By Poody McLaughlin
What has brightened these gray winter days for me has been a nondescript gray bird. A permanent resident in most of Montana that sings even in winter, the Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi) can now be found by just about any juniper tree. “So strong is its reliance on juniper fruits outside the breeding season that it would be an accomplishment to find a Townsend’s Solitaire in midwinter that was not in or near a cone-laden juniper tree.” (Birds of Montana, 2016).
This reliance on juniper berries as a food source leads both sexes to defend territories in winter against all interlopers. Many times, I’ve watched a flock of waxwings descend on a juniper stand, prompting the solitaire to staunchly (and fruitlessly) defend its territory against overwhelming odds.
Although I’ve only occasionally heard solitaires singing this winter, their call seems ubiquitous in the Missoula Valley. Described as a “clear, soft, whistled “heeh” by Sibley, the Cornell Lab describes this year-round call as a “high- pitched clear ringing note: tew.” Solitaires can “tew” about 30 times per minute to defend their territories.
Solitaires migrate vertically. In winter they are found in lower-elevation woodlands that contain junipers. In summer they move up to montane conifer forests and inhabit pine, fir, and spruce forests with sparse shrub layers.
At first glance, a solitaire looks like a slimmed down robin, an elegant look with its long tail and upright posture. They are cousins in the family Turdidae along with bluebirds, Veery, and Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes, among others. The solitaire has a tail with white outer tail feathers, a white eye ring, and a bold, buffy wing stripe. Otherwise, it is of course, gray.
Walking out my front door I usually hear their ‘tew’ call from across the street. This solitaire has alerted me to juniper trees I didn’t realize were there. Conversely, to locate a solitaire, you can plant yourself by a berry-laden juniper tree and wait — eventually you’ll see one!