Lots of birds catch flies, but how they do it differs. Swallows swoop around and catch them on the wing. Warblers may fly out and nab one, but more often they poke around tree branches, gleaning them off leaves and needles.
Flycatchers represent a family of birds that customarily sit on a perch, from which they dart out to snatch a meal, and return.
Maine’s most prominent flycatcher is the eastern phoebe. It seemingly nests on every porch, though mine are nesting on the garage this year. They’re noisy, and that harsh “FEE-bee” sound continues to echo through virtually every neighborhood.
Phoebes are so universal that Mainers can be forgiven for not knowing there are eight other flycatcher species nesting in our state. They have fascinating similarities and intriguing differences.
The one big thing flycatchers have in common is that they’re all terrible singers, if their vocalizations can even be considered songs. All of them make harsh noises, and that is partly by design. Most songbirds must learn their songs. If separated from their family and raised in captivity, they will make a lot of musical sounds, but won’t know their own song. In fact, if raised in the company of a different species, they may learn that song instead of their own.
Flycatchers are members of a much smaller group that does not learn songs. The sound they make is genetically encoded in their DNA. Their vocal cord structure is not as developed as in their sweet-singing counterparts, and their vocalizations sound more like screeches than songs.
Another thing flycatchers have in common is that they are agile and bold. Many birds are reluctant to sing from the treetops, where they might fall prey to a marauding hawk. Flycatchers dare you to mess with them. They’ll sit prominently in plain view, screeching away, while watching for lunch to fly by. They seem to know that they can outmaneuver, and in some cases outbox, any bully that comes their way.
Eastern kingbirds are particularly fearless. They nest on low branches, right out in the open.
Least flycatchers are the smallest. They tend to nest in clusters, with multiple birds in a small area. They build their nests on open branches in younger deciduous trees, below the canopy. They make a distinctive, repetitive, raspy “che-BEK” noise.
Yellow-bellied flycatchers are also small. These birds are common throughout northern Maine, wherever conifers dominate. Amazingly, these flycatchers are ground nesters, generally in a shady spot dominated by moss and leaf litter. They make a slower, less-repeated version of “che-BEK”, alternating with a more musical “chew-WEE.”
Alder flycatchers are quite common. Their “free BEER” call persists through the nesting season, usually coming from the damp, shrubby areas they call home. They build nests rather haphazardly in low dense shrubs.
Willow flycatchers are visually identical to alder flycatchers. Even experts can’t tell them apart in the field except by their voice, which sounds somewhat like a sneeze. They also nest in damp, shrubby areas. However, Bangor is just about the upper end of their range, and they are seldom found north of Old Town, whereas the alder flycatcher ranges well into Canada. You can sometimes hear both species in places like Essex Woods in Bangor.
Eastern wood-pewees are named after their slurring “pee-a-WEE?”call, audible from a long distance away. Unlike their cousins, they prefer to nest higher in tall deciduous trees, often obscured in the foliage. They tend to arrive later than Maine’s other flycatchers, and should be turning up right about now.
Great-crested flycatchers are one of the largest flycatchers. If you’ve got one nearby, you know it. They raucously alternate between a loud “whoop” and a “kreek, kreek, kreek,” with a few other raspy complaints thrown in. Unlike the other flycatchers, these nest in cavities, generally picking old woodpecker holes, and sometimes suburban nest boxes. They’re nesting in my yard now, and won’t shut up.
Olive-sided flycatchers are similarly large and loud. They alternate between a “quick, THREE beers” call and a loud “pip-pip-pip.” The two large flycatchers have divided up the state. Great-crested flycatchers prefer deciduous trees. Olive-sided flycatchers favor conifers, where they nest on interior branches.
So, you now have an assignment. I assume you’re familiar with the ubiquitous eastern phoebe. Your task is to find one of the other eight flycatchers, and report back to me by next week. On your mark. Get set. Go.