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Flycatchers: Great variety, hard to identify

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    The great crested flycatcher is our largest flycatcher. Note the yellow belly, brownish wing edge, and its “wheep” call. This one was carrying nesting material to the abandoned woodpecker hole nearby. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    The eastern phoebe is the earliest arriving flycatcher and latest to depart in fall. I’ve seen them feeding near streams after a late spring snowfall threw a challenge at them.

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    A phoebe nest is built with a huge percentage of moss as the photo depicts. Their preference for stream sides offers them an abundance of moss.

Published July 20. 2018 11:09PM

I recently discussed a number of swallow species, such as the barn and tree swallows. Swallows typically fly over fields or aquatic areas and catch insects as they course back and forth across their domain.

Flycatchers, unlike swallows, usually sit on a perch looking for flying insects and then dart off to snatch one up and often alight on the same perch again. Sometimes, seconds later they dart off, snatch another insect and repeat the process over and over again.

There are many flycatcher species in the U.S. and locally you could potentially see 10 species. Eight of those probably breed in the Times News coverage area. They are relatively small birds, ranging from the least flycatcher (5½ inches) to the great crested flycatcher (8¾ inches.) The Empidonax genus (referred to as empids) often look very similar and probably can be best identified by their different songs.

The difficulty in identifying them is a because of their similar shapes, their subtle feather differences and their habits of not sitting still long enough to pinpoint those subtleties.

The earliest arriving flycatcher is the eastern phoebe. Its song “Fee Bee” can be heard over and over again and will help you quickly identify it.

It often nests under bridges spanning smaller streams or on/in farm or seldom used outbuildings. They arrive here about the first week of April and are still darting from pasture fences and shrubs into early October.

My birding pal Dave and I observed one at Lizard Creek in a very unusual weeklong warm spell in January a few years ago.

The smallest flycatchers include the least, yellow-bellied, willow and Acadian flycatchers. They average between 5¼ and 5½ inches in size. They each have rather specific habitat requirements and where you see them can help you identify them.

The willow flycatcher, for example, prefers damp fields or small stream edges while the Acadian flycatcher is a deep woods fancier and tree top feeder.

The willow flycatchers serenade the blueberry pickers in early July in East Penn Township. The berry farm is the type of brushy area they apparently favor.

A rather common flycatcher is the great crested flycatcher. Easy to identify by its larger size, yellow belly, a fluttering wing flight, and its characteristic “wheep” call. They also commonly fly in pairs from perch to perch.

They are the only eastern flycatcher that nests in cavities and peculiarly often places a shed snake skin among the nest material. They also arrive early in May and their arrival assures me that spring is here to stay.

The eastern kingbird, almost black, with its characteristic white-tipped tail is the second-largest flycatcher here. They are most common near water where they also leave a perch to snap up a flying insect.

Look for the adults, and also the young birds now, since they travel to open field and semirural areas to “bulk up” before the fall migration. I intend to dedicate an entire article on this stately bird in a future column.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: See what you learned from last week’s article. If you were a bird, would you eat a lady bird beetle?

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: The number of spots on a lady bird beetle has nothing to do with age. There are, for example, two spotted lady bird beetle and nine spotted lady bird beetle species.

Contact Barry Reed at

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