Colorful Towhee

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

The blue sky, towering evergreens, and verdant shrubs gave me no reason to rush. I parked my camera on tripod in the little grove of old Monterey Pines on the south side of the Native Plant Area, and waited. As every nature watcher knows, you have to stay quiet for a while before some of the creatures will come out. Before long, I saw a California Towhee and a Ground Squirrel; more on those in another post. Then quiet. And then emerged the reward for my patience. Hopping along on the path came a bird I’d never seen before, or at least not in full and in the open. It looked like its head was dipped in black ink, then its breast painted white, and its flanks brushed a bright, orange red, with eyes like rubies. I had to take my images home and ask Merlin what it was. Answer: Spotted Towhee.

The Spotted Towhee is known to breed in parts of Northern California, among other places, and could theoretically have a nest here in Chavez Park. They nest on or near the ground. But if they did that, the birds would be relatively easy to see in spring and summer. The only other time I saw what probably was a Spotted Towhee was in November 2019, when I caught a blurry glimpse of a colorful bird darting through the willows in the same corner of the Native Plant Area. I’m guessing the individual I saw today is a migrant. Maybe a short-range migrant from chilly Sierra peaks, maybe from farther away. In any event, good to see here.

Male and female Spotted Towhees look very similar, with the male usually having brighter, more saturated colors than the female. On that basis I’m guessing this one is a male. I only saw this one. California Towhees, their cousins, tend to hang out in pairs; you see one, you’ll soon see the other. Spotted Towhees do form pairs during breeding season, starting in March or April. Those relationships end before the eggs hatch. The rest of the time they’re not social.

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

They eat anything, preferring proteins during breeding season, greens and seeds in winter. Typically, like other towhees, they scratch the litter with both feet at the same time to uncover hidden edibles. Not today. This bird was eating salad. It liked fresh new greens growing in the litter. There was plenty of it.

According to the sources, this bird prefers to forage in dense vegetation where it has overhead cover. Its spots may serve as camouflage, making it look like mottled sunlight on the ground. By that standard, this bird was acting out of character by foraging on open ground and in full sun. However, as I learned after a few minutes of admiring it, this escape from the usual didn’t last. My colorful visitor soon took wing and disappeared into the shrubbery. Moments later I heard a high-pitched trill that I hadn’t heard before.

More about them: Wikipedia Cornell Audubon

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