Sunday, July 11, 2010

Another Black Phoebe...

This morning a new friend, Carol, came down to ‘bird my yard’. We sat and drank coffee while watching out the window…my favorite place to read. It’s not the best time of the year to bird, but we reliably get four species of hummingbird. They begin to arrive in this order: Broad-tailed hummers (they sound like crickets when they fly), and then Black-chinned hummers (the tail-pumpers). These two breed here and sometimes you see downy fledglings. A few weeks later come the Rufus Hummingbirds on their way back from way north (as far as Alaska). With them come this years’ young…they stay quite awhile, feeding on Rocky Mountain wildflowers and nectar offered in feeders. Generally, less than a week after the Rufus arrive, the Calliope hummers arrive; my favorites. They also breed up north and spend the summer/fall here growing up, tanking up and getting ready for the rest of the migration back to Mexico or Central America.

While we didn’t yet see a Calliope Hummingbird (on this 11th day of July, four days after the first Rufus)…Carol did spot a Black Phoebe! This is only the third or fourth one I’ve had visit here. Thanks Carol!

The Black Phoebe is unlike most phoebes with its highly contrasting plumage. It is a tyrant flycatcher native to western North America, ranging from southwestern Oregon and California to west Texas and northern Mexico. In South America, the Black Phoebe is a bird of the Andes mountain region, ranging from Colombia in the north, south to northern Argentina.

The Black Phoebe reaches a length of 5.75” with dark brown or black on the head, breast, back, wings, and tail, and white on the underbelly, undertail coverts and under the wings. It has no wing-bars; the dark color is unbroken other than the all white under-parts. This species spends more time along streams and ponds than the other phoebe species, and is not migratory but stays in its range year-round. Like other phoebes, it continually wags its tail when perched and sallies for food; waiting on an open perch such as a dead branch or fence post, flying out to catch an insect, and then returning to the same perch. It eats flying insects, hawking them from the air, and also skims floating insects on water like a cliff swallow. While this medium-sized flycatcher primarily feeds on insects, it sometimes catches and eats small fish. Preferred habitats include shady areas near water, streams, ponds, and lakes; occurs in city parks and open chaparral in winter. I hope to encourage them in my yard by stocking breeding fish in my new pond. Phoebes build a mud and grass nest always under something often directly over or near water and often raise two broods in a season.

I know now, that the ‘rubber-duckie’, squeeze-toy sound I hear in the mornings is probably a Black Phoebe. The ‘text’ of the call is “seek”, but I swear they sound like squeeze-toys. Its song is also described as a thin, buzzy pi-tsee, usually repeated. Call is a sharp, down-slurred chip.

[Addendum] The flycatcher is back this morning...seriously chasing another (small) bird which I didn't get a good look at. It perched twice in my yard before it flew off after the other bird. WOW...two days in a row.

The tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae) are a family of passerine birds which occur throughout North and South America, but are mainly Neotropical in distribution. They are now considered the largest family of birds on Earth, with around 400 species. In every country in the Americas, except for the United States and Canada, they are the most diverse avian family. As could be expected from a family this large, the members vary greatly both in shape, patterns and colors. They are members of suborder Tyranni (suboscines) that do not have the sophisticated vocal capabilities of the songbirds. Most, but not all, are rather plain, and many have erectile crests. As the name implies, most are insectivorous, but some will eat fruit or small frogs and fish.

Here’s a Royal Flycatcher…now this bird has a crest; wild, isn't it. The fan-shaped crest is seldom seen except during banding; it’s red in males and yellow-orange in females. This member of the Tyrannidae family is found in Mexico and much of Central America…typically, for flycatchers, it is found in subtropical or tropical, moist lowland forests.

According to, a group of flycatchers has many collective nouns, including an "outfield", "swatting", "zapper", and "zipper" of flycatchers.

Photos from Wikipedia, except the top one by G. Jameson of the USGS.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Rufous Are Back!

I thought I saw a Rufous (or Rufus) Hummingbird a few days before, gleaming like some brass or golden ingot in the morning sun...but I couldn't confirm. On July 7th, I got the confirmation; they're back.

Rufous is a color that may be described as reddish-brown or brownish-red, as of rust or oxidised iron. Sometimes it is said to be strong yellowish pink to moderate orange; reddish. I’ve heard this hummingbird described as both ‘brown’ as well as ‘orange’. I think they’re the color of rich coffee, just after thick cream is added but not yet stirred. This painting does a good job showing how different the bird will look, depending on lighting alone.

As with all iridescent feathers, sometimes this bird’s throat feathers (gorget) looks to be black in color; but then the sun hits it the bird positively glows
…like copper or gold. A stunning bird; when the males court the females they always insure the sun is behind the female, so she can witness him in all his glory as the sun brings out the bright iridescence of his feathering.

The Rufous Hummingbirds bred further north than any other hummingbird; in western North America, from southern Alaska to California. They winter in the Mexican state of Guerrero, travelling well over 2,000 miles each way in migration; quite a feat for a tiny bird weighing only 3-4 grams.

Like most hummers, the drabber female is a bit larger than the colorful male…to accommodate her when carrying eggs. For her size, she lays huge eggs; usually two, that are coffee-bean sized, in a tiny but elastic nest she builds herself of spider web and bits of mossy decoration. Male hummingbirds do not participate in nest building or rearing young; she is on her own. In fact, each male may mate with several females…but doesn’t feed any of them.

Nita, in her blog Nature Remains, has a lovely journal of her experience watching a nest she found. The photo of the nest with eggs is hers; do click this link to read the entire story and see more lovely photos. Remember the oldest post is at the top…so scroll down to start at the beginning! Nita is a lovely writer/poet/naturalist/photographer; you’ll love her. I just love how she describes two growing hummingbird nestlings as looking like a couple of sword-fighters in a telephone booth. She's awesome...

Youngsters thrive on spiders, tiny flies and gnats that are caught in the brush or grass. It’s interesting to watch a hummingbird hover back and forth just a few inches over the grass…hawking (catching insects on the fly). If hummingbird babies are fed only nectar, they suffer stunted growth and deformations…the protein of fresh meat is very important to proper development.

June Yard-birds (each name is linked to more information)
* = Fly-over
The nest photo is Nita's of Nature Remains, the balance are from Wikipedia.