The Flute-like Song of a Black-faced Solitaire

Black-faced Solitaires have a beautiful song, very flute-like in its tone. I made this recording at Mount Totumas in Western Panama.

The high-pitched whistles, very flute-like, came from a dense patch of forest just off the Big Tree Loop. The notes had a resonating quality to them that held in one’s brain for long after they passed. Several notes followed relatively close together, then a long pause before a different tune was uttered. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge early that morning to hike the network of trails at Mount Totumas. I was particularly interested in recording the song of a Black-faced Solitaire, and we had found one. 

This small thrush is in the genus Myadestes. The genus has some remarkable songsters. In undergraduate school, I traveled numerous times with friends in Mexico, and there we heard the Brown-backed Solitaire sing. After graduating, I purchased a print of George Miksch Sutton’s painting of that species and hung it in my house. In the painting, the bird is singing from a branch surrounded by orchids in flower and other epiphytes. Their voice is ventriloqual and that makes it difficult to find them. Hearing the Black-faced singing in Panama made me suspect that they too can project their voice. Oh, to watch a Black-faced sing from a perch such as Sutton painted for its relative would be a thrill.

Ridgely and Gwynne translated the black-faced song as “teedleeleé … tleedleeé … lee-dah … lee-doo.” This bird, though, seemed to use more phrases than they listed and had a series of different tunes before repeating. The slowness and crisp notes reminded me of a fiddler who might be sitting by himself on a porch enjoying the sun and afternoon. Of course, we are not supposed to anthropomorphize, but I can’t imagine that this bird doesn’t enjoy singing.

Scientists have not studied the song of this species very much. Consequently, we don’t know much about its variation within or between individuals. I wondered if it was like our Hermit Thrush in the Pacific Northwest. Each male thrush has 9 to 12 different opening sequences and then elaborate flourishes that follow each. They mix up their songs, and adjacent males rarely have similar tunes. Perhaps, this Black-faced individual has developed his repertoire to deal with his neighbors and keep his territory safe from intruders.

His frequency range was broad, extending the full spectrum of a grand piano, and some notes went even higher than that. Like other thrushes, he uses both of his syrinxes to make his melodious song.

I could listen to him sing all day. 

The montaine forests of Central America are lush and cool. They are highly diverse with hundreds of tree species and provide habitat for numerous birds including the Black-faced Solataire.

3 thoughts on “The Flute-like Song of a Black-faced Solitaire

  1. The single most memorable experience I’ve ever had with a birdsong was in the Ste. Elena Cloud Forest Preserve, in 2001. I was walking quite alone in the forest, when I heard this penetrating, flute – like song that had two distinct phrases. The acoustics was like being in a cathedral! I never saw the bird(s), but stood there listening long enough to try to memorize the song, then whistled it to myself all the way back down to the visitor center. When I got there, I did my best attempt at reproducing the song for the guide, and she told me she thought it was a nightingale thrush. I’ve since listened to recordings of that bird, but while lovely, it didn’t have the lyrical purity of the song I was searching for. Every few years, I try to figure out another way to search for the song, and today – that search brought me to this page, and for the first time – more than 20 years after my experience, I believe this may be the song I heard!

  2. The single most memorable experience I’ve ever had with a birdsong was in the Ste. Elena Cloud Forest Preserve, in 2001. I was walking quite alone in the forest, when I heard this penetrating, flute – like song that had two distinct phrases. The acoustics reminded me of being in a cathedral!

    I never saw the bird(s), but stood there listening long enough to try to memorize the song, then whistled it to myself all the way back down to the visitor center. When I got there, I did my best attempt to reproduce the song for the guide, and she told me she thought it was a nightingale thrush. I’ve since listened to recordings of that bird, but while lovely, it didn’t have the lyrical purity of the song I was searching for. Every few years, I try to figure out another way to search for the song, and today – that search brought me to this page, and for the first time – more than 20 years after my experience, I believe this may be the song I heard, or at least a variation of it!

    • Sounds like a beautiful experience, one of those treasures from the wild. These solitaires overlap with several of the Nightingale-thrushes. The Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush has a similar song that is also magical. Thanks so much for listening.

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