As I was saying in yesterday’s post, the chickadees at the Grey Nuns Spruce Woodlot were out in full force. Accosting us as soon as we arrived. If you stretched out your hand, a chickadee would immediately land on it and start to look for treats, pecking your fingers with its tiny bill. As soon as it realized that there were no treats to be had it would take off, only to immediately be replace by another one. It was a whirlwind of chickadees and, as usual, I identified them all as Black-capped Chickadees.., that was, until I was going through the pictures the next day. I realized that one of the chickadees did not look like the others. Instead of a black capped head it had a brown head with more brown throughout its body. In the freeze frame picture it is easy to see (if you pay attention) that this is a Boreal Chickadee. Boreal Chickadees are typically solidly outnumbered by the Black-capped Chickadees and I a rarely lucky enough to spot one. This is the first picture I have taken of a Boreal Chickadee. It’s a bit ironic that I did not realize what I had taken a picture of until the next day.
We went to the Grey Nuns Spruce Woodlot today. This patch of forest is a remnant of a much larger forest that existed at the time of settlement of the St. Albert area over 170 years ago. It is an old-growth forest that is squeezed in between the busy Ray Gibbon Drive, the Joy Centre and sprawling sub-division developments. The forest is just over 40 hectares in size and contains a diversity of tree covered, shrub and grassland areas. Among birders the area is perhaps best known for its large number of Snowy Owls during the winter. It was here that I spotted my first Snowy Owl last winter. During our visit today we went on the narrow trails winding through the forest. As soon as we arrived we were accosted by a band of energetic and chubby Black-capped Chickadees that required us to appease them with food. They simply did not take a no for an answer and continued to follow us through the forest. I suspect that they probably are used to being fed by humans, which was further corroborated when we came across an old dilapidated feeder hanging just off the trail where the chickadees had spray-pained “FEED US PLEASE”. We did not bring any food for the feathered denizens of the forest this time, but clearly next time we will have to make up for this.
It was a dull grey and windy afternoon. The thermometer read -2C, but with the wind chill it was more like -9C. It was certainly not ideal weather for birding, but I decided to brave the elements and head down to the Whitemud Creek. It had not been there for several weeks so you never know what you find after such a hiatus. By the time I go to the creek the snow had started to fall and it was swirling around in the wind. I would say that this qualified as the first “snow storm: of the season, but compared to what is to come it was pretty tame…, like a warm up to the real deal. I tried to capture the “storm” in a picture, but it turned out very anticlimactic and line would have to squint pretty hard to imagine any snow falling just by looking at the picture. While snow and sub-zero temperatures in October may sound extreme to non-Albertan’s, we are actually doing pretty good this season. Last year we had our first snow in September and quite often the end of October is already locked down in deep freeze in these neck of the woods. Other than the snow and some unusual beaver activity, as I predicted, most birds were in hiding. The notable exception, as always, were the Black-capped Chickadees that were our in full force and did not seem to mind the weather at all.
[Walking softly through the forest]
BIRD: Fee-bee! Fee-bee! Fee-bee! Fee-bee!
HUMAN: Who are you?
BIRD: We are the Chickadees that say... Fee-bee!
HUMAN: No! Not the Chickadees that say Fee-bee!
BIRD: The same!
HUMAN: Those who hear them seldom live to tell the tale!
BIRD: The Chickadees Who Say Fee-bee demand a sacrifice!
HUMAN: Chickadees of Fee-bee, I am but a simple birder who seek the enchanter who lives beyond these woods.
BIRD: Fee-bee! Fee-bee! Fee-bee! Fee-bee!
HUMAN: Oh, ow!
BIRD: We shall say 'Fee-bee' again to you if you do not appease us.
HUMAN: Well, what is it you want?
BIRD: We want... sunflower seeds!
Black-capped Chickadees have a remarkably complex and varied repertoire of vocalizations, but perhaps the most common song carrying through the forest is their characteristic fee-bee (aka as ‘Hey, sweetie’). You can listen to recordings of their vocalizations here. As I was making my way along the Whitemud Ravine trail the Black-capped Chickadees came out in full force confronting me. The exchange that followed was remarkably reminiscent of the exchange King Arthur has with the Nights of Ni in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. In case you are not familiar with this scene you can enjoy it in all its glory right here. This band of Chickadees meant business. A dozen chickadees quickly surrounded me, perching in the shrubbery and on the ground around my feet and said ‘fee-bee, fee-bee, fee-bee’. One of them landed on my leg. Another one went straight for my outstretched hand. When it realized that I had not brought an offering I received a condescending look of disbelieve and indignation. I had no other choice than continue walking with a dozen chickadees tagging along fee-bee’ing me incessantly.
Black-capped Chickadees may be one of our smallest birds but they are definitely one of the most resourceful and intelligent birds in these neck of the woods. There have learned to take full advantage of our weakness for cuteness and manipulated our feeble human minds to provide them with free snacks year round. Although I do not bring snacks, plenty of other people do. There are always piles of sun flower seed strewn about along the trail and on the bridge railings along Whitemud Creek. They swoop down, grab a sunflower seed and then fly off to a nearby shrub where they get to work on the seed. It’s basically like a fly-through fast food joint. Chickadees are also known for hoarding food for leaner times. Although chickadees undeniably have small brains, they are no bird brains. They are very capable of remembering where they hide food stashes when they need to find them in the middle of the winter.
Came across the unusually fuzzy looking Black-capped Chickadee at the MacTaggard Sanctuary the other day. This chickadee looked bedraggled and mottled , like it was having a bad hair feather day. I have my suspicions that’s perhaps it could bear a juvenile, but I have not been able to find any conclusive information supporting my theory. During the winter the chickadees were very abundant and as soon as one would arrive at the trail, the chickadees would greet you, probably hoping for a treat. During the summer the situation is quite different. While one can hear their song in the forest they keep to them selves and rarely accost unsuspecting humans. This disheveled looking chickadee, however, came down to check me out. It did not stray long. Once it was clear that I was not offering any treats it took off and vanished in the shrubbery again.
This picture was taken by my son when he first put his hands on our new Canon PowerShot SX70 HS. He took this image in the low light conditions of the understory with full zoom at 1365 mm (35 mm equivalent) at ISO 800. I like how the picture shows the “fluffiness” of the Black-capped Chickadee, which helps to keep them warm in the winter. It also shows a rarely seen phenomenon…, a Black-capped Chickadee sitting still for more than a blink of an eye. These small nonmigratory songbirds seem to be in perpetual motion even during the coldest of winter days. We saw an abundance of Black-capped Chickadees flittering around in the understory during the recent February cold-spell even when temperatures dropped to below -40 °C. It is remarkable how well-adapted these birds are to our harsh climate. To conserve energy on cold nights, they have the ability to go into a state of torpor by lower their body temperature by as much as 10 to 12 °C (their normal body temperature is 42 °C). They may be small, but what they lack in size they make up for in sheer feistiness and awesome attitude. They are constant companions on our nature walk along the creek and are always checking if we bring any treats.
May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.