Ode to Flycatchers

A couple of weeks ago I heard my first Eastern Wood-Pewee of the spring and realized something – I love flycatcher songs. In fact, as a group, they are one of my favorites.

This realization took even me by surprise. After all, they aren’t even songbirds! The songbirds (the Oscine sub-order of the Passerines) get the lion’s share of the musical acclaim among birds, and I can’t really argue with that. The unearthly strains issued by thrushes sound like they are piped directly from heaven. And the breathless serenade of a Winter Wren seems impossible for such a tiny bird. But there is just something about the relatively simple exclamations of flycatchers that makes me smile.

Here are a few of my favorites:

The song of the aforementioned Eastern Wood-Pewee is a simple, whistled peeowee.

You’ve gotta love a bird that announces its name. But my favorite pewee vocalization is one that I often hear during fall migration. It’s a combination of two distinct calls – spondivit and pee-u. Others might describe the first sound differently, but this pronunciation sticks in my mind because there is a local restaurant named Spondivits. I’m a picky eater and have been told that I probably wouldn’t find much to eat there. So is it any coincidence that I hear the pewees say spondivit … spondivit … pee-u?

If the pewee says its name, the Eastern Phoebe practically shouts it. This little bird may be drab, but it is charismatic. Sitting out in the open, pumping its tail, belting out its burry phoebe, it can’t help but make you smile.

Writing out bird sounds phonetically is an inexact science, to say the least. Everyone hears something different. But I must be hearing something really different in the case of the Alder Flycatcher. The Sibley Guide presents the song as rreeBEEa, and Cornell’s All About Birds has it saying “f-bee-oo”. But I hear it more as vree-beer. I certainly don’t hear the three distinct parts that many representations give. However, I do remember reading somewhere that the third part is often there. Even if you can’t audibly distinguish it, you can usually see it in the spectrograph (a visual representation of sounds).

Regardless of what it says, that burry, ascending explosion of a song is one of my favorite bird sounds ever. But it’s not due to the sound itself, but rather the circumstances in which I heard it. One May morning, I was birding the nature preserve in my north-central Georgia neighborhood. Out of nowhere came a sound that stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t recognize it immediately, but I’ll never forget my excitement as it finally dawned on me what I was hearing. Alder Flycatchers are a rare migrant in Georgia, so I certainly wasn’t expecting to find my lifer in my own subdivision. It is the only state review species that I’ve found, and it remains the only Alder that I’ve ever seen or heard.

That last part, “or heard”, is important. The Alder Flycatcher belongs to the genus Empidonax. These flycatchers, often called empids, look so much alike that they are almost impossible to identify by sight. You usually need to hear them in order to keep from having to record it as a generic “empid species” on your trip checklist. Thus, any empid vocalization is a welcome one.

But listening to flycatchers simply to ID them shortchanges both the bird and the listener. From the chebek of the Least Flycatcher that’s as cute as the bird itself, to the raucous kiskadee! of the Great Kiskadee, flycatchers are worth listening to on their own merit.

Even if they are not, technically, songbirds.

So what are your favorite flycatcher sounds?

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