Solitaire flies in as a rare holiday treat for birders.
GARDNER - The name has a local ring, but a Townsend's solitaire seen in the city last week may have to buy a ticket for a cross-country flight if it wants to get all the way home.
The bird, a member of the thrush family, was like an early Christmas present for birders. It is something they have few chances in a lifetime to see in New England. The bird has a wide range, summering as far north as northern Alaska and wintering well into Mexico, but it mostly stays in the Western states and is rarely seen farther east than Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and western Texas.
Birder Tom Pirro of Westminster discovered the solitaire two days before Christmas in and around oriental bittersweet growing near a stand of apple trees in Gardner. Mr. Pirro posted the sighting on massbird.org and his blog, http://tpirro.blogspot.com/. In his postings Mr. Pirro said he saw the bird while he was heading home from an interview, but didn't have a camera with him because he was not planning to do any birding. He eventually got a photo of the bird with a cell phone.
The bird was in an area a few hundred yards west of the junction of Routes 101 and 140. It was first seen in the crown of a maple trees and then moved to the bittersweet.
David Small of Athol, president of the Athol Bird and Nature Club, said he also saw the solitaire. He said it is the first time he has seen one in Worcester County.
"It's very rare," he said.
There have only been a handful of sightings in Massachusetts.
Mr. Small likened the sighting to the sighting in October 2009 of a scissor-tailed flycatcher in Orange. Both represent rare opportunities for birders to see something normally found in other parts of the country.
Mr. Small said he has seen Townsend's solitaires in Falmouth and Hingham. He said there was also a sighting in Greenfield once, but he did not get a chance to see the bird.
Mr. Small got a chance to see and photograph the bird Friday near Chapel and Carter streets in Gardner, after hearing about Mr. Pirro's discovery the day before.
Mr. Small, Mark Lynch of Worcester and other birders traveled to Gardner and staked out the area near where the solitaire had been seen. They spent their first hour without seeing the bird.
They kept checking for birds flying high over the fields where it had been seen and kept checking trees along the edge of the field.
While they were waiting, Gardner Police Officer Eugene Kolimaga stopped by to see what the birders were up to. Officer Kolimaga knows Mr. Small and others among the birders, and when they saw the solitaire he took the opportunity to take a peek through a scope at the bird.
Although there have been no reports of the bird the past few days, Mr. Lynch said there is plenty of good habitat and food in that area and the bird could remain there for quite a while.
ART: PHOTO; MAP; CHART
CUTLINE: (PHOTO) This photo of the Townsend's solitaire was taken Friday in Gardner. (MAP, CHART) Townsend's solitaire
PHOTOG: (PHOTO) DAVID SMALL (MAP, CHART) T&G Staff/STACEY ARSENAULT