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I Brake for Chickadees


Chickadee, carolina beanery cm nj oct 2 2010 DPF_9294Carolina Chickadees got me my year Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, and Black-and-white Warbler – and that was only today!

Forest birds are distributed patchily across the landscape, and particularly when dealing with migrants, you often travel through extensive BFZ's (Bird Free Zones) between patches with birds. Paying special attention when chickadees are around helps narrow the search. Black-capped, Carolina and Chestnut-backed Chickadees are catalysts for mixed-species foraging flocks, and during migration birders can hardly do better than hang out with them. [This seems less true with Boreal Chickadee, and I lack sufficient experience to know whether migrants glom onto Mountain Chickadees. Reader insights are welcome!] My oft-voiced rule while leading field trips at migration hotspots like Higbee Beach is to "never walk away from a chickadee."

Never drive past one, either. This spring migration I'm confined to my truck thanks to recent knee surgery. Trying to find arriving migrant woodland birds  by vehicle in an extensive, somewhat uniform landscape like Cape May's Belleplain State Forestis a bit daunting, because you can't hear or see nearly as well from inside I car, and there's too much habitat to cover to just stop anywhere. 

Luckily, chickadees are vocal. Driving around Belleplain, whenever I hear a Carolina Chickadee, I pull off and kill the engine. After listening passively for a bit, I try some pishing, right from the car (this can work great, with the car working as a blind). Often a migrant associating with the chickadee flock will come in silently or sing in response to pishing, and if your pishing gets the chickadee flock riled up, their antics will virtually always bring the migrants for a look. Today's Blue-headed Vireo never made a sound but came right in, the Black-and-white sang of its own volition after a period of passive listening, and the gnatcatcher, being a gnatcatcher, immediately responded to my pishing and proceeded to mob my truck. None of these birds were in spots that looked different enough to stop "just because," but the word of a chickadee is good with me.

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Don Freiday
I'm a birder/naturalist living in Cape May, NJ. My professional experience includes 30+ years in the wildlife field, mostly involving education and interpretation, with several government agencies and NGO's. My hobbies include everything natural, especially birding; photography; training and hunting my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Daniel Boone; fishing; canoeing and kayaking; camping; backpacking; and a little cooking. I blog about birds and nature at .
Don Freiday

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  • anonymous

    A friend and I stumbled upon the same strategy. Finding Chickadees is the best strategy for finding silent warblers in autumn. But they can be good for spring, too.

  • Kate/ Beyond the Brambles

    This makes sense! They have a nice distinctive call to listen for, and when I’ve spotted them this spring, they’re usually mingling with other species. There are a pair of chickadees and a pair of titmice that are regulars at my feeder.

  • Birding is Fun!

    I have found that Mountain Chickadees often will have a mixed flock following them. Not as many warblers in the intermountain west, but Nuthatches, Kinglets, and Creepers are often found with the chickadees.

  • Vern

    I brake for chickadees too, especially in peak spring and fall migration times as you never know what might be with them. I remember one time a couple of years ago that I almost didn’t stop to pish a chickadee flock, but then thought, “What the heck.” In short time a beautiful male Black-throated Gray Warbler popped out. A life bird and a highly unusual bird for Pennsylvania.

  • Greg Gillson

    Adding to the comments of ‘Birding is Fun!’ Mountain Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches form the core of foraging mountain species that includes Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, Western Tanagers, Dusky or Hammond’s Flycatchers, Pygmy Nuthatches, Red Crossbills, Nashville Warblers, and many more! Migrant birds often join these groups, as well.

  • Sharon Richards

    Great advice! I have found that along with Black-capped Chickadees I have found Brown Creepers,Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets and a variety of warblers-
    ps hope your knee heals quickly!

  • Paul Carney

    I am a boardwalk natualist at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and I always tell birders to ‘wait’ when they see a blue grey gnatcatcher. They are the most visible in a wave of mixed feeding group warblers and woodpeckers.

  • Don Freiday

    Thanks for the feedback, all, particularly the Mountain Chickadee and FL Gnatcatcher tips!

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