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Solitaire and mixed spring signals

Townsend's Solitaire
Townsend's Solitaire

I’ve been getting a lot of mixed signals from Mother Earth lately. On my early morning walk yesterday I saw an optimistic chipmunk, then a freshly dead garter snake that probably should have stayed in bed another two months. More typical signs of early “spring” abound – Red-winged Blackbirds have been singing three weeks now, the first grackles came back mid-month, and Turkey Vultures are slowly teetering back into areas they don’t winter. On the other hand, new winter rarities, birds typically discovered in fall, are still turning up. Further scrambling the seasonal signal, some birds that don’t actually winter here never left, raising the question “are they early for spring or late for fall?”

In hopes of decoding these mixed messages, let’s start with that winter rarity, a Townsend’s Solitaire photographed at High Head in North Truro over the weekend. Like so many of the interesting birds we’ve had this winter, the solitaire is yet another species of the montane west, a high-elevation thrush whose lovely song adds to the alpine aesthetic in places where Mountain Goats patrol 12,000-foot ledges. These are mostly altitudinal migrants - in winter they migrate short distances down slope to patches of junipers whose berries they eat almost exclusively in winter.

Several have turned up well east of their normal range this year, so I’ve been expecting one, especially given the bumper crop of juniper berries we have feeding all manner of birds this winter, including the solitaires’ rocky mountain roommates, Western Tanagers. And past Townsend’s Solitaire records for the state have mostly been in our listening area, from Dartmouth and Marion out to Truro and on both islands.

But why did this bird turn up now when we usually find them in fall? I suspect it’s been here all winter, quietly feeding in dense junipers until that one lucky birder finally spotted it out in the open. These medium sized, pale gray songbirds look like mockingbirds at first glance, but a close look reveals a distinctive eye ring and buffy flashes in the wings. Look for them atop fruit-filled junipers — our local one is confusingly called the Eastern Red Cedar — and listen for the odd, high-pitched call they give year round, which sounds like someone walking a bike with a squeaky wheel.

Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow

Getting back to those mixed messages of mother nature, I’ve recently been asking the question “how do you know if spring is coming when the signs of spring never left?” That’s the case with Tree Swallows on the Outer Cape this winter. Typically these aerial insectivores swarm the dunes in impressive pre-migratory flocks from late summer into October, then leave completely for points south, returning on the first warm days of April. Most winter from the Carolinas to Cuba and Mexico, but some don’t go that far, and occasionally one will turn up here in winter, or even small flocks over on the Vineyard. But never have so many attempted to stay. Up to a hundred were around Wellfleet into January, and at least a couple dozen have been in Provincetown as recently as this past weekend despite all the periods of freezing weather. These are the only swallows that eat fruit, and one of the few birds that can eat waxy bayberries, allowing them to winter in temperate latitudes. My guess is some late insect activity persisted into winter and convinced these birds to stay, then they got through the cold spells eating bayberries. These seasonal mavericks seem to be in it to win it, and if they live will have first pick of the best nest boxes come spring.

So far they’re predicting mild weather into almost mid-March, for whatever that’s worth, so maybe these optimistic chipmunks and daredevil swallows will be alright. Or maybe the great March Blizzard of ’24 will come and remove their genes from the pool. Such are the risks of optimism in a New England winter. Do you feel lucky?

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.