Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Pursuit of Townsend's Solitaires

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For many Wisconsin birders, October at Devil's Lake State Park is synonymous with the arrival of TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRES. My friend Jesse Peterson looked for them about a week ago, but did so on a weekend day and the park was swarming with people on account of the nice weather. Alas, he wasn't able to locate a single solitaire given all the commotion. Today's weather was gorgeous and lucky me had the day off from work...so, what to do...what to do... I know, BIRDING!

To see these birds it usually means a daunting 30-minute climb up the bluff along Balanced Rock trail. Well, I suppose one could get lucky and see a solitaire at the bottom of the bluff, but that's never happened to me! With each passing year the climb seems increasingly difficult and I can remember as a teenager practically running up the stony path...ah, youth...

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Last year the Guardian of Balanced Rock trail, this adorable Red Squirrel, confronted me near the trail entrance... "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" I did see another Red Squirrel today, but this time a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker kept it sufficiently distracted from any interest in my trespass. The squirrel seemed rather displeased with the sapsucker being on any of its trees.

Surrounded by fall's fiery colors as I slowly made my way up the bluff, I found a 4" long millipede crawling over a flat rock. I got out my digital camera and set it into macro mode, but just as I held the lens up it defensively curled up. Hey...it really does look like a snail, doesn't it? Apparently other critters fall for the trick and often leave them alone.

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Once at the top of the bluff I got my digiscoping gear ready and waited...and waited. During the first hour I found a flock of Purple Finches, heard some Pine Siskins fly over and saw a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets. I even heard a Pileated Woodpecker calling from the forest below. About a dozen Turkey Vultures were lazily riding the thermals. Though I was thoroughly enjoying the spectacular view, the birds'n critters and warming sunlight, after the second hour I was beginning to wonder if the solitaires hadn't yet arrived this fall.

A very good thought to think! Just a moment later I heard one calling just east from where I was sitting. I grabbed my scope, put my backpack on and moved down the trail in the direction of the familiar "theep theep!" call. As I traversed a rocky stairs I could hear the calls getting louder...there was more than one! Then I caught a glimpse of one of them through the tree branches and snapped this picture:

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There were at least two Townsend's Solitaires for sure, breaking into full-song, but I got a visual on only one of them...and that's all I really wanted - they're such beautiful birds with a lively song to admire. I spent the next hour relaxing in the sun, reading and eating some trail mix...and not being too thrilled thinking about the trip back down the bluff!

(winter range for Townsend's Solitaire)

See? Wisconsin birders are very lucky, indeed!

Link: All about the Townsend's Solitaire from Cornell Labs

Link: Wisconsin Fall Color Report

All photographs © 2005 Michael McDowell

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