helping them to create watercolor landscape paintings of the Badlands and the prairie.  Since I so recently posted about the Badlands Artist in Residence program and how we work with area schools, I won’t get into the details of that today.  Instead, I will share the story of a bird that brought me a great deal of joy (and a little bit of puzzlement) while I was in Pine Ridge today.

Around ten o’clock in the morning, a brief break between classes allowed me to step outside to soak up the warm sunshine and inhale deeply of the fresh fall air.  A bubbling, effusive birdsong greeted me even as I stepped through the doorway.  I stopped, my head swiveling up and to the left, seeking out the singer.  “A mockingbird?” I exclaimed aloud as I caught sight of a medium-sized gray bird with white on the outside of its tail.  But it wasn’t.  The bird flew from its perch on a balcony railing into a nearby juniper tree, revealing not the bold, white wing patches of a mockingbird, but a buffy stripe running along the length of the wing.  A Townsend’s solitaire!

Townsend’s solitaires are fairly common in Badlands National Park and the surrounding areas in the winter months.  You don’t see them just anywhere, though.  They tend to hang out in places where juniper trees cluster.  In Badlands, that generally means places like Cliff Shelf or Deer Haven—areas where the steep badlands formations have slumped, leaving a ledge of relatively level ground.  The gentler topography of the slumps retains a bit more moisture, allowing the growth of a shrubby woodland.  This is a rarity on the prairie, where the climate is generally too harsh and dry for trees.

Cliff Shelf and the road at Cedar Pass, Badlands National Park

Cliff Shelf as seen from southeast of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park. The dark green junipers grow on the comparatively flat topography of a large slump.  The park road also takes advantage of this easy gradient, making one switchback to ascend Cedar Pass.

The junipers attract birds because of their “berries,” the chief food source of wintering Townsend’s solitaires.  Juniper berries are not technically berries at all; they are really fleshy, blue-tinged cones.  (You may know them because they’re used to flavor gin; I have occasionally used them as a spice in cooking, as well.)

So I knew what the bird was and why it was hanging out near the big old juniper at Red Cloud School, but I wasn’t sure what it was doing singing at this time of year.  Singing is typically a territorial behavior.  Males do it to stake out an appealing patch of habitat during nesting season, in hopes of attracting a willing mate.  Why would a solitaire be singing in November?

To find out, I went to the website of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, All About Birds.  This site is my go-to resource for bird-related questions.  There, you can listen to the song of the Townsend’s solitaire for yourself.

It turns out that Townsend’s solitaires, unlike most songbirds I’m familiar with, are singing territorially at this time of year.  Individual birds, whether male or female, will stake out patches of juniper trees with abundant berries.  They’ll defend these food sources against other solitaires throughout the winter months.

It’s a fascinating contrast with many of the other birds flocking to Badlands right now.  Most other common wintering species here gather in social groups, no longer feeling the territorial urges that are common during breeding season.  Mixed flocks of sparrows, including dark-eyed juncos, tree sparrows, and song sparrows, feed on the ground near the visitor center.  On the bare ground near the prairie dog towns, horned larks seek out seeds with the occasional longspur or snow bunting.  There seems to be a spirit of camaraderie among the little avians as they contend with the harsh climate and limited food resources.

So that’s one question answered regarding the behavior of today’s Townsend’s solitaire.  Here’s the second: I saw it clinging to a window screen, multiple times, and for several seconds each time.  I’ve never noticed a solitaire clinging to a vertical surface before.  Have you seen solitaires doing this?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Audrey Clark #

    Cathy! I have not seen a solitaire acting like a woodpecker, but I have seen one who had habits. When I watched bald eagles for a living, there was a solitaire that would land on a particular rock next to the Verde River in central Arizona every morning at about nine o’clock. (At least, I assume it was the same bird). It would tip forward, take a mouthful of water, then tip back and swallow it. It would repeat that motion several times, then fly off. I always felt lucky to be there right then, getting to know a particular neighbor in my landscape.

    November 11, 2012
    • cathybell #

      Your description takes me right there, Audrey–I can imagine that scene so vividly–and I also love what you say about appreciating the moment and getting a glimpse into the routine of another living creature. It has always struck me as a tremendous privilege when a wild animal reveals its ways to me, a passive (usually) observer who is forever outside of what matters to that creature.

      That’s part of the reason I started this blog. I sought a pathway to enable that particular type of noticing. I write mostly for myself, to help me take note of what happens around me in my everyday world … but I do also hope it will encourage others to start paying more attention to the little wonders that are everywhere in nature.

      November 11, 2012

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