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Lord of the Fly(catchers)

Late each spring, later than most other neotropical migrants, the Brown-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus tyrannulus) return to our neighborhood (and other places in southern Arizona) from their wintering grounds in Mexico.

They are relatively large tyrant flycatchers, about the size of the more familiar Cardinal, but unlike Cardinals they’re not usually seen on or even terribly close to the ground.  They are Birds of Trees, and favor woodland and riparian areas, as well as the occasional suburban or park setting.  They need trees with trunks large enough to contain generously sized holes, because they’re cavity nesters.  A saguaro will do (a “Crest” once checked out a woodpecker hole in our now defunct saguaro, but didn’t select it), or a cottonwood, or any other tree a good-sized woodpecker like a flicker has excavated a hole in already.  We’ve got Gilded flickers and Gila woodpeckers around, so there are holes big enough for the Brown-cresteds to raise a brood in.  Excellently, the BCFL is one of the few native cavity-nesting passerines able to out-compete Starlings for nest-holes.

As flycatchers, they are also Birds of Air, and feed almost entirely on insects which they catch on the wing.  They’re distinctively vocal, and it’s often easier to detect them by sound than by sight, as they give vigorous rolling brrrts and wheeps from the tops of trees.  In addition, they seem to be the earliest singers of the morning, starting before sunrise with a gentle repetitive song that differs in note and pattern from their daytime vocalizations, but is similar in tone.  Many people find it easier to identify them by sound: Brown-crested flycatchers have a look-alike smaller Myiarchus “cousin” the Ash-throated flycatcher, which is more widespread in arid regions of the southwest but utters different sounds.

Though they arrive late in spring, they also leave earlier than most migrants, and around the middle of August, I find myself listening each morning for the early song of the Brown-crested flycatcher, wondering when they’ll all have flown.

(Sketch book watercolor, A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jul 23rd 2009 05:24 pm | No Comments yet
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