by Rex Burress

I was out early along the river at 5:30 AM on a July day predicted to reach 107 degrees. The Black Phoebe was out early too, dashing from its streamside snag to snatch an insect from the air. It has to do that because it is a flycatcher bird, and catching flies is its only known way to make a living. Of course, it is not only flies, but anything that flies insect-wise, although I haven’t seen it tackle the formidable pastel skimmer dragonflies rising from the water in profusion during the summer. The larger kingbird flycatcher can handle dragonflies, though.

Although many bird species catch flies, there are a few specific groups of birds classified as flycatchers, including not only the Black Phoebe in the phoebe group, but oddities such as the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher of the Cotinga group in midwest America. Even the quaint Phainopepla “silky flycatcher” we see along the Feather River in the wintertime fancies itself as a fly catcher, clumsily fluttering from its perch to grab a flying delicacy, even though it is designated as a pseudo flycatcher in a separate Ptilogonatidae family. Even the California Acorn Woodpecker will sweep into the sky to retrieve an insect, and all swallows catch insects strictly on the wing.

Bird watchers know all this data, but to the less experienced, it is novel that most of the true flycatchers spend the day keenly watching the sky for flying insects from some perch. You can know it is some kind of flycatcher from the way it flies out and back to its perch, even though defining individual species of a complex look-alike abundance is more challenging, especially with the group called Empidonax that superficially are all about the same size and design.

There are 374 species of flycatchers found only in the Western Hemisphere, with all but 35 species staying in South America where there are plenty of insects all the time. They are organized under the term “Tyrant flycatchers,” from a Latin word, tyrannus, meaning monarch or lord in reference to an aggressive behavior. It is a mystery why flycatchers developed in South America rather than Africa or some other insect-laden country, and why did 35 species breakaway to migrate to America each spring and return south each winter? They could have just stayed in the jungles, but then maybe they wanted more insects. Those little puzzles are what whets the desire to watch birds.

Aside from the spectacular Scissor-tailed Flycatcher are such oddities as the southwest Vermilion Flycatcher with vivid color in a family that is mostly gray, and the Kiskadee flycatcher on the Rio Grande– a bird that is nearly the size of a kingfisher – and sometimes dives to catch fish and eats berries! When I saw my one and only Scissor-tailed Flycatcher along a Missouri road on the way for an appendix operation, I shouted “Scissor-tailed.” They thought I was delirious, but that long double tail is unmistakable.

Those flycatcher little-gray-jobs (LGJ’s, as compared to the LBJ little-brown-job sparrows) that give me bird watching fits every year around the waterway of Oakland Feather River Camp, indeed contribute to reducing flies as well as mosquitoes. I finally pinpointed one camp species as being a Wood Pewee, although I thought it was a Western Flycatcher* at first (no eye ring on the pewee), and one pair nested on a incense cedar branch above our camping area. The two fledglings were leaving the nest, and one fell overboard, causing the entire camp to convene in discussion as how to get the babe back in business. A long pole sufficed to lift it back to the nest for a few more days of babyhood.

Some flycatchers, such as the Ash-throated Flycatcher, have the predictable habit of finding shed snake skins to drape from their nest cavities in trees, perhaps to scare other animals away! An oak tree cavity-nest along the river trail to Glen Pond was revealed by that fluttering snake skin arrangement. Another ashy-colored flycatcher, the Olive-sided Flycatcher, is famous for its distinctive whoop-three-cheers whistle.

The biggest “tyrant” is the kingbird flycatcher (ours is the Western Kingbird), noted for its aggressive behavior when a hawk, or even an eagle, comes into their nesting territory. They will attack anything up there in the sky when their young become possibly imperiled.

Perhaps you are aware that the birding world has developed a “Big Sit” birding day, in which you mark a 17-foot diameter circle in some choice birding spot and stay there for 24 hours, recording all bird species you see. The first Big Sit was at New Haven, Connecticut, in 1993. One sit at Bentsen State Park on the Lower Rio Grande produced 92 species. If you wait long enough, the world will come to you! This corresponds to the birding “The Big Day” when up to 200 species can be counted in 24 hours in as much territory you can cover.

October 12, 2003, will be the official Big Sit this year, sponsored by Swarovski Optics. They will offer a Golden Bird prize of $500 to be donated to an environmental organization of the winner's choice. One species will be chosen, and all Big Sitters who see that selected bird will have their name go into a hat for a drawing. Big Sits have become popular for gourmets as well, with an array of fancy foods planned for their 24-hour compound, and you have to prepare because you are officially stuck in the circle. There are prizes for the best Big Sit team name, and the best photo taken during the session.

Sitting and being still are commendable ways of not only practicing contemplative introspection, but all sorts of wildlife may come into your range as they go about their explorations. Burrow into a brush pile, wear your camouflage clothing, maybe use a “squeak” call, and “they will come.”

© 2003 Rex Burress
July 29, 2003

*The former Western Flycatcher has now been divided into two species: the Pacific-slope Flycatcher (our west-coast species) and the Cordilleran Flycatcher.