Thursday, March 8, 2018

Flycatchers & the Ubiquitous (but cute) Black Phoebe

As birders in California, particularly in the Great Central Valley, there are a few species we see nearly every time we go out.  Some are native to California (like Northern Mockingbirds and California Scrub-Jays) or even endemic to the state (Yellow-billed Magpies), while other ubiquitous birds have been introduced to North America from Europe (House Sparrows and European Starlings).  But just because a bird is seen daily doesn't mean that it's boring!  (I'm guilty of passing by a Scrub Jay and failing to notice its brilliant blue plumage, or walking right past a singing Mockingbird without pausing to listen to its intricate song.) 

Black Phoebes frequently fall into this category of ho-hum birds as well.  They're small and perhaps a little "drab" in their simple black-and-white attire, and it seems like I see them almost everywhere I go.  They are common residents anywhere there are insects and a little bit of fresh water, from suburban backyards to rivers, ponds, and wetlands.  But they really are beautiful little birds, and an excellent place to start if you're new to the group of birds known as the flycatchers.

The dashing and handsome Black Phoebe

Phoebes are flycatchers in the family Tyrannidae, along with Say's Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Vermillion Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, and the confusing Empidonax flycatchers (a group that includes the Pacific Slope, Willow, Gray, Dusky and Hammond's Flycatchers, which to beginning birders all look maddeningly similar to each other) - to name a few! 

A small sampling of other Tyrant flycatchers found in California include the following:
Say's Phoebe
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Western Kingbird

Vermillion Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Flycatchers are so named because of the characteristic fly-catching behavior they exhibit as they catch flying insects on the wing.  These active little birds perch in exposed places, such as at the end of snags or bare branches, to command a view of their surroundings.  When they spot prey - flying insects - they "sally" out from their perch to nab the insect in mid-air (or follow it to the ground and nab it there) then return to their perch. 
Understanding this behavior can be very helpful when trying to watch flycatchers through binoculars, and especially useful when photographing them.  Though they tend to move around quite a bit, they very often return to the same exposed perch again and again.  If you fix your binoculars or camera on that perch and wait just a minute, the flycatcher will probably return.

Black Phoebes generally perch in the open near water, and don't seem to mind being in close proximity to humans.  I joke (but it's not really a joke) that even when a day of birding isn't going as well as I'd hoped, there is usually a Black Phoebe hanging around that won't disappoint!

In addition to staying close to water for the insect prey it attracts, phoebes require water for building their mud nests.  The nest of a phoebe is a mud cup, lined with soft plant material, attached to a vertical surface just below a protective overhang.  In areas without human development, phoebes place nests on riverside boulders, cliffs and rock faces.  And as it would turn out, in developed areas, humans provide ideal nesting habitat for phoebes in the form of building walls and bridges. 

Black Phoebes are monogamous, and a pair may stay together for several years, often reusing the same nesting site each year.  They are territorial, defending their chosen area from other flycatchers as well as from swallows, warblers, sparrows and finches.  Nest predators include winged creatures from above - Cooper's Hawks, Scrub-Jays and shrikes - as well as terrestrial terrors from below - foxes, coyotes and squirrels.  Outside of the breeding season, Black Phoebes are usually seen alone and don't join winter flocks with other small birds.

With diets that consist almost entirely of insects, you won't find Black Phoebes visiting your backyard birdfeeders.  However, they will happily hang around your house if there are insects to catch, especially if there is a source of water nearby.  Their dependence on insects makes it important to refrain from using pesticides around your home and garden, killing off the good bugs along with the bad!  Because you know what they say: One man's pest... is a flycatcher's dinner!

If you enjoyed my very brief introduction to the world of phoebes and other flycatchers, check out this entertaining article from, Find Your First Phoebe, the Gateway Flycatcher.

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