Ohio Flycatchers: A Success Story

Eastern Kingbird - Photo Mary Catherine Miguez/Audubon Photography Awards

Eastern Kingbird – Photo Mary Catherine Miguez

While I walked the boardwalk at Magee Marsh in early May, marveling at the beauty of wood warblers, I was struck by the absence of flycatchers.  Yeah, there were a few Eastern Kingbirds around and the odd Least Flycatcher, but most of our common flycatchers were conspicuously absent.  That’s not that unusual – early May is a bit early for many of our species, most of which are rather late neotropical migrants.  But the very fact that I could notice their absence should tell you a lot about how well flycatchers have been doing.  While we’ve been wringing our collective hands about warbler declines, we’ve often lost sight of the fact that this rival group hasn’t been similarly afflicted.  If anything, flycatchers have been a modest success story.

Eastern Phoebe - Photo Earl Harrison

Eastern Phoebe – Photo Earl Harrison

Think about the last flycatcher you saw.  Chances are fairly good it was a Phoebe or a Kingbird.  Eastern Phoebes are rugged little flycatchers that have become temperate migrants, wintering in the southern states and migrating back to Ohio by April.  Most of them are already feeding nestlings by the time you read this.  Eastern Kingbirds are true neotropical migrants, with a few striking differences.  They migrate south in large flocks –  very atypical for flycatchers – and then change their diet on their wintering ground to mostly fruits in the tropical forest of central and south America.  They also head back early, often arriving here by late April.  Both of these species have adapted well to humans; indeed, Phoebes’ favorite nesting areas are now mostly man-made structures like bridges and forest buildings.

But the group’s success isn’t limited to these conspicuous species.  If I were to ask you about the last flycatcher you heard, the list would probably change.  Several woodland species – Eastern Wood Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, and Acadian Flycatcher – would probably top many people’s lists.  These are forest species that arrive later in migration, and whose repetitive calls form the backdrop to many summer field trips.  Wood Pewees are a true neotropical migrant, spending the winter in shrubby second-growth and edge habitats in the neotropics, but their habitat preferences change upon their return to Ohio, where they prefer mature deciduous forest. Wood Pewees are surprisingly adaptable, and I can find them in some of the smallest, most disturbed forest blocks around Columbus.

Great Crested Flycatcher - Photo Gary Rasmussen

Great Crested Flycatcher – Photo Gary Rasmussen

Great Crested Flycatchers are our lone representative of a big neotropical genus, the Myiarchus flycatchers.  These are cavity-nesting flycatchers that have expanded all over the western hemisphere.  Our Great Cresteds come back by early May or later, depending on weather, and are often fly-catching along our streams long before they start calling and setting up territories.  In Summer their loud ‘wheeep’ is a common sound in riparian forests around central Ohio , where they seem to have a propensity to nest in sycamore cavities or old woodpecker nests.

Acadian flycatchers are small flycatchers of the Empidonax genus, a group that has diversified to occupy a variety of different forest and edge habitats.  Acadians favor riparian and moist woodlands, a habitat that we still have along many of our streams and rivers, so they’re fairly common in Ohio.  Think of the moist ravine woodlands of Blendon Woods or Highbanks, and you’ve got a good picture of the habitat they like. They’re not easy to see, but their perky little whistled call can be heard all over these woodlands.  It’s often easier to actually see their open-country cousins, the Willow Flycatchers, small flycatchers that favor overgrown fields.  Their emphatic ‘fitz-bew’ calls can be heard from many successional fields around central Ohio.

Most of these flycatchers won’t arrive until late in migration – mid-May at best, so we often start looking for them after the trees have leafed out.  They seemed to have learned the harsh evolutionary lesson that Ohio can still produced bug-killing low temperatures deep into May, and few of them have adapted to glean bug larvae off of leaves like wood warblers can do.  However, they seem to have held up better under the onslaught of human habitat modification than their wood warbler cousins.  Forest species like Pewees and Acadians have shown a slow decline due to our penchant for forest fragmentation, but it’s been nowhere as severe as has occurred to many of the wood warblers.  You can still find a most of these flycatchers in central Ohio parks, unlike most of the wood warblers.  So the next time you hear or see a flycatcher, spend a moment to admire the little survivor.