The Speedy Flycatchers

The members of the flycatcher family generally have large heads, “whiskers,” and flat bills with wide bases. It must be hard to catch those flying insects. I wonder how many times they miss their target, when they dart out from their perches to capture them.

There used to be an Eastern wood-pewee that perched on a barn at Jamestown Audubon. He would sing his name over and over and over and over. Like the wood-pewee, the Eastern phoebe repeats its name over and over. The Empidonax family including Acadian, alder, yellow-bellied, and willow flycatchers, are really tough to distinguish from each other. I have heard the great crested flycatcher in my yard, producing a very loud “queep.”

Today, we’ll just discuss the feisty Eastern kingbird. If it spies one of its enemies, crow or hawk, it will dive at it. This bird migrates, from Central and South America, to our latitude in May. Some birds migrate at night. Not the kingbirds. Flocks of them, in no specific formation, start moving early in the morning and continue until mid-afternoon. They are often joined by other small birds – barn and rough-winged swallows, and swifts. They might spend more than one night, even up to a month, in one place on their trip.

When they arrive, mating will commence. The male will fly high and then head down again in a haphazard way over and over again. These flights can be rapid, or slow. Both the male and female will quiver their wings.

Keep an eye out for its nest in a variety of areas. They might raise a family in farmland, fruit orchards or areas with scattered trees. The nest could be pretty high in a tree or in low bushes along a river. When you see a stump sticking out of water, there might be a kingbird nest on it. If trees are not prevalent, it will select a fencepost, or stump, not even protected from the sun. Reports are of their nests being on street lights and in oriole’s nests. Once a nest site is chosen, the bird will return to it for many years.

You probably won’t see two kingbird nests close together. It’s a territorial thing. However, years ago, two nests were reported to be about only 14 inches apart. One was occupied by an Eastern kingbird and the other by a robin.

How are nesting duties divided between the adults? The male does help in both building the nest and incubating the eggs. He will guard the nest when the female needs a break to feed. He likes to be on a limb nearby, so that he can have a large vantage point. An interesting report was made in South Carolina years ago. A pair of kingbirds built a nest in a gourd that had previously been occupied by purple martins. (I wonder if Jack Gulvin has witnessed such activity in the purple martin nests that he monitors at Chautauqua Institution?)

Three to five eggs are laid. After hatching, the young stay in the nest for about two weeks. A studious birder was witness to an adult discharging the parts of the insect food that were inedible. That common practice among flycatchers reminds me of owl pellets.

For some of you snowbirds, who migrate to Florida in the winter, you might have seen the beautiful scissor-tailed flycatcher and great kiskadee. When I was there a few years ago, I was lucky to see a scissor-tailed flying over the highway.

There are many local flycatchers. Look for part 2 of this topic.