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In This Place

The Rare and Mysterious Boreal Chickadee

On Monday, some lucky homeowners in Wellfleet got to see a chickadee. They saw it well, photographed it, and got the word out to some other birders. Soon, a handful of the Cape’s most active birders had seen the chickadee. Phones were ringing. “Have you heard about the chickadee?”, the person on the other end would say. “There’s a chickadee in Wellfleet.” I am, of course, trolling you a little bit here. For this was not your usual chickadee. This was the rare and mysterious Boreal Chickadee, a species not seen on Cape since 1994, and one never seen on either of the islands.

Christine and Alan Hight of Wellfleet first noticed their strange, brown chickadee coming to their seed and suet feeders on Monday. Once they reported it, bird folk quickly started showing up. Despite warnings from experienced birders that unruly hordes might descend upon their one lane, dead-end dirt road, the Hights were game to publicize the bird. Apparently upwards of 50 birders came to see it yesterday morning, but not all at once, and reportedly everyone has behaved themselves and there was not a parking disaster.

To imagine a Boreal Chickadee, take your familiar Black-capped Chickadee and make the black cap brown. Add a brown back and rich brown sides, and you’ve got a Boreal Chickadee. I suppose that doesn’t sound exciting, but that combination of black, white, brown, and gray is handsome, and combines with their rarity to make this a very appealing bird. Their call is different too – harsher, raspier. They sound a little hoarse from the cold weather they have to deal with up there.

Boreal Chickadees almost always stay the winter within their very cold home range. To survive the brutal winters, they are well known for caching food throughout the summer, stashing moth larvae and other goodies under lichens and in cracks in the protected lower parts of trees, where snow is not likely to cover them. Sometimes they cover their stashed food with a piece of bark or lichen, or snug it into the crack with some saliva, spider web, or seed fluff – it seems to be a thoughtful process for these intelligent little birds. It should be, since finding this food on a 20 below day in February could be the difference between surviving and not waking up the next morning.

I was lucky enough to chase this bird, see it, and photograph it during a “long lunch” yesterday, and get all of this done just before a meltdown required a quick exit for me and my son. This was my first Boreal Chickadee for Massachusetts and perhaps only my second ever. It’s not an easy bird to see even in many of the places they occur – I have looked in vain in Maine on many occasions.

Back in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s there were frequent irruptions of Boreal Chickadees into Massachusetts of a magnitude that doesn’t occur anymore – 20 or 30 some winters, sometimes more. Now the state is lucky to get one a year, sometimes none at all. But this has been a year where boreal birds are moving south, and this Wellfleet bird is now the third one in the last month for Massachusetts - there may be more out there. So look closely at those darting little birds as they grab seeds from your feeder, those black-and-white dynamos we all take for granted. Because that boring old chickadee may in fact be a Boreal Chickadee.