The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 2, Chapter 12: Meet the Flycatchers Ft. Eastern Phoebe

Dear Wood Folk,

Once in a while I see a meme about telling sparrows apart that has drawings of their heads with their different color patterns – super helpful really. There’s a flycatcher version. Except in the flycatchers case they just copy/pasted the same drab head for each one. It’s a joke, but it’s kind of true. There are a couple you’d need to hear to tell apart.

We’ve got eastern phoebe (sayornis phoebe), eastern wood-pewee (contopus virens), eastern kingbird (tyrannus tyrannus), great crested flycatcher (myiarchus crinitus), least flycatcher (empidonax minimus), alder flycatcher (empidonax alnorum), olive-sided flycatcher (contopus cooperi), yellow-bellied flycatcher (empidonax flaviventris), and willow flycatcher (empidonax traillii). 5 Are pictured in yesterday’s Insta. I also just posted my first yellow-bellied flycatcher to iNat.

I’m going to focus on the eastern phoebe as they’re the most common flycatcher here. They’re also one of the first birds to come back early spring, from the southern states and Mexico in their case. And the first flycatcher. Late March and change is the short window IDing is a no brainer. Their song is a welcome sign spring is here. My first sighting this year was about March 29th.

Eastern Phoebe Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe Flycatcher

Eastern Phoebe Plant Allies

These flycatchers are one of the few species that prefer human built structures for nesting sites, particularly ledges. If you have a wooded area and a water source near your structures you’ve got the perfect lot. Before humans spread here, they chose from our many rock outcrops to nest on. Sometimes they get used to people if they nest near humans. I’ve met flycatchers that really didn’t care if I was just a couple feet from them.

The female builds a cup shaped nest made of grasses, leaves, and moss, on a mud foundation. She lines it with fine grasses and animal hair. She may use the same site for years and even reno atop her old nest.

Eastern phoebes perch on a post or branch, twitching their tails, scanning their surroundings for insects. Especially flying insects. But I’ve seen them come back to their perch with spiders and other creepy crawlies too. The tail twitching is a flycatcher trait, though not exclusive to them.

While eastern phoebes eat mostly insects, they also perch in shrubs or trees to eat berries, like elderberries, Virginia creeper, wild grape and other native berry bushes. Especially in autumn, winter and early spring.

Attracting Eastern Phoebes

Insect-friendly, biodiverse yards are the top way to attract flycatchers. You can add perches too, besides leaving dead branches. I have a bad habit of leaving shovels embedded in my yard and I can’t count how many times I’ve looked out the window to see some sort of flycatcher using the handle as a perch.

You can place shelves under the overhangs of your shed, outhouse, garage, etc., to be used by eastern phoebes for a nest site.

They may visit a birdbath, although having close-by natural water sources is even better.

Next month we’re covering one of my favorite birds here – the cat bird. Then some vireos. But I’m in the mood for a change. We’re going to volume 3 in November and we’ll be touring our world of pollinators, more than butterflies, but all manner of insects, and perhaps bats. But I’m going to be basic and start with monarchs. I hope you’re around for the migration!

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