The Chickadee Trick

text and photos by Brian Willson

Late-season birding comes with challenges here at the 44th parallel. In May and June the woods and hedgerows burst with fountains of song—warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows—and a bird’s plumage is at its cleanest and most colorful, as if it’s just come out of the laundry. Plus, its whole early-season mission is to get noticed, hook up, and nest. Seems everywhere you look something’s happening.

As summer grows long-in-the-tooth, however, things change. Hardly any birdsong. Dull, muted plumage. (Heck, field guides even come with sections called “Confusing Fall Warblers.”) The change, of course, has to do with a bird’s new, secret mission: stay quiet, keep the fledglings safe, hide from hawks, survive. You have to have the eye of a hawk, in fact, to see much of anything.

But at Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport, whose trails I hike daily, I’ve noticed something this season.

Although the thrushes and warblers and vireos have gone silent, you can still hear the abbreviated notes of a few species here and there—the mew of a catbird, the wheep! of a towhee, the sweet chips of the resident chickadees. But whereas the former two stay hunkered down in the aging brush of thickets, the latter flit about in the low branches of trees, white cheeks flashing, in plain view.

What I’ve noticed is that among these roving bands of chickadees—and they invariably travel in small groups—there’ll usually be a few other species silently tagging along. Like black-and-white, black-throated green, and black-throated blue warblers, all picking about in the twigs and leaves. Frequently red-eyed vireos. And in the shadier woodlands, white-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, or tufted titmice (three often somewhat vocal species themselves). I’ve even seen flycatchers like phoebes and pewees hanging around these gangs of chickadees.

But are the other birds really tagging along? Or could the chickadees simply be the most vocal of a foraging crowd of small songbirds naturally drawn to places ripe with flies and caterpillars? I prefer to believe the former—that chickadees are smart, gregarious, and personable, and the other birds know a good thing when they hear one.

Had I not used the chickadee trick this morning, yellow-rumped warbler, red-eyed and blue-headed vireos, brown creeper, and American redstart are species I’d’ve missed seeing. And the thrill of my hike would surely have been a bit diminished without ‘em.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

Black-Throated Green Warbler

Blue-Headed Vireo

Red-Eyed Vireo