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Flycatchers deserve pride of place as summer birds

The title "Birds of the Summer" surely should go to the aerial insect-eaters.

Chief among them are the swallows, so numerous this time of year. Seven swallow species of swallows nest in the Red River Valley. A seventh occurs in western North Dakota.

These birds differ in habits and, especially, in nesting and flocking behavior.

But they are all insect eaters.

Probably, the swallows are the most numerous of summer insect-eaters, but there are others, notably the nighthawks. These birds are conspicuous on summer evenings, especially in cities where they nest on the flat roofs of buildings.

Still, pride of place should go to the flycatcher clan.

New World Flycatchers are an enormous family -- more than 350 species in the Americas. Of these, barely one-tenth occur in North America and only a third of those occur in the Red River Valley.

That makes identifying flycatchers a little easier than it could be. Still, the family presents significant identification problems.

For us, though, this is a problem that's easily approached. The trick is to identify the most common of the flycatchers at a glance. That quickly narrows the possibilities.

By far the most numerous flycatcher around here is the eastern kingbird, a conspicuous and easily recognized bird. The kingbird is dark gray on the head and back. The breast and outer edge of the tail are white.

The western kingbird occurs here, too. It's a much lighter shade of gray than its eastern cousin, and its breast is lemon yellow rather than white.

Both of these species are noisy and not at all shy. Both perch commonly on the lower limbs of trees or on fence posts, telephone poles and power lines, then dart out to take passing insects. This behavior is characteristic of the flycatcher family.

The great-crested flycatcher is a bit more elusive. It's as loud as its relatives, and its noise is distinctive, a kind of rapid "Wheet" that in some ways suggests a whip cutting through the air. Others have said it resembles a referee's whistle.

But great-crested flycatchers are hard to see. This is not because they are plain but because they prefer the tops of trees. Often as not, this species is encountered by sound rather than by sight.

Past these three, identification of flycatchers becomes a little more problematic. The eastern phoebe is fairly frequent here. It's a plain bird, indeed, a small gray creature with a somewhat light breast. Two characteristics give it away. One is its call, a whistled "Phee-bee" which gives the bird its name. The other is its tail, which seems to pump constantly.

Say's phoebe is similar in habits and habitat, but it is an open country bird, often occurring around farmsteads and nesting in abandoned buildings. Say's phoebe is gray on the back. Its breast has a warm, reddish cast.

This is a bird that I associate with my western North Dakota roots. I've seen it in Grand Forks County, though, and my guess is that it's more common locally than we realize -- because it's easily overlooked.

Four other flycatcher species occur in North Dakota, and they present maddening identification problems.

Willow flycatcher is widespread. It's best identified by its call, a lively "Fitz-bew" repeated monotonously. At close range, the bird is plain, but attractive, colored in pale gray with a yellowish belly and fairly distinct wing bars.

The least flycatcher is even plainer, a uniform grayish green on the top side and dirty white below. It, too, has white wing bars, though less they are less prominent. The call is a fairly sharp "Che-bek! Che-bek."

In my experience these birds are common migrants but not so common residents.

North Dakota has two species of wood peewees, eastern and western. The western occurs only in the Badlands and the eastern only as far west as the Turtle Mountains. This geographical separation pretty well insures that a peewee seen here is the eastern species. Peewees can be told from phoebes because they have wing bars while phoebes have none.

These are the nine flycatcher species nesting here. Add three or four migrant species, and you'll appreciate the challenge of sorting them out. It's relatively easy for us, though. Arizona has 20 species of nesting flycatchers -- and many more migrants -- and Arizona birders thus have double the trouble separating them.

Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications.