Mystery of the Gray-headed Chickadee
Little is known about the Gray-headed Chickadee. It is perhaps the least-understood breeding bird in North America, and certainly one of the hardest to find. They occur in scattered low-density populations across the southern slope of the Brook's range, and across the interior of Alaska, but exactly true extent is not known. Unlike dozens of other bird species found at this latitude in summer, this one doesn't migrate south; it may move constantly across suitable habitat to find and cache food- and perhaps could migrate between "islands" of suitable habitat. These chickadees are cavity-nesters, and so they must remain in areas with trees large enough to provide a cavity to sleep in at night to endure well-below-freezing temperatures. To survive this extreme temperature drop, the Gray-headed Chickadee slows its metabolic rate, entering a state of semi-hibernation. During the day chickadees feed actively, finding and caching food across the forest. They have amazing memory of where they hide food, returning to excavate it in winter when food is scarce. Scientists have learned that the chickadee brain actually increases in size during winter to remember more information like where they cached food. I am assuming this mechanism is even more influential in this species, found in the most extreme climes.
Before this year, Lynne Barber is the only Big Year birder I know of that has found a Gray-headed chickadee while doing a Big Year. Lynne is currently doing an Alaska big year and already has set the new record for the state- a big accomplishment indeed! Maybe Sandy Komito did on his first Big Year, but I'm not sure. I'd love to meet him and ask him. As for this year, I know John Weigel encountered Gray-headed Chickadees twice very near the spot of my sighting, when he returned several days after our initial trip. You can read about it in his blog post here.
A trio of adventurous souls assembled in a hanger in Kotzebue, Alaska early in the Arctic morning, before the sun came up. I had joined Laura Keene, John Weigel, and Jay Lehman on this epic trip of a lifetime. Already up in the Arctic, it was a cheap standby jaunt for me to fly to Kotzebue from Barrow. In the darkness I had time to catch up with my big year compadres; all of us share a special connection, having gone through many similar experiences chasing birds. It was winter in the Arctic, so the sunrise wouldn't happen for four more hours. Inside the hangar, maps, old photos of picturesque views from bush planes, and several taxidermy shoulder mounts of Dall Sheep rams hung on the walls. We dressed in a ridiculous amount of layers, morphing into obese eco-tourists with binoculars hugging our necks. After making lunches, and loading our gear, we rolled into the Cessna and casually taxied onto the runway and took off at a sharp angle that could only be executed at a small airport with no air traffic whatsoever.
The next thing I knew we were flying at 116 knots at 500 feet over barren tundra. We continued like this for maybe an hour, each of us lost in our own thought as we pressed our face against the window, taking in the expansive landscape below. It looked vastly different from anything I'd seen- rivers sliced deep gashes across the tundra, flowing one direction and reversing course in a tight bend and flowing back (seemingly) uphill. We were high enough that the tundra looked like astroturf, and then suddenly an animal or tree would appear larger than life, resetting my context for scale. I could imagine the frozen lakes filled with shorebirds and ducks and geese only months earlier. I wonder how many Eurasian Dotterels nested here, escaping detection by human eyes but common among their nesting neighbors of golden plovers, sandpipers, and waterfowl.
I was startled out of the trance of my own thoughts when the hum of the engine changed, and the plane made a sharp banking turn, and we made a pass on a small gravel bar in the middle of a river. On the second pass, we landed, bouncing over short bare saplings and avoiding larger patches of willow brush. Within minutes we were dropped off to wait for a smaller Piper Cub to shuttle us one by one to the frozen lake. This was awesome! I can't describe how cool it was, so I'll share a video I took with my phone.
Soon, but not quite an half an hour later, it was my turn to climb in the even-smaller plane, sitting single-file behind the pilot. We took off as the engine roared, climbed just higher than the tree tops, and almost dusted the spruces as we shot across the trees as low as we could go, before slowing down and crabbing sideways and touching down- gliding onto the frozen lake. At first the wheels didn't spin, we just slid across the ice, then we rolled and slowed down and turned and taxied to the corner where our guide and a pile of winter gear lay on the snow. I turned my camera on to find that the battery was 3/4 dead because of the cold. My iphone also was on the verge of shutting off. I took both batteries I had brought, and put them inside my gloves. I put my phone down my shirt to keep it warm, hoping to prolong the battery life to take some pictures and videos of the trip. Nothing would last long enough to get a group shot at the end of the day. After I figured out my battery resuscitation, I began looking around and taking in the wonderland we had just landed in. Within 10 minutes of landing I started scanning the trees as there were several White-winged Crossbills and some redpolls vocalizing. Some fluttering at the edge of the lake caught my attention, and I struggled to lift my binoculars with a parka and gloves on. A small bird jumped out and sat in front of a spruce trunk for a brief moment, before hopping up and working its way across some branches, dodging in and out of sight. “Chickadee!” I shouted. Laura and our guide were at my side immediately, and Dave got on the bird as it flew. “I think that's it" I said excitedly. I didn't want to jump the gun on the ID as most people do when seeing this bird for the first time, so I described the bird as best as I could in the moment. "It looks like a Black-capped... but not quite” were the next words out of my mouth, as I described the features of this bird.
From my notes: "I saw a chickadee that superficially resembled a Black-capped Chickadee. (BCCH) I took in the whole bird at once. The head had the same black and white pattern as a black capped, with large white cheek patch and dark throat and crown. At a distance the crown didn't look black or brown or gray, it just looked dark since the pattern of the spruce bark behind the bird obscured my ability to tell for sure what color the head was. In stark contrast to the bark, the underparts were almost entirely a creamy light color like BCCH would be. It certainly lacked the chestnut-colored flanks of a Boreal Chickadee. (BOCH) I was unable to study the bird carefully, but that's what I saw in a glance through my bins for no more than a second and a half."
The bird quickly moved from trunk to the dense branches, and dropped from the spruce into a willowy thicket out of view. I was exited. I think this bird was a Gray-headed Chickadee. Others didn't really get a good look through binoculars like I did. I wanted to run after it and try to find it, but the plane just landed so we didn't go anywhere. I had to try to restrain myself because I wasn't the guide and didn't want to overstep my bounds and go running into the forest chasing this bird before everyone got there. We were still waiting on John, who had just been shuttled to the lake from our first drop-off point. He got out of the plane, and I told him the news- I think we had already had one. We listened to a short safety briefing focused on the dangers of exposure/hypothermia, and the precautions of winter travel on ice and snowy bear trails. We all got cans of bear spray, and our guide carried a shotgun. I was literally standing in the tracks of grizzlies in the snow as I strapped on the can of bear spray onto my packs waist belt, within easy reach.
We went off in the general direction the chickadee was last seen- they guide played a call but had no response. My general aversion to playback went unvoiced, as I wanted everyone else to see the same bird I had just seen. My hope and optimism wasn't mirrored by the guide, who suggested we continue to follow the plan and hike to to the lake where the chickadees had been seen last week. Inside I was devastated. Why weren't we staying and chasing this bird? I had a chickadee right HERE and we were taking time walking almost a mile in a different direction where there MIGHT be chickadees? I didn't get it. I trudged through the snow behind the others, keeping my feelings bottled up. Would we see more later at the lake and have it for sure, making my sighting not matter? I was about 90% sure of the ID at this point. Two seconds longer would have been enough time for me to think clearly as I looked at the bird. I should have taken a photo, but my gloves were on and the bird disappeared before I could raise my camera. It all happened so fast…
We hiked to the lake, nearly a mile along bear trails. I stepped in deep holes in the snow made by grizzly bears, likely digging up voles from their burrows. My size 12 boot tracks matched the length of many of the tracks, which were frozen in the snow as permanent reminders for me to watch my back as I brought up the end of the line of intrepid chickadeers.
The remainder of the daylight hours were spent chasing chickadees around a lake. A late run had triggered a feast of spawning salmon near the creek feeding into the lake, and bears left all sorts of energy-packed scraps around the lake which were reported to draw in all kinds of birds including Gray-headed chickadees. The lakeshore was buzzing with White-winged Crossbills, and all chickadees I saw were distinctly Boreals. I didn't see all the birds the others saw, and the flocks seemed to stay just ahead of us. After a good look at the first Boreal Chickadee, I explained to the group how different it was from the bird I saw earlier. As we trudged through the thick spruces, over piles of bear feces and salmon heads, I re-played my sighting over and over again in my head. I wondered to myself Could it have been a Black-capped Chickadee? It was possible, and I knew I'd have to contact some experts on range maps and chickadee distribution. Our guide told me that Black-capped Chickadees didn't occur this far north of Kotzebue, and so that only left one option... I wanted a second and third opinion to be sure. I wouldn't make a definitive sighting until I could rule-out the remote possibility it could have been a Black-capped. The possibility of vagrancy couldn't be overlooked, however I knew if it was indeed a Black-capped I would have seen the entire head pattern clearly. I thought a black cap would be distinctive against the trunk of the tree, but I didn't see a clear black cap. I also didn't clearly see a gray cap- a field mark that for me, would clinch the ID.
The bird I had seen occupied my thoughts as we kept searching. The daylight waned quicker than we all wanted it to. For that reason I wasn't the only one who wished to be here in the Alaskan summer, partly because of the extreme cold and lack of birds we experienced. However, I'll take quality over quantity, and I had a poor-quality sighting of a potential high-quality bird... I think the consolation prize for all of us was being here... we made a trip that no other birder had made in winter- crossing frozen waters and boreal forest. The light, the views, and the adventure all packed into one day made this journey epic- regardless of the outcome.
We finished our excursion in reverse order as we started- shuttling one by one from the lake to the gravel bar, assembling and boarding the Cessna, and flying back to Kotzebue. On the flight back we hugged the tundra as our experienced bush pilot banked the plane giving us topside views of Musk Ox and Caribou herds from under 100 feet. It was a success! We all had stayed warm, surviving a hostile environment with bears, ice, and the joyous silence of solitude. For moments of standing on a small gravel bar, watching the bush plane fly away carrying the other birders to the next recon point, I felt like the only person in the world- a world where the laws of nature decided who lived and who didn't, the rules which seem so obsolete when we're sitting at home in front of the computer screen, with a roof over our heads, heat pouring out of the air vents, and a fridge stocked full of food. I've been in the wilderness before, but until today, I've never been here. And here is where the Gray-headed Chickadees are. I savored the moments of mystery, friendship, and an adventure of a lifetime.
As for the bird I saw? Several experts have cast doubt of the northern edge of Black-capped Chickadees range extending all the way to where we were birding. We were over a hundred miles north of confirmed BCCH habitat, across a treeless tundra. The type of habitat, solitary nature of this bird, and all field marks I saw all point to Gray-headed Chickadee. I've left it off my year list because I'm choosing to try and break 750 without it. I want clean looks and confirmable photos of as many birds as possible, and I don't want the rare nature of this bird to persuade me to add a bird to my list that I wouldn't if it were more common and I had the same look. I've seen thousands of Black-capped chickadee in my time as a birder, and if it was a Black-capped I wouldn't be reluctant to say so- that'd be a great record this far North! However, it didn't look right, and my gut tells me it was a Gray-headed. I'm purposefully trying to have the highest integrity possible for my count, for me- not for anyone else. I'm also continuing to inquire with experts, and learn more about Black-capped Chickadee ranges in the Brooks Range, and proclivity to vagrancy. If I can positively rule out my sighting having any significant chance of being a Black-capped Chickadee, I may reconsider.
Will I add it to my life list? I'm sure people will be wondering that, but for now, the answer lies with me, my pen and my list.
Errors in the form of spelling/grammatical mistakes are not intended, but plausible, given much of this post was written and composed on an iPhone using Siri while driving. Please contact Christian if any errors are encountered, so they may be resolved. Thank you!
Watermarked or not, the images contained in this post are property of The Birding Project, and are not subject to unlawful copying and distribution without exclusive permission from The Birding Project.