By BRUCE LUND
Right on their mid-February schedule, one of our most delightful and people-friendly songbirds, the Say’s Phoebe, are becoming more active. The daylight hours are longer and afternoons tend to be nice and warm, both of which stir insects up and out of their winter torpor to fly about. This in turn gets the attention of this lovely little (7 inch long) flycatcher.
Walking or driving past fields and vacant lots in the Muddy and Virgin River valleys, one is likely to spot these perky flycatchers perched low on shrubs, weeds, and fence posts watching for unlucky insects to come into view. From these outposts, they launch their strikes, twisting and darting after flies, beetles, moths – any kind of flying insect is just great! And unusual for a flycatcher, this phoebe will pick insects directly from the ground.
Say’s Phoebes are fairly common in southern Nevada. But because they tend to be solitary (not flocky) and widely scattered, they tend to get overlooked.
Added to all this is that their colors are muted earth tones and at first glance they appear as dull colored birds. But take a closer look and you’ll see the tail is black and contrasts notably with the gray-brown feathers on their backs.
The really sweet touch is their orange colored tummies which vary in intensity and hue from bird to bird, but is harder to get a look at until the bird perches facing you.
Their song is a soft plaintive downward whistle – unmistakable once you connect it to the bird.
A look at range maps shows that southern Nevada is just within the northern edge of its winter range, so that this phoebe is a year-round resident with us. However, starting about now, our birds are beginning to meet a lot of relations as the major population of Say’s Phoebe has begun moving north from their winter range that extends below southern Mexico. Many make it to northern Alaska and Canada where, being insect eaters, they are in phoebe heaven during the massive explosion of mosquitoes, black flies, and other insects of the tundra summer. In fact according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Say’s Phoebe nests farther north than any other flycatcher and even appears to be extending its northern reach by using the Alaska pipeline for nesting.
Say’s Phoebes have always had an attachment with ranches, cabins, barns, and other structures of western rural residents. Unlike most flycatchers which prefer tree and shrub crotches as nest sites, the Say’s Phoebe prefers to build its nest on a firm flat surface under an overhang.
Thus it is that for a couple of years Flo and I enjoyed watching a phoebe build her nest on a beam under the eve of our back porch. The one catch was that for some reason, ‘our phoebe’ decided the perfect location was directly above the back door which meant that every time we went out that way, the female bolted off into the nearby tree tops. I mean, locating the nest a couple of feet either way would have avoided her conflict and our guilty feelings for flushing her every time we went out the door. But once she had decided this was the perfect alcove, there was no changing her mind.
But that’s not all! For the same couple of years, one, and sometimes two, phoebes decided the rafters under the roof of our front porch made the ideal winter night roost. So from December through February we had guilt trips about turning on the porch light which tended to spook them into the dark. Indeed, we became well trained to avoid using our front door at night.
Of course, songbirds have short life spans, and no phoebe came back to nest or roost last year. So 2012 was free of guilt trips and poop on the porch rafters and floor. But we really miss our phoebes and will gladly welcome them back anytime, poop and all.
Bruce Lund is a retired biologist and has a lifelong love of nature instilled by his grandparents and some remarkable teachers. He has lived with his wife, Flo, in Moapa since 1997.