Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fenner Nature Center's Townsend's Solitaire: continuing since January 15

For the past several days, I have spent a cumulative total of at least four hours at Fenner Nature Center watching the now-famous Townsend's Solitaire and helping visiting birders view it.  I have already done one blog post about this bird, but that was only a brief description of the bird.  This post is the information and observations that I have collected over several hours of observation and through reading others' accounts of their visits.

This record is extremely remarkable because as you can see from this animated map of eBird sightings, usually when a Townsend's Solitaire--or any vagrant bird from the west--shows up as a vagrant to Southern Michigan, the first land it sees as it completes its crossing of Lake Michigan is, well, the shore of Lake Michigan, and the first land a vagrant sees is typically where it lands.  Fenner Nature Center, though, is pretty much as far inland in Michigan as it can get. 

The Bird spends a lot of time within a small area of the prairie, but also wanders into adjacent Mount Hope Cemetery--presumably to eat juniper berries--and very infrequently near the central pond.  Within the prairie, it spends most of the time feeding at the western edge of the field pond, or resting--often with a flock of four or more bluebirds--in the apple trees, brush pile, and other small trees and shrubs in the northwestern edge of the prairie. It has also been found several times in the chestnut trees closest to the field pond and at least once in the sumacs east of the field pond.  

All of the spots to my knowledge where the solitaire has been seen, based on my observations as well as others' reports.  The bottom oval encases where it feeds on the buckthorn berries, the top one surrounds the area where it rests and hangs out with bluebirds.  Notice the two spots in the cemetery across the road.
The solitaire and the bluebirds here have an interesting relationship.  When the bluebirds are not near the buckthorn berries, the solitaire is quite often amongst them and very amiable towards them.  In fact, whenever the solitaire is not near its food source, the bluebirds, far more conspicuous than it, are a very handy way to locate it.  When any bluebird tries to get ahold of one of those berries, though, the solitaire turns into a little demon, raising all its feathers and spreading its tail.  Terrified, the thief quickly turns tail and runs.

Interestingly, one of this bird's distinctive field marks--the white eyering, is very noticeable on one side, but smaller on the other side.  All of its other distinctive characteristics are fully there, though. It does have a very long tail, contributing to its larger appearance in comparison to the bluebirds.  It also shows the classic buffy wing bar and black "shoulders", and the upperparts are slightly darker than the underparts.  The tail is all black with white outer feathers.

The side of its head with a noticeabe white eye ring.  The other side has a thinner eye ring.  I need to work on getting a photo of that.
A good view of its really long tail.
 All-black tail with white outer tail feathers.
Buffy wing bars.
An amazing look at all of the wing markings: black"shoulder",
light wing bar, thin black wing bar, and gray flight feathers.
The solitaire's plumage suggests that it is an adult:  A young bird would have more barring on its underparts.  The sexes are inseparable in the field, so no one knows whether it's a male or a female.
The lack of darker barring on this bird's underparts suggests that it is an adult.
When the solitaire decides that it is time to eat a berry, it flies up to and perches on a buckthorn tree, and surveying the pickings decides which berry it will eat, and then launches itself off the branch into a stationary hover directly below its berry of choice.  Then it grabs the berry in its bill and twists its head, which in turn twists the berry off the stem.

Surveying its territory.                                      
Taking off toward its berry of choice.
Hovering in place under its future meal.
Grabbing the berry in its bill.
Twisting its head to loosen the berry.
Got it!!
After the solitaire has the berry, it settles down on a branch, swallows the berry and then usually just sits for a few minutes.  It is during these times that it is the easiest to get a really nice photo.  This is because not only can a photographer get close to it as mentioned below, but it spends a lot of time preening and stretching as well, and when it's not doing that, it has its feathers all puffed out to conserve heat.  These behaviors make for really neat action shots and some very cute portraits.

Another good time of to get good photographs of the solitaire is when it is obtaining its food (because of the hovering behavior, this can make for some great flight shots).  There is one potantial drawback to trying to photograph Fenner's Townsend's Solitaire, especially if you have limited time to do so:

When it takes off and you don't see where it lands, it can blend in really well!
Otherwise, this bird is quite easily photographed.  Besides, this is not that much of an issue, because as mentioned above, the solitaire is usually hanging out with bluebirds when it's not near the buckthorn berries, which makes it much easier to find, even without a clue as to where it is or where it landed.  

While it is digesting a meal, the solitaire seems content to let birders get quite close,
just so long as there are only one to five people approaching it at one time. 
When approaching this bird, the safe distance is about eight feet.  It has been known to come within arm's length, but the important thing to note here is that the solitaire comes within arm's length of people, not the other way around.  When photographing, it is helpful to use a technique that my good friend Mike Boyce taught me:

1) instead of raising your camera before each shot, keep it up the entire time.
2) once you are at a distance that the bird is obviously comfortable with, take some "just in case"photos.
3) keeping your camera up, take three SLOW paces towards the bird and take a few more shots.
4) keep pacing slowly towards and photographing the bird as out lined above until you feel like you are satisfied with your photos or until the bird is obviously feeling uncomfortable, or until it flies off.
5) once it flies off, it is safe to follow it and repeat steps 2-4, but stopping farther away than last time, so as not to get too close to it again.
6)  if you want to get a better angle, take three slow paces at a time until you have the angle you want

Using this strategy cuts down on the ways that a photographer can scare the bird, plus it allows extra opportunities if the bird flies off before you get a satisfactory shot.

I hope that this amazing bird decides to spend the rest of it's winter at Fenner Nature Center, and that all who come to see it while it's here are successful.


  1. I love these pictures! especially the black and white picture of the solitaire taking flight to find a berry THAT one is beautiful and the one that says buffy wing bars. So pretty.

  2. Nathan, upon reading the CAAS newsletter, I was surprised to find out that the Solitaire is missing its left foot. I decided to come look at your pictures and indeed it is missing a foot! Had you noticed this?