By Sarah Toner

Chickadees are tiny, cute, and spunky. I grew up with the common Black-capped Chickadee, always ready to scold me whenever I stepped out the door. When I was starting to bird nationally, I was intrigued to find out that my neighborhood chickadees had rarer relatives in the boreal forest. I love chickadees, and I love boreal forests, so Boreal Chickadees are especially close to my heart.

Boreal Chickadees are fascinating, with a smooth brown cap, a gray back, bright rusty flanks, and adorable white cheek patches, slightly dirtier than those of other chickadees. Boreal Chickadees, unlike other chickadees, also combine cap and chin colors, with a brown cap and a black chin. They range from Maine to Alaska in spruce-fir forests of Canada and the northern U.S. Irruptions, caused by spruce budworm outbreaks, can push them farther south into the United States. When they irrupt farther south, Boreal Chickadees can attracted to popular sites with suet and seed, but they do not often visit feeders. During most of the year, they communicate constantly in a nasal, wheezy tseek-day-day (Alderfer 2005), but during the breeding season they are quiet and inconspicuous.

Before I saw one, I did my best to imagine what a Boreal Chickadee would be like, but photos can’t convey how a bird acts in real life. I tried to find them when I traveled to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) last February, but I couldn’t attract any, even by playing calls and putting out seed. Disappointed, I returned to the U.P. last April, hoping for the slim chance that a Boreal Chickadee would stick around its southern reaches that far into spring. At the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory gift shop, the local resource for birding information, I heard that there were several flocks of chickadees around that included Boreals. Excited, I studied up on the Boreal’s call. Out on the dunes, I listened carefully to any Black-cappeds I heard, until I picked out the slightly higher-pitched call of the Boreal.

“Boreal Chickadee!” I yelled, sprinting up the sand dunes. Bob Atwood, a birder from Utah whom I had met earlier that day, followed me through the sand grass. I paused, listening for the harsh chickadee call that I had heard just a few seconds ago. I picked it up again, following my ears as the sounds moved along the line of trees. We slogged up the dunes, trying to move quickly in the shifting sand as the birds came closer. Finally, I reached the top of the dunes and moved into the path of the chickadee flock. The movements in a nearby tree approached until I could make out little shapes, pausing for an instant before flitting off. I backed out of their path as they came closer and closer, trying again and again to get a good look at them in my binoculars.

Finally, one paused long enough for me to see it well. “Yup,” I thought, “black chin and brown cap…whoa! Those ruddy flanks are much brighter than I expected them to be!” The bird moved out of my view, but I couldn’t stop grinning as I gleaned a few more looks at the chickadees around me. The flock methodically moved down the dune line and eventually faded off towards the point. Boreal Chickadee was a special bird for me, and after missing it earlier this year, I was thrilled to have finally gotten my life bird.

Boreal Chickadee, Photo by Sarah TonerBoreal Chickadee

As it turned out, my trip to Whitefish Point that year was full of Boreal Chickadees. Several flocks, composed almost entirely of Boreals, totaling around fifteen birds, were flying around the point. I spent much of my day chasing them around, guiding other birders who needed help hearing the high-pitched call. The spring 2011 irruption of Boreal Chickadees was one of the largest ever at Whitefish Point. The chickadees stayed south into the summer, possibly breeding at the Point. Now that I’ve seen Boreal Chickadees in the field, I’m looking forward to meeting many future generations of my favorite bird!

Alderfer, Jonathon. 2005. National Geographic Complete Birds of North America. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Hadley, Adam. 2007. “Boreal Chickadee.” Boreal Songbird Initiative. Web. 12/30/11.

Sarah_tonerAbout the author: Sarah Toner, 14, has been birding since she was 8. She lives in southeast Michigan but wants to move to beautiful Whitefish Point, Michigan. She doesn't have one favorite bird, but likes drab, brown northern birds such as Clay-colored Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, and Rough-legged Hawk. She was a member of the 2011 ABA Tropicbirds team in Texas and attended the 2011 Camp Colorado. Sarah also received first place in the 10-13 year-old writing division and third place in the illustration division of the 2010 ABA Young Birder of the Year contest.