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Nature Watch: Flycatchers are flocking to Western New York

With spring migration winding down, now is a good time to focus on an interesting bird group, the flycatchers, because many are summer residents in this region.

More technically, these are birds of the family Tyrannidae, the tyrant flycatchers. Tyrant may seem an odd title for a group of mostly shy, retiring birds. After all, the Oxford dictionary defines a tyrant as “a cruel and oppressive ruler.” But a single species, the kingbird, earns them all that title. In fact, it repeats versions in its own scientific name, Tyrannus tyrannus.

Even that is a stretch, however. This handsome bird of our orchards and field edges does indeed rule its nesting area. Birds or animals that come near the tree in which the female incubates eggs are attacked by this pesky bird. Size doesn’t matter. You’ll see them chase away crows, red-tailed hawks or even great blue herons; you, too, if you walk nearby. But it is still hard to assign this behavior to “cruel and oppressive.”

The kingbird is easy to identify. Slightly smaller than a robin, it has a dark gray head, back and tail, white throat, breast and the tips of its tail feathers. Look for this common bird on fence posts at roadsides.

About the same size is the great crested flycatcher, a bird heard more often than seen as it inhabits treetops from which you can hear its “wheep” note or a rougher burry call similar to that of the red-bellied woodpecker. If you do see this attractive bird, you will note its olive back, gray throat, yellow belly and rufous tail. I find this species most often in wooded swamps.

Our other seven resident flycatcher species are all drab gray birds the size of house sparrows, but that perch with a more upright posture. It takes good field birders to tell them apart by their insignificant plumage differences: more or less distinctive wing bars, tinges of yellow, a gray wash in the breast. I don’t even try.

Fortunately, these little gray birds are quite easily distinguished by their simple songs. Where you see them can help as well. For example, the most common species, the phoebe, is a bird of streamside that very often nests near bridges. Listen there as it pronounces its name in a buzzy two-note “fzzz-bzzz.” Then watch for it and you will soon see it perch on a twig overhanging the water from which it dashes out occasionally to capture insects.

This species enjoys an interesting role in ornithological history. In 1803, John Audubon attached silver threads to the legs of phoebe nestlings and showed that they returned the following year to the same locale. This was the first episode of bird banding, which continues today to provide information about bird populations and migration.

A phoebe-like bird of open forests is the wood pewee, which also gets its name from its notes, this time a high clear whistled but downslurred “PEEawee” or a shorter upslurred “pawee.”

And then there are the species birders call the “empids,” flycatchers of the genus Empidonax. Two are so similar that they were, when I was young, considered one species. Even in the hand, bird banders cannot tell them apart. They still call them Traill’s flycatchers but, as with phoebes and pewees, these two, willow and alder flycatchers, are easily distinguished by their songs.

I consider the willow flycatcher the more common. Its song is a buzzy two-note “fitz-brew.” The alder flycatcher’s is in three slurred notes, “fzzz-bzzz-fzz,” with the middle note higher. Another empid I find far less common in summer. The least flycatchers pass through in migration when their distinctive “che-beck” calls identify them.

And we are on the northern edge of the Acadian flycatcher’s range. This species is found only locally here, for example, along the Onondaga Trail of Iroquois National Wildlife Reserve. Its very distinctive song is an explosive “pit-see” that some describe as that of a child’s squeeze toy.

I wish we had olive-sided flycatchers here, because theirs is my favorite bird song, best described as a whistled “Hick, three beers.” Unfortunately, even on Canadian canoe trips I have found them rare, but one did put in that order in Forest Lawn a few weeks ago.