The Twitcher: A birding column

Bird of the week: black-capped chickadee

About: A small black-and-white songbird with dark gray wings and a cute black hood. It often flocks in small groups and with other song birds. It has a distinctive chick-a-dee-dee-dee call which is often used to announce food sources or frantically mob an owl.

Where to find this bird: It can be found pretty much anywhere where there are trees or shrubs. 

When to find this bird: Year-round

Fun fact: Chickadees, which are non-migratory, act as local guides to migrating songbirds which do not know the local area. These migratory song birds tag along with chickadees, which know the food sources and threats and help them on their long migrations. 

A black-capped chickadee perched on a twig. Photo by Kai Frueh.

Can I see Hedwig in Appleton?

Reading the “Harry Potter” series as a child, I was a big fan of Hedwig, Harry’s postal owl and a beautiful snowy owl. Snowy owls were always a species I wanted to see but, given that they breed on the Arctic tundra, seeing them in western Oregon where I grew up was hard. 

Shortly after I started birding at age 12, though, I got lucky and one turned up an hour from my house. After stomping through muddy roads and climbing over boulders, I got my eyes on a beautifully white owl. It stared at us for a few minutes before taking off into the distant mudflats. After that experience, I didn’t see one for years, but coming to Appleton would change that for me. 

Snowy owls are known to wander. Their populations fluctuate with the lemming populations, their primary food source during the summer breeding season; thus, some years, snowy owls erupt south and end up in southern locations, such as Texas, South Carolina and Utah. They are also known to board ships at sea, which also may help them end up in unlikely places, such as the Honolulu Airport in 2011. The bird I saw at age 12 was likely one of those wanderers that ended up further south and decided to stay a while. 

Even though snowy owls are irregular visitors to much of the United States, Appleton sits just far north enough to get them as a regular winter visitor, though this year’s is a particularly low-owl winter. Owls enjoy the flat farm fields, where plentiful small rodents make for nice snacks. Even though they do show up in town on occasion, they much prefer the open fields east of Freedom and just north of town. 

My first year here, I was desperate to see another snowy owl and, without a car, I watched desperately as reports came in of owls not far from me. When finals came around, I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided that, when it finally got above freezing, I’d hop on my bike and make the trip. When it hit 32, I adorned my thick winter jacket, gloves and hat and made the 25-mile round trip to see an owl. It was cold and windy, and, as I pushed along the back country roads, I wondered if this mission would pay off at all with an owl. Right as I decided I was ready to turn around, I saw a white lump along the side of the road. And to my great excitement, it was a snowy owl! It was certainly a cold ride, but worth it for such an amazing bird.

Since that adventure, I’ve seen more snowy owls out in the area around Freedom, though, recently, I’ve chosen to search from the comfort of a warm car.