“Tales of a Birder” is a series that highlights the chase and challenges of birding and shines a spotlight on the birds themselves.
A bird of the western United States, the Townsend’s Solitaire is a thrush species found in coniferous forests of the mountainous west. So when one shows up in Pennsylvania, you drop what you’re doing and GO!
My friend Nathaniel and I saddled up for the four-hour journey to Indiana County, Pennsylvania. Our 270-mile drive literally flew by as we soared down the Pennsylvania Turnpike in hopes of seeing this recently reported Townsend’s Solitaire. As we caught up over our morning coffee, we reminisced on old times—trips together, Nathaniel’s recent radio interview with Vermont Public Radio, and how this was the longest chase we’d done together. We were excited about our arrival but slightly nervous that we may dip, or miss, the solitaire.
Bird chasing often lands you in unfamiliar places. As we arrived at Camp Seph Mach Boy Scout Camp, we had to take a few minutes to orient ourselves. The scout camp lies within Yellow Creek State Park, and the bird had been previously reported around the area of the shooting range. After reviewing our notes from eBird and the PA Birds Listserve that we compiled on the drive, we were off to the spot!
See also: 5 Reasons Why You Should Be Using eBird
In addition to the shooting range sign that hung over the trail, we knew we’d arrived in the right spot when we saw the other birders. Folks had been there looking for the last 30 minutes without luck. We did read on the drive that the bird had been seen about two hours before our arrival, so we were optimistic. The next 25 minutes were spent observing American Robins gleaning berries from a crab apple tree that the solitaire had been frequenting.
My heart stopped when I spotted a drab bird picking at the berries just up the trail from where we were standing. Townsend’s Solitaires are a rather plain looking bird with an overall gray body, white eye ring, long tail, and buffy wing bars. Even as adults, Townsend’s Solitaires don’t offer any bold or spectacular coloration, so when I observed this plain bird feeding trailside, I thought we were in luck. Further inspection showed otherwise—it was a female Eastern Bluebird, a relative of the Townsend’s Solitaire. Female Eastern Bluebirds have a rather subdued coloration in addition to a white eye ring.
After good looks at the bluebird, I walked up the trail away from the group to check a few other patches of trees. The habitat was mostly composed of crab apple trees with tangles of shrubs, so the bird could have been anywhere in this area. I figured our best bet was to scan suitable habitat for activity in hopes of finding it, but after a few minutes picking through American Robins, I strolled back unsuccessfully.
Then, I looked at Nathaniel. He was fixated on a lone bird about 30 feet above his head, perched rather conspicuously on the very top of a tree. SUCCESS: Townsend’s Solitaire!
After us birders rejoiced, the solitaire was kind enough to grace us with its presence in the expected crab apple tree right on the edge of the trail. It was very actively feeding on berries and associating with American Robins. At one point, the bird even perched on the shooting range sign for very, very cooperative views!
The solitaire put on quite the show during the hour we spent observing it, splitting its time between picking off berries and perching for superb scope views. Once our friends Zach and Rebecca arrived (and once our toes became totally numb), we decided to pack it in and begin our lengthy drive home.
The Townsend’s Solitaire was my 289th all-time Pennsylvania bird! I had previously seen this species before, with the last time being in June 2015 in South Dakota. However, this bird was an exciting addition to my Pennsylvania life list since they are a rarity to Pennsylvania. From the data I was able to collect, this observation of Towsend’s Solitaire represents the 17th record for the state of Pennsylvania.
For more, check out Vlog from the chase:
Haas, Franklin C., and Barbara M. Haas. Annotated List of the Birds of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Biological Survey, Ornithological Technical Committee, 2005.
Higbee, Margaret, and Michael David. “Townsend’s Solitaire Records.” PORC, 26 Dec. 2018, pabirds.org/records/index.php/birds/townsends-solitaire/.