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Ohio’s Earliest Flycatcher.

March 22, 2014

Eastern Phoebe

Early spring has arrived!  Here’s a few posts I’ve already done on this topic: Forests before spring, Early Spring, and Early Spring Bird Activity.   As far as early spring 2014 in central Ohio goes, we seem to be a bit behind in the green growing things department, but the early spring birds are starting to show.

One of those early spring arrivals I saw last week was a flycatcher.  Flycatchers (more properly, Tyrant Flycatchers) are  the largest bird family on earth, with 400 species occurring in the Western Hemisphere.  Generally speaking, these birds are drab insect-eaters that frequently make short flights from a perch to catch insects on the wing.  Here’s some images I took 4 days ago:

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This bird is an Eastern Phoebe:

One of our most familiar eastern flycatchers, the Eastern Phoebe’s raspy “phoebe” call is a frequent sound around yards and farms in spring and summer. These brown-and-white songbirds sit upright and wag their tails from prominent, low perches. They typically place their mud-and-grass nests in protected nooks on bridges, barns, and houses, which adds to the species’ familiarity to humans. Hardy birds, Eastern Phoebes winter farther north than most other flycatchers and are one of the earliest returning migrants in spring.

You may think that this small bird is rather drab, and it is, but it has a great call: fee-bee!  fee-bee!  When I hear this call, I know that spring is definitely here.

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In addition, this bird is fun to watch, catching insects on the wing, then flying back to its perch.  What a great neighbor, reducing the bug population.

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Fun historical fact: This species was the first bird ever banded in North America, in 1804 by John James Audubon.  Audubon tied a silver thread around a Phoebe’s leg in order to identify the same individual in the future.

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This bird is most often seen along wood edges.  Wood edges are great places to see a variety of wildlife, being the boundary between two different ecosystems.  Notice the yellowish tinge to its breast feathers.

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Phoebes tend to be loners.  You’ll see the occasional mated pair, but the bulk of the time they are just fine by themselves, catching insects.

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Here’s a pair.  These birds will often nest under bridges or under the eaves on outbuildings; last year I saw one nest on top of a light fixture attached to a park restroom.  They don’t mind being in the area with people, though they’re still a bit shy of us.

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Here’s a Phoebe with nesting material.  I’ve seen moss used in their grass and mud nests.  Another fun fact: unlike most birds, Phoebes will re-use old nests.

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Here’s a mother Phoebe that has a nest built on a rock wall.  It was nice to get a glimpse of how they nested before we came along and built buildings and bridges!

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Not only do Phoebes show up early in spring- mid-March is the typical arrival date here in central Ohio- but Phoebes will stay later in the autumn than other flycatchers, too.  They’ve been spotted in the area clear up to December.  Other flycatchers prefer warmer weather, obviously.  This can be somewhat risky, because very cold weather will ground flying insects, but it also allows for an earlier jump on breeding territory in the spring. Edit: luckily, these birds will eat a bit of fruit or seeds if necessary when insects are scarce.

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While they may not be much to look at, these birds do us a favor by eating multitudes of flying insects.  And their distinctive calls are truly welcome after a cold winter.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2014 2:09 pm

    Nice shots of one of our favorite birds. Your correct about their late departure, we’ve seen them so late in the year that you wonder what they’re eating.

    • March 22, 2014 4:34 pm

      I worry about them Robert when I see them early or late enough to get caught in really cold weather!

  2. March 22, 2014 2:28 pm

    Hi Seasons, I really like that picture of the nest in the rock face. Lovely set of photographs. I learned quite a lot about the Phoebe’s from this post. We have Phoebe’s here. I think your are right about these birds being solitary or in pairs. Have a fabulous weekend!

  3. Crooked Tracks permalink
    March 22, 2014 3:01 pm

    Nice to see some bird activity, here I see the crows building nests 🙂

  4. March 22, 2014 3:45 pm

    Great shots of one of my favorite birds! I can’t wait for them to show up and hear them in our yard!!

  5. March 22, 2014 4:39 pm

    A very informative post puncuctated with great photos!

  6. March 22, 2014 4:52 pm

    I enjoyed this post, thank you.

  7. March 22, 2014 6:29 pm

    Lovely little bird.

  8. March 22, 2014 9:03 pm

    Tracy, great post and pictures as always. Looking at the nest in the rock wall I remembered a past post with a similar picture. Forgot the name of the park, something unique about it, and remember thinking, “This is a place I want to go.” Reading the comments you said the photos were “a few years worth.” Is this the same bird? And what is the name of the park? Thanks.

    • March 22, 2014 9:28 pm

      Hey John, thanks! Here’s the park and the original pictures of the rock wall:
      Funny enough, I went to that park this morning. The various photos in this post are the best of a few years worth of Phoebe photos of various different birds at different parks- I left out quite a few photos that weren’t as good. It’s funny, you can take a hundred photos and perhaps 5 or 10 are good, a lot are not good and a lot are somewhere in between!

  9. March 22, 2014 11:46 pm

    I love these photos! Just don’t get to see these birds here but they are really pretty little ones!

  10. March 24, 2014 12:32 am

    Your birdies are so pretty. It’s a blessing see them thriving and enjoying their world.

  11. March 24, 2014 9:14 am

    Love the shot of the Phoebe holding the grass. I am not familiar with this bird and actually had to look up if we have them in Wisconsin. Interestingly I learned that our local humane society is selling nesting shelves for them (or robins…)

    • March 24, 2014 10:32 am

      That’s very cool, Inger! They aren’t as friendly as Robins are towards people, but they enjoy nesting on buildings and bridges and they are a natural form of insect control!

  12. The Editors of Garden Variety permalink
    March 25, 2014 5:35 pm

    Oh my gosh, they are so beautiful!I truly love your pictures.

  13. March 26, 2014 6:20 am

    Lovely photos, and nice to hear its calls too! So good to see the spring migrants appearing. None here yet, but it’s way too early!

    • March 26, 2014 9:27 am

      We’re having what I hope is the last wintery day today Jo, it’s got to warm up real soon!

  14. March 28, 2014 6:58 pm

    You got some excellent shots! I haven’t seen many insects here yet but I hope they and the birds are planning on moving north soon.

    • March 28, 2014 10:21 pm

      Thanks. Gardener- Ohio’s usually out of the snow by now, but what do you know, we may get an inch or so tomorrow…The Winter That Wouldn’t Die!

  15. March 30, 2014 8:50 pm

    The only one I’ve ever seen was when visiting my daughter, to the north of us. It built its nest atop one of their porch light fixtures. She lived at the edge of a pine forest for a short while. So many birds could be heard, but they were hard to find.


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