Monday, April 7, 2008

Flycatchers Arrive

When first you see the great-crested flycatcher in the spring, back from his winter vacation in the tropics, he may look as if he collided with a tropical storm on his way across the Gulf. Sometimes his crest looks ratted, a sign that he is not yet over jet lag.

This bushy, crew-cut bird wears a drab olive coat on his back, accentuated with bright mahogany wings and tail. Its lemon-yellow shirt adds to its camouflage of the yellow-green leaves of spring.

A large flat bill, with bristles at the base to help scoop in those noxious insects, is a good field mark. You hear this bird more often than you see him because his voice is so loud and grating. But with all his roughness, he is beautiful.

Found in our wooded neighborhoods from Florida and the Gulf Coast into Canada, this big flycatcher was once considered a woods bird, not a suburbanite. If in your neighborhood you have large trees scattered with woodpecker holes or natural cavities, he'll probably be your neighbor this spring.

The great-crested is a hole-nesting bird and natural cavities seem to be his preference, though he will build in man-made boxes, mailboxes and other cavities.

Hardly a summer passed that we didn't have at least one flycatcher nest on our bluebird trail. Usually the opening of the boxes used had been enlarged by squirrels.

He has a reputation of always using a snake skin in the nest, and it is still used in many. But because man is such a litter freak, this magnificent bird has become a garbage collector, for we now find in his nest long pieces of plastic and other shiny material carelessly discarded by man. This habit of his collecting shiny strings of material can probably put to rest the centuries old tale that he uses snake skins to frighten away predators. Now, we can assume he uses the natural litter of snake skins as decoration.

Twice on our bluebird trail there was a nest with snake skin hanging from the nest almost to the ground five feet below. It fell between the crack in the door and the wall of the box. Now, how did the bird accomplish this?

Eggs laid by this flycatcher usually number from five to six. They have a ground color of creamy or pinkish buff with streaks, scratches and blotches of brown and various shades of purple or lavender. Incubation lasts about 15 days and the young leave the nest when they are around 18 days old.

By September these youngsters are ready to leave for their winter vacation in Mexico, Central and South America.

During the hot days of lingering July this noisy bird drops the harshness of his "wheep" and becomes more or less quiet. His loud "wheep" of early summer is now toned down to a low, almost insignificant note. In August and early September the note has a sadness to it, almost a mournful intonation, like that of his cousin the wood peewee's mournful fall note, ">pur-eee."

You might say he comes upon the spring scene arrogant and self-determined, flinging out his harsh notes at random. But come early September, with his brashness subdued, he bids us farewell until the next April. He's due now. Look and listen for him.