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Fun with flycatchers

Mark Faherty

For years now, I have been trolling my poor wife by refusing to cover the one bird report topic she always requested. I once went so far as to pretend I was doing the requested piece in the opening lines before veering off to a different topic. But, for the sake of the marriage, the time has finally come to profile Emily’s favorite neighborhood bird, because, for the first time ever, we have a pair nesting in the yard. They’re loud, they’re colorful, and they’re friendly – they are Great-crested Flycatchers.

Great-crested Flycatchers have reddish brown wings and tail, yellow belly, and gray-brown peaked head. That’s pretty flashy by flycatcher standards – that group tends toward the funereal in terms of plumage hues. Great-cresteds also have a lot of personality. They feature a variety of strident, far-carrying calls, including a relatively mournful dawn song, a distinctive loud vibrato number, and their best known piece, a rising “wheep!” They make other sounds as well, including a loud bill snap when driving off a predator or finishing off some formerly flying insect. They breed in forests and suburbs in the eastern U.S. and winter from Florida to Ecuador.

Ever since buying my house I’ve coveted a nesting Great-crested Flycatcher pair in the yard. They weren’t a bird I saw much growing up in Brockton, and so I never imprinted on them being common or got bored of them. Here in Harwich, they always visited my yard to hunt insects, but I didn’t have an appropriate bird house for them – this is the only cavity nesting flycatcher in the east. Here on Cape they’ve nested in old mailboxes and even once in a metal owl sculpture, so they’re not exactly choosy. I watched them nest in a low box in my neighbor’s kid-loud front yard, so I figured they could handle mine.

And so last May I got a free box from local ornithological philanthropist Mike O’Connor of Birdwatchers General Store. I put it up right away, in hopes the local pair hadn’t settled anywhere yet, but to my frustration, they instead obsessed over my owl box, though it was full to the brim with squirrels. But this year they smartened up – I was excited to see them entering the actual flycatcher box with nesting material in mid-May, with the first egg laid on May 23. As of yesterday, they’re feeding chicks.

In fact, I just looked out the window to see one of the adults leave the nest with something white and globular, a sure sign of chicks inside. If you’ve watched nesting birds closely, you know what this was. It’s natures version of disposable diapers for birds, the fecal sac. If you think about it, a nest full of babies would get pretty gross pretty quick without some sort of sanitation engineering. So the chicks produce these neat little sacs, which the adults dispose of some distance from the nest. Sometimes they eat them – I bet you could have done without knowing that at breakfast.

The other birds in my yard are providing the chorus to their own Greek tragedy this year – nesting success has not been good, to say the least. My son discovered a cardinal nest in the rhododendron next to the driveway last month. But this driveway nest quickly went sideways – eventually there was just one chick and a cowbird egg left, then both disappeared. He excitedly told me a couple of weeks later that an egg was back in the nest – turned out our catbirds took advantage of this mostly turnkey piece of real estate and laid an egg. I told my two and four-year-olds to temper their innocent little expectations given what befell the previous tenants. Sure enough, that nest disappeared after they had laid four eggs. And raccoons got our titmouse nest, ripped the whole thing, chicks and all, right out of the box.

So it is with cautious optimism that my family and I follow this flycatcher nest. With all other nests having failed, all our emotional eggs are in their basket. Godspeed, little flycatchers, Godspeed.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.