The language of birding can be both descriptive and misleading, and often turns on context. For example, I frequently use the word “hawk” to describe most birds of prey even though, technically speaking, the word “hawk” applies to “true” hawks. In our area, those are the sharp-shinned hawk, the Cooper's hawk and the Northern goshawk.
Another example is the word “migrant,” which I use interchangeably to describe both those birds that come into our area for nesting in the spring and leave in the fall as well as those birds that pass through our area in the spring and fall but do not nest here.
This came up recently because of my use of the word “flycatcher” in a previous column. The word “flycatcher” operates as both a noun and a verb in the birding world. For example, a cedar waxwing is a fairly common bird in our area and can frequently be seen flying from a perch to snatch an insect out of the air, which is a behavior that birders call flycatching, even though, technically, the cedar waxwing is not a flycatcher.
In general, the “true” flycatchers in our area are small, plain-looking birds that can be seen on prominent perches that they use as launching pads to catch large and small insects that are flying nearby. Given that they generally remain motionless until they launch, their drab plumage helps them blend into their background, making them safer from predators.
In our area, the most common “true” flycatcher — even though the word doesn’t appear in the bird’s name — is the Eastern phoebe (pronounced FEE-bee). If you’ve seen a sparrow-sized gray bird around your deck that has a yellowish belly and whitish breast that persistently pumps its tail while perched, you’ve probably seen an Eastern phoebe.
Another fairly common flycatcher generally found in open country in our area is the Eastern kingbird, which, true to its name, lords over its nesting area and can be seen chasing birds that are much larger than itself, including crows and hawks. Like the phoebe, the Eastern kingbird is a fairly nondescript bird except for an obvious white terminal band at the tip of its tail.
One of the flycatchers that I like to think of as an “autumn surprise” is the olive-sided flycatcher, which Dr. Stephen Eaton described as “possibly a rare nesting species” in his book "Birds of Cattaraugus County New York." I call it an “autumn surprise” because that’s the only time of the year that I’ve seen one here and, as far as I know, no one has ever found a nesting pair in this county, even though we keep looking.
To my surprise, a couple of years ago I saw a great-crested flycatcher on my property and, this year, I think a pair nested because I’ve seen a juvenile in the area. I’m surprised because the great-crested flycatcher is more habitat-specific than some of our flycatchers and I’ve generally found them in mature forest near water, which doesn’t describe my property very accurately. But, like bluebirds, they’re cavity nesters so they have to nest where they can find tree cavities, which narrows their options since they don’t excavate their own cavity.
Unlike low-lying areas in the Allegheny River Valley, where mosquitoes are abundant this year because of all the rain, there are fewer mosquitoes where I live because there’s less standing water, but we’ve had an abundance of gnats.
Like the term “seagull,” for which no species of gull actually exists, there is no single species of insect that is called a “gnat.” Rather, gnat is used to describe a whole group of small flies, which the Smithsonian Institution defines as: “non-biting flies … attracted to fluids secreted by our eyes,” which explains why gnats are found in clouds flying around our face.
Despite its name, the blue-gray gnatcatcher doesn’t eat a lot of gnats, but it does use its long tail to stir up insects on tree branches that it then flies after. Like other birds associated with southern states, the range of the blue-gray gnatcatcher appears to be spreading northward with the warming climate.
If I were to name my favorite flycatcher, it would probably be the Eastern wood pewee. Unlike the other flycatchers, the pewee inhabits dense woodlands, but it looks very much like all the other flycatchers — small and nondescript. What makes it special for me is its song, which I think of as capturing something like sorrowful exuberance. That ounds like a contradiction in terms, but that’s what happens when we try to use words to describe the exquisiteness of birds.
True flycatchers can be easy to overlook because they’re not very colorful, don’t come to feeders, generally sing in only one or two syllables and don’t arrive very early in the spring or stay very late in the fall . But if you’ve ever tried to actually catch a fly on the wing you can appreciate how well adapted these birds are to their environment and how important they are to the balance of nature.
Images of some of the birds discussed here can be seen at:
(Jeffrey Reed writes a monthly birding column for the Olean Times Herald. Readers with questions or comments can call him at 557-2327 or email him at email@example.com.)