Love in the air: Lake Tahoe bird breeding season already upon us |

Love in the air: Lake Tahoe bird breeding season already upon us

The mountain chickadee is well known for his “cheeseburger” song in the Sierra.
Getty Images | iStockphoto

Spring isn’t officially here until March 30, but the birds are in the beginning stages of springtime mating rituals.

For the first time this season I heard a mountain chickadee blast out his “cheeseburger” song, which means he’s starting to scope out his territory and is thinking about looking for a mate.

This is an excellent time of year to break out the binoculars and carry a simple recording device to capture that unexpected burst of song. Having a recording of the new bird sounds you hear aids in identification later.

It doesn’t hurt to have your smartphone along on walks to take advantage of the Merlin Bird ID app, which is free, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

If you can catch a glimpse of the bird you are hearing, and can determine a few physical characteristics such as relative size and coloring, you can plug these stats into the app which will lead you to possible identifications, based upon current location.

The app may give you a few or a dozen possibilities, depending on the characteristics. View stunning photos of the various bird species, as well as hear recordings of the songs and calls.

For the most part, I have succeeded in identifying the birds found in our area, but occasionally, and especially in the spring and fall when birds are moving through on their way to their wintering or summering grounds, I’ll hear a song I don’t recognize.

This is why it’s important to carry a recording device, because many times, you’ll hear the song but be unable to see the bird. Though it’s easy to tuck a small recording device into a pocket, binoculars are more cumbersome and I often don’t have them with me when I’m out on my power walks.

The chickadee has been active in my yard this winter, busily dining upon the black oil sunflower seed I put out each day. The mountain chickadee will also eat suet and peanut butter, in addition to its foraging diet of seeds and berries, insects and spiders.

In certain conditions, such as in the meadow area at the summit of Mount Rose Highway, the chickadee will become quite tame and will land on an outstretched hand, atop a person’s head or even on the face, to take a seed offered clamped between the lips.

This little bird is gregarious and bold, and will join mixed flocks of other small birds after the breeding season, which can include nuthatches, kinglets and brown creepers.

This year the good-sized flock of mountain chickadees visiting my feeders was liberally sprinkled with nuthatches, both the red-breasted and white-breasted, but also with brown creepers.

The creeper has a high-pitched whistle which alerts me to his presence. They are small and elusive, flitting high in the tree canopies. He creeps along the trunks of trees, searching for insects, but he is well camouflaged.

The golden-crowned kinglet may very well be hanging with my group of chickadees, nuthatches and creepers, but I have yet to spot one. The kinglet’s song is similar to that of the creeper, so I am going to start paying more attention.

The kinglet is small, only 3-4 inches in length, gray-green in color, has pale wing bars and a golden crest. Though small, he can survive below-zero nights, huddling with his flock for warmth. They breed in the far north but are found in most of North America in the winter.

The same day I heard the chickadee and his cheeseburger song, I heard the creeper do his full song, which is the sound of spring and mate seeking. All winter the area creepers have been trilling a two-note whistle but this was the full six-note song.

As if these two songs weren’t enough to convince me the birds were buffing up for spring mating festivities, I also heard the red-shafted flicker do his spring song. This is a prolonged “ki ki ki ki ki ki ki,” tapering off at the end.

The red-shafted flicker, also known as the northern flicker, has been here all winter. I see them on my walks and hear their call notes almost daily. The call note is how the male and female keep in contact while foraging and it sounds like, “kyeer…kyeer,” very different from the song.

Get out and enjoy the bare ground and bird song while you can — because next week the weather pattern should be returning to winter.

Toree Warfield is an avid nature lover, and writes this column to teach and stimulate interest in the marvels that surround us. Visit to read columns and to find links to bird song recordings, additional photos and other content.

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