Thurston's Birds

Flycatchers

They go where the flies are

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Flycatchers are a family of birds that are fairly common but not well-known. With a little information and willingness to look and listen, you can find and identify several species of flycatchers.

First, you already know more about flycatchers that you realize just from their name. You know they eat winged insects, and you know they catch them on the wing (on “the fly,” so to speak). And, because they eat small flying insects, you can presume that they are fairly small and that they have small, pointed bills.

Also, you know that they are migratory birds that are here only in the summer because there are no flies to catch in the winter. And, you know they are here for breeding and likely the males will have some sort of territorial song or call. These calls are useful for identification, as the birds themselves are fairly small and nondescript versions of grey and olive, lighter or darker.

My single favorite of the flycatcher species in the Olive-sided Flycatcher. They like to hang out in the tall firs that we have throughout our county and the males sing from those tree-tops. Their song, or call, is a high-pitched whistle that is often transcribed as a tavern order, “quick, three beers.” Sometimes the singers will omit the “quick” just to confuse us. These birds are darkish olive-grey, and in good conditions, you can sometimes see that they have a white belly that sets off their grey sides, like they were wearing a vest. Maybe they should be called olive-vested flycatchers.

Another top-of-the-tree flycatcher is the Western Wood-Pewee. It’s quite a bit smaller than the olive-sided and greyer than olive. But what sets it apart and makes for easy identification is its call, a clear “pee-wee,” sometimes with equal emphasis on both notes and sometimes with a much stronger first note.

One flycatcher, the Pacific-slope Flycatcher, has been creating a nesting territory right around my house for several years. Each year I find its nest on some ledge, like the top of the electric meter or an outdoor deck light. These birds are both in yards and often heard in forested habitats where they frequent the understory, darting out to fly-catch, then returning to their perch. They have an interesting call, one that is easy to remember once you have heard it. It’s a three-note whistle, much like an attention-seeking human whistle (listen to it on the free Merlin app and see if you don’t agree).

The final bird I want to tell you about is the Willow Flycatcher. It’s the only one of our flycatchers that sits out in the open, often using a low-lying branch or stem as its hunting perch. Again, it is small and olive green, and you might notice that it has lighter colored bars on its wings. But the most certain way to identify it is vocally. Its call is transcribed at “fitz-bew,” and that is just what it sounds like.

There is another flycatcher species you might encounter, the uncommon Hammond’s Flycatcher. It lives in forested habitats and is also nondescript (what a surprise). Its call is unique so if you see a flycatcher in a forest understory calling something unusual, it might be a Hammond’s. Another good reason to review songs and calls on the Merlin app before taking that bird walk.

George Walter is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at george@theJOLTnews.com

Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 14-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.

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  • Drutty

    thanks for this--didn't know we had these here~!

    Friday, May 27 Report this