by John Hughes
Perched on a fence post, rock or exposed tree branch, in plain sight, is a good place to find a Say’s Phoebe when in a locale where they are present. A medium-sized chunky flycatcher, the Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) is named for Thomas Say an early American Naturalist. The bird was first described on an expedition to the Rocky Mountains, 1819-20, in which Say served as the expedition zoologist. Say’s Phoebes have gray backs, heads, throat and breast. Their upper wings appear pale gray in flight. They have a distinctly black tail, which they dip in typical phoebe fashion. Their belly is a pale rufous color becoming more orange on the undertail coverts.
Say’s Phoebes prefer open country where they sally forth in flycatcher like fashion to catch insects and return to their perch to eat. Most of their sorties are short with direct flight unless they are in hot pursuit of an insect. They typically hunt close to the ground. It is not uncommon to see them hovering like a Kestrel. Frequently, they will glean insects from shrubs and other foliage or the ground by hovering above the substrate. Their prey consists mostly of insects. Grasshoppers, bees, crickets, caterpillars, butterflies, flies, beetles and wasps top the list. Interestingly, they seem to avoid honeybees. Typically, they do not drink, obtaining their water from the arthropods they consume.
Say’s Phoebes arrive in Montana probably in late April to early May and migrate south in early August. They are considered short to medium range migrants, however some travel from central California to the northern parts of Alaska. The Say’s Phoebe breeds farther north than any other flycatcher. This species winters throughout the southwestern parts of the U.S. into Mexico, and is a permanent resident in the southwestern part of the country. While paired up and considered monogamous during the breeding season, they are mostly solitary at other times of the year.
Males arrive on breeding territories before females, and pairing occurs soon after the female arrives. The male will visit potential nest sites and display for the female by fluttering in arcs and hovering above the site while vocalizing. Natural nest sites are usually covered cliff ledges, hollows, or caves. Say’s Phoebes will also use other bird’s nests – particularly swallows. They will also readily use human structures such as barns or abandoned buildings, where they build nests on rafters and ledges. Nests consist of a cup made primarily of dry vegetative materials and lined with hair, paper, wool and feathers. Little to no mud is used during nest construction, presumably because they don’t usually nest near water.
Upon completion of the nest, typically four to five ovate, white eggs are laid. Females incubate the eggs for approximately 15 days, and the young fledge and leave the nest in about 17 days. The young are fed a diet of insects. After a period of about three days, the young disperse from the nest area.
The Say’s Phoebe is listed as a species of least concern. They have benefited from the construction of human-made structures used for nesting sites. Habitat loss remains the greatest concern for this species with some populations showing declines.
As indicated on the map, the Flathead area is right on the fringe of this species distribution, but they are around if you know where to look. No trip to Lost Trails National Wildlife Refuge was complete without stopping in at the headquarters building and checking out the tops of the fence posts near the historic barn. I was usually rewarded with a sighting of a Say’s Phoebe. Now that I reside in Southeastern Arizona, where Say’s Phoebes are permanent residents, you might think I would become a little less interested in spotting one, but that wouldn’t be true. It is always like bumping into an old friend whenever I see one, and it is fun to watch them fly a few fence posts ahead and wait for me to catch up.