Solitaire sleuths wanted

Townsend's Solitaire

Townsend’s Solitaire is nearly colorless, like a pen and ink drawing. Drawing by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec, 27, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Apprentices wanted for solitaire sleuthing.”

2014 Update: This is another invitation to take part in the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count. This year it will be January 3, 2015. Check the Cheyenne Audubon chapter website at http://home.lonetree.com/audubon/. Or look for a CBC close to you at http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

By Barb Gorges

I’ve been hoping that all the avian activity across the street in my neighbor’s junipers would turn out to be waxwings someday, but it always seems to be starlings.

Then Dec. 12, looking out the window while discussing food coop finances on the phone, I saw a robin and another sort of colorless bird there.

As soon as I hung up I grabbed the binocs, but the bird had left the branch. Missed it! No, wait … there by the sidewalk … all gray, with white and black lines etched over its back where the wings lay.

Now its head is turning towards me … white eye-ring … Townsend’s solitaire! Wouldn’t it be great if it stuck around for the Christmas Bird Count?

Because solitaires would rather pluck berries in winter than visit feeders, it seems like an unusual bird to me. And some years, looking at the CBC data, there are fewer solitaires than robins, another species with preference for fruit in the winter.

There are 28 years of CBC data posted for Cheyenne at http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc that show the Townsend’s solitaire was always reported. In the ‘70s it averaged five individuals per count and in the last five years, 14.

This alone doesn’t tell us anything about population trends because results may vary due to numbers of observers and the amount of time they put in.

So the data also include number of solitaires per “party hour” (birders travel in parties of one or more people). That way we can compare results from year to year and location to location.

In the case of the solitaire, average frequency back in the 70’s was 0.208, and in the last five years, 0.509. I would guess the number of berry-producing junipers has more than doubled in 20 years as well.

Two years ago the Yellowstone National Park count came in first with 4.436 solitaires per party hour (54 birds), compared to our 0.351 (eight birds) in 47th place.

That same year the count in Bend, Ore., reported the most solitaires, 134. Our meager tally came in 73rd. But we must keep things in perspective.

Of the approximately 1,880 count circles all over the Western Hemisphere, only 207 reported any solitaires last year.

Only us westerners in North America can see them on a regular basis–and only if we know where the junipers and other berry bushes are within our 15-mile diameter count circles.

There’s a mistaken impression that only expert birders can take part in the CBC. If that were the case, then no one would ever go on their first one. Serving sort of an apprenticeship for a few years not only helps you with bird identification, but learning where the birds are.

In 1989, Mark, the boys and I met the grand dame of Cheyenne birds, May Hanesworth, now deceased, who had been compiling count data for over 40 years.

In her 80s by then, she no longer went out, but at the tally party afterward (when the “parties” get together to party), she did interrogate us about every nook and cranny in town where she expected particular birds to be.

Even experienced birders have to apprentice on a count new to them. Last year a longtime friend and resident of Miles City, Mont., who moved to Helena, Mont., wrote, lamenting, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to count birds here anyway. I loved it in Miles City where I knew where to go and what to look for.”

Novice birders have another role besides perpetuating count circle knowledge. When nearly all pairs of binoculars are focused on some nondescript sparrow, someone has to turn 180 degrees and say, “What’s that?”

And because we’re counting the total number of birds seen, everyone will love you for asking the question, even if “that” is another flock of starlings.

While folks who are willing and able will meet at 7:30 a.m. in the lobby of the Capitol Avenue Post Office this Saturday to tromp around downtown and Lions Park for a few hours, others are needed at home to count birds at their feeders.

I hope you’ll participate. It’s a great holiday tradition, great winter recreation and a chance to add to scientific knowledge.

If you can’t join the main party, then keep track of the number of birds you see within the count circle, the number of miles you travel, and the number of hours you’re out and then join us for the Saturday evening tally party.

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