Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Carolina Black-cappeds

Carolina Chickadee - one of the most common birds in North Carolina.  This one was visiting my backyard feeder.

The aptly-named Carolina Chickadee (often in association with Tufted Titmice) reigns over the forests of North Carolina.  I'd be hard pressed to name a passerine bird I see more frequently.  These birds are so prevalent that I often overlook them, and I have never really given much thought into observing them.  Anywhere in the state, I am just about guaranteed to hear their rapid "chickadee-dee-dee-dee" calls somewhere overhead.

Well, almost anywhere.

During the last ice age thousands of years ago, the state was populated by the Carolina Chickadee's close (and nearly identical) cousin, the Black-capped Chickadee.  But as the climate warmed, these cold-weather Chickadees followed their favorite breeding habitat (yellow birch, firs, etc.) northward. A few, however, remained on the highest peaks of the Smoky Mountains, above 5,000 feet where these northern trees still grow.  Unlike along the Carolina x Black-capped "hybrid zone" to the north, the two species don't seem to hybridize in the Smokies.  This leaves a purebred "island" population, hundreds of miles from the next-closest population in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.

I was in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for some amazing fly fishing, and I figured I ought to go tick this Northern species for my NC list.  The highest peak in the Smokies is Clingman's Dome, straddling the border with Tennessee at 6,644 feet above sea level.  This is the epicenter of the North Carolina Black-capped Chickadee population, though others can be found on nearby peaks.  It was 64 degrees in the valley, but up on Clingman's Dome the temperature plummeted to 43.  A cold front was howling over the mountain, and a cloudy mist was sweeping over the mountaintops.  There is short nature trail about halfway down the road that leads to the summit, and I figured that would be a good place to look for the chickadees.

Almost immediately after stepping out the car, I heard the distinct, huskier voices of several Black-capped Chickadees.  I ran down the trail and managed to snap a few photos of the birds.  I honestly never thought I would get so excited over a chickadee!

Black-capped Chickadee - notice the striking white secondary feathers on the wing.  This photo is pretty terrible, I know - it was really dark!

The best distinguishing feature between the two species (other than voice) is that Black-cappeds have obvious white secondaries, while Carolinas don't.  The cheek on a Black-capped is whiter, and they are slightly larger and puffier.  All of these field marks were apparent as I watched the six or so birds flit through the forest, especially since I had seen Carolinas just a few hours before.  Black-capped Chickadee is my 250th North Carolina life bird - a significant milestone for me, considering I just started birding (not even) two years ago.

The next morning I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises I've ever seen - from just below the frosty summit of Clingman's Dome.  The vast landscape of Western NC stretched before me, cloaked in a layer of fog with only a few peaks breaking through.  A spectacular end to an excellent trip.

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