Finding a bird nest can be an amazing experience! Songbird nests look simultaneously delicate and comfortable, and it feels like a privilege to watch nesting birds. If you have the chance to view a bird nest, it is important avoid disturbing the birds. It is also an opportunity for you to participate in a really interesting Citizen Science program, Project NestWatch. To learn more about the program and read the Code of Conduct for observing bird nests, please visit the Project NestWatch page.
We were excited to read this story from a Powell River, BC, resident about discovering and observing a Townsend’s Solitaire nest. This find was notable because Townsend’s Solitaires typically nests in higher elevation conifer forests, and their nests are often quite hard to detect as they hide them in small hollows in banks, under stumps or rocks, or at the base of trees.
TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE NEST
By Clyde Burton
My wife, Peggy, and I are always looking for wildlife. We cruise the back roads that go up the big lake chain behind Powell River where we live. We often see elk, bear, and cougar. Since I am a lifelong birder, I’m also looking for anything that flies. Unfortunately, the logging has chased away many of the birds that used to haunt our forests and open spaces but sometimes we get lucky. June 4th 2020 was one of those days.
After numerous turns off the main road, we came to a north facing cut block that looked as if it might be good for picking the huckleberries Peggy likes to make into pies and jams. I noticed two adult Townsend’s Solitaires sitting side by side on a branch in the second growth. Their grey colouring was identical to that of the branch. They were so still they could have been part of it.
I went back to the same place next day and immediately a solitaire flew out of the bank. There had to be a nest there. Sure enough, there was. It was on a ledge 5 m up from the bottom of the ditch by the side of the road. I walked up the road 150 m and came back on the flat above the nest. I very slowly and carefully peered over and saw the nest made of grasses and moss with four speckled eggs in it.
Nest photo: Clyde Burton
I waited till June 17, hoping that the young would hatch. I had timed it correctly. There were four young in the nest with pin feathers indicating that they were approximately two or three days old. The young are born naked but almost immediately, their feathers begin to grow, protected by waxy cylinders that eventually wear off.
Two days later, I saw the young perched on a ledge 10 cm above the nest. I got two photos of an adult with a red salmonberry in its beak while a pygmy-owl called from 60 m away. Bad news. I was afraid it would predate the adults, leaving the young to starve.
Nestlings photo: Clyde Burton
Next day, there was no sign of the adults in the area. I could see the young in the nest from the truck and decided to get some pictures from above. All was well. I took three pictures but only stayed 20 seconds. An adult appeared just as I left.
The following day, I took two pictures from the truck of the young still in the nest. One adult was 200 m away. A few feathers were beginning to break free of their waxy protection.
Fledglings in nest photo: Clyde Burton
Parent with berry photo: Clyde Burton
On June 27, I took pictures of two young in the nest and two fledged. I returned in the early evening to see an adult pick a red huckleberry and feed it to a fledgling perched on a rock directly below the nest. Peggy spotted the bird because the red berry shone through its crop. Most of its feathers were free though mixed with fluff. All the fledglings’ tail feathers were longer than those of other members of the thrush family like robins or Veeries of the same age.
Fledgling with berry in crop photo: Clyde Burton
Three days later, about 200 m upslope from the site, I picked huckleberries. It was overcast with sunny periods and a good temperature for picking berries. When I had picked enough, I slowly drove the truck down to the nest. Without getting out, I sat in the truck for about 5 minutes. On the opposite side of the road, an adult landed on a windfall about 50 m from the site. As I took photos, I could see the red of the berries in a fledgling’s crop. Then it flew down into the rock rubble. Even though not all the pin feathers are free of their sheaths, the birds can fly. Very slowly and quietly, I walked closer. A grey fledgling lifted up like a feather and flew in a wobbly fashion 8 m up a second-growth tree where it was almost invisible against the bark.
Older fledglings photo: Clyde Burton
A week later, I was looking for a place to pick more huckleberries and decided to visit the solitaire nest site. As usual, Peggy came along for the ride. I stopped at the now old nest site and made a remark that there weren’t many birds about. We sat, not speaking, for a few minutes with the truck engine off. Out of nowhere, a pair of solitaires appeared on a rock cut, not 50 m from the old nest. One of the birds had a rootlet in its beak and was inspecting crevices along the edge of the bank where the roots and the underlying rock met. We observed her for 10 minutes. Both birds eventually flew back into the second-growth.
Although I returned four times at two-day intervals, I didn’t see any further nesting activity. I could hear the adults and the fledglings calling from different parts of the clear cut as well as Red Crossbills and Cedar Waxwings.
We also drove to the same area in March of 2021. A fifth-wheel trailer was parked there both times we visited. This is enough human interference that the birds are unlikely to breed here again.