Sunday, January 30, 2005



Hello Readers,

Even though we are approaching the “dead of winter” with substantial snow cover and frigid temperatures, the longer days signal the stirrings of new life. Great Horned Owls will begin their mating rituals in January and begin nesting in February. Listen on nights with strong moon light for the familiar, “Who’s awake, me toooo” call. Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) generally lay two to three eggs in an old nest built by another species such as a crow, osprey or squirrel. Both parents incubate the eggs that hatch in about four weeks. The parents protect and feed their young until they are ready to leave the nest at approximately 2 months of age. If you have heard their calls recently, they are probably nesting nearby and should now be on their eggs.

In northern states as natural food sources begin to wane, you may find more birds coming to your feeders. We certainly have! Now is the time to be watchful for those harder to find species such as Redpolls (Carduelis flammea), Crossbills (Loxia), and Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus). I have had each of these species at my feeders in Maine and in Northern Illinois in February in the past. In snowy areas also look for Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax hyperboreus), Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus), and even Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) gathering grit on road edges or in large, mixed flocks in fields. Birds this time of year don’t have it easy with the stress of the cold temperatures and trying to locate food. If you feed the birds, keep feeders clean and well stocked. Suet is a high-energy food that attracts woodpeckers, nuthatches and others. We purchase inexpensive beef suet from the supermarket and put in an old bait bag. Black sunflower seeds are always popular as are peanuts or peanut butter. Peanut butter can be smeared on a branch or a tree trunk. Water is most valuable at this time of year. We utilize a heater to keep our birdbath clear of ice.

As rivers and lakes freeze solid it is a good time to search for concentrations of wintering ducks, gulls and eagles anywhere there is open water. Below dams, in cooling ponds for some industry, and occasionally in wastewater treatment plants are good places to try. Along the coast it is still a good time to get out the spotting scope and scan for alcids, wintering ducks, loons and grebes as well as Purple Sandpipers (Calidris maritime) at the end of breakwaters and jetties.

This is also a good time of year to search large grasslands, fields, coastal marshes, airports or blueberry barrens for Shrikes (Lanius) or Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca).

When birding try not to “stress” birds by approaching too closely, pishing, or by playing tapes. Your presence may keep birds from feeding or cause them to burn important calories flying toward or away from you. I am always surprised and delighted to see so many birds in winter. You may find our usual winter friends or something uncommon if you get out and look. Winter birding is great fun. Hope to see you when I’m out and about!


Sunday, January 23, 2005

Black-capped Chickadee

Hello Readers,

This weeks column will discuss one of my favorite birds, the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and it’s family, the Paridae. Paridae and Parus are Latin for Titmouse and atricapillus is Latin for “Black-capped“, formed from atris – “black” and capillus – “hair of the head”. Worldwide there are 55 members of the Paridae family that include Chickadees, Titmice and Tits. In North America there are 7 species of Chickadees (excluding the Titmice and Tits). They are: Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Chickadee (P. carolinensis), Boreal Chickadee (P. hudsonicus), Chestnut-backed Chickadee (P. rufescens), Mountain Chickadee (P. gambeli), Mexican Chickadee (P. sclateri) and the Gray-headed Chickadee (P. cinctus) which was formally known as the Siberian Tit. The word Chickadee derives from the sound that they make.

Male, female and immature Black-capped Chickadees all have similar plumage.
They are busy little birds that have dark caps and throats with white on their cheeks and a variable amount of buff on their flanks. Their backs olive-gray. Chickadees range from 4.75 inches in length in the Carolina Chickadee to 5.5 inches long in the Boreal Chickadee. The Black-capped Chickadee (which from here out I will abbreviate as BCC) is generally 5.25 inches in length. Over most of their widespread range the BCC inhabits a mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. They are found at forest edges and deep in the woods. They are also common in suburban areas at feeders, field edges, parks and anywhere there is cover. In the Appalachian and northern part of their range they prefer conifers. BCC’s are generally lowland birds, but in the southeastern part of its range where the Carolina Chickadee is prevalent they are found above 1,800 feet in winter and 3,600 feet in summer where they replace the lower altitude Carolina Chickadee.
In the area where the ranges of the Carolina Chickadee and BCC overlap they do interbreed, but it is thought uncommonly.

Differentiating the Carolina Chickadee and the BCC are often done by ear, but this is not always reliable as they can learn each other’s songs. More reliable differences are in plumage. The BCC is has sharper, more contrasting colors than it’s drabber cousin. The cheek patch is bright white in the BCC and is grayish at the back of the Carolina Chickadee. The bib of the Carolina Chickadee is more neatly delineated, whereas the BCC’s bib looks ragged. Their voices are different. The BCC’s “chikadee dee dee” call is slower and deeper than the Carolina’s. In addition to the above call, BCC’s also have the common “fee beee” or “fee bey ee” calls. These are more commonly heard in the spring. BCC’s also have many different vocalizations that have been found surprisingly similar to language. In the fall the BCC’s adds neurons to the hippocampus, which is the portion of the brain responsible for memories and spatial learning. It is thought that this extra brainpower increases their ability to locate caches of food. They have sophisticated spatial orientation that allows them to recover cached food that was stored up to 28 days in the past. Other vocalizations include a “gargling”, an alarm “teeteeteeteetee”, and a sharp “hiss” when on their nest.

Chickadees have specialized leg muscles that allow them to hang upside down and glean food from trees and foliage. Their diet consists of insects and spiders and their eggs, caterpillars, snails, seeds and berries. They enjoy suet and have been known to eat fat from carrion. They will also hover to feed or hawk insects. BCC’s usually don’t fly more than 15 meters at a time. Flight speed is up to 20 meters/hour.

Chickadees are usually monogamous, although many Chickadees die in winter. The average lifespan is 2.5 years. The record for the oldest known BCC is 12.5 years. They are territorial in the breeding season and form flocks of up to 12 in the winter with adult pairs and immature birds. When in flocks you can definitely observe dominance hierarchies. Many other species loosely associate themselves with these winter flocks. It is thought that the complex communication of Chickadees helps them find food and avoid danger. This could be why other birds stay nearby. When you discover a flock of winter Chickadees be on the lookout for nuthatches, creepers, and woodpeckers.

Chickadees also demonstrate mobbing behavior. When there is a perceived treat, they often flock toward it to badger the intruder. Who was it that said, “Keep you friends close and your enemies closer.”? He may have learned this from Chickadees. (I think this quote was attributed to Sun Tzu??? (

BCC’s are cavity nesters and often excavate their own holes that may take 10-12 days. Both male and female usually excavate a rotten birch stump 5-15 feet off the ground. They also will nest in boxes, natural cavities and old woodpecker holes. The female lines her nest with moss, plant down, and hair and cover their eggs up when they leave their nest. The female incubates the eggs and both parents provide food. Egg laying can begin anytime between April and early July and usually occurs within two days of nest completion. The female will lay about 6 eggs – one per day. The eggs are dull, small and pinkish white with flecks of brown or purplish red. Incubation is 12-13 days. At 16 days they fledge the nest but are usually fed by the parents for another 2-4 weeks. They usually only have one brood a year, but they will attempt a second brood if the first attempt fails.

There is no formal migration, but in winter flocks can be nomadic and irruptions south do occur, especially the first year birds. My faithful year round friend has given me many hours of fun. I can never resist a flock of BCC’s in the winter. I have to stop and listen and see what other birds are traveling with them. I’ve been surprised to find birds like Pine Siskins (Cardulis pinus), White-winged Crossbills(Loxia leucoptera), and Yellow-rumped Warblers(Dendroica coronata) with them. I even have been lucky enough to have one land on me. They visit our black oil sunflower seeds and suet feeder often. I guess they remind me of my home since the BCC is the state bird of Maine (also Massachusetts).

In my next article I’ll talk about what to be looking for in February. Until then, keep an eye on what’s out and about.


p.s. Here is a list of the world’s Paridae:

Marsh Tit

Black-bibbed Tit

Sombre Tit

Willow Tit

Carolina Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

Mexican Chickadee

White-browed Tit

Pere David's Tit

Gray-headed Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Black-breasted Tit

Rufous-vented Tit

Black-crested Tit

Coal Tit

Yellow-bellied Tit

Elegant Tit

Palawan Tit

Crested Tit

Gray-crested Tit

White-shouldered Black-Tit

White-winged Black-Tit

Southern Black-Tit

Carp's Tit

White-bellied Tit

White-backed Black-Tit

Dusky Tit

Rufous-bellied Tit

Cinnamon-breasted Tit

Red-throated Tit

Stripe-breasted Tit

Somali Tit

Miombo Tit

Ashy Tit

Gray Tit

Great Tit

Turkestan Tit

Green-backed Tit

White-winged Tit

Black-lored Tit

Yellow-cheeked Tit

Yellow Tit

Blue Tit

Azure Tit

Yellow-breasted Tit

Varied Tit

White-fronted Tit

Bridled Titmouse

Oak Titmouse

Juniper Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin Trip to See Owl Invasion


Dear Birders and Fellow Naturalists,

Welcome to the first edition of my web page for birders. I plan to write a weekly article on items that I hope will interest my readers. Each week I will offer a different general topic on a four to five week rotating schedule. Week one will discuss birding destinations. Week two will cover back yard birds and I.D. tips. Week three will be on birds to be watchful for in the upcoming month and week four will delve into miscellaneous areas of interest.

I am originally from the coast of Maine and I have done most of my birding and naturalizing there. I am a Registered Maine Guide ( and I have run several birding field trips on foot, in sea kayaks and in canoes. While in Maine I was active with Mid-Coast Audubon ( as a director and as the field trip chair and organizing one of our Audubon Christmas Bird Counts ( I am now living west of Chicago. I also have birded extensively in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Arizona, Southern California, Washington and the mountains and rain forest of Ecuador. I am not an expert or an ornithologist. I do have a passion for birding and I would like to share with my readers what I have learned and what I think may be interesting.

Today I would like to relate some of the details of my recent trip to Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin to see the unprecedented owl invasion first hand. I participated in an organized guided trip originating in central Illinois which left on Saturday, January 8th. On our way toward the Duluth area we stopped at Crex Meadows ( in Western Wisconsin. There we had wonderful views of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and also saw a flock of 16 Sharp-tailed Grouse (Pedioecetes phasianellus). The grouse were “budding” in small birches and shrubs.

On Sunday the 9th we arrived at our destination north of Duluth. We birded the back roads in boggy areas around the towns of Cotton and Virginia. Heavy afternoon snow slowed our birding significantly that day but we did manage to see 15 Great Gray Owls (Strix nebulosa) and five Northern Hawk Owls (Surnia ulula). Other northern birds that day included 30 Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus), three Northern Shrikes (Lanius excubitor), 82 Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulous), Boreal Chickadees (Parus hudsonicus), Pine Grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator), and Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea). On Monday the 10th we again birded the area around Cotton and Virginia and then north to Zim-Sax. From there we headed east to the shore of Lake Superior at Two Harbors. We then headed to Duluth were we saw our best birds of the day. We found not one, but two Boreal Owls (Aegolius funereus). One Boreal Owl was seen very near the lighthouse, the other in a nearby town park. We ended our day in Superior, Wisconsin. Our day owl tally was amazing! We saw a total of 94 owls including 78 Great Grays, 14 Northern Hawks and the marvelous afore mentioned Boreals.

I saw 40 species on the trip. This very well could be a lifetime chance to see these owls in these concentrations. If we purposely had gone out to try and see how many owls we could see on Monday I’m sure we could have topped 200.

If you enjoy this blog then please click on the ads posted here. Until next time . . . I’ll be out and about.