Foam Lake Birding No. 30

No. 30
In the world of birds, the greatest numbers of families exist in a quite diverse group called “perching birds” or “passerines”. It is a literal hodge podge of species ranging from the chicken-sized Raven to the hummingbird-sized kinglets. All have similar body anatomy; all have similar feather structure and arrangement; in addition to calls, all can sing, although some do sing better than others; all are able to perch on trees, wires, posts, reeds and so on. The group gets its name from the last characteristic; however, some birders do call them “song birds’ after the previous one.
The passerines are comprised of twenty one families – sometimes more when ornithologists change their minds. This week’s family is known for its behavior of sitting quietly on a perch, then darting out to catch a flying insect. From their feeding habits they are called, what else, but flycatchers.
Flycatchers, in turn, are somewhat arbitrarily divided into two smaller groups. One group is made up of small (sparrow-sized) plain birds with white wing bars and white eye rings; members of the other group are larger, though variable, without both wing bas and eye rings. Most flycatchers in both groups are predominantly greenish brown birds with whitish undersides. The former group is called Empidonax Flycatchers, (with more on that in a future column). The birds in the latter group go under a series of four arbitrary names with no special characteristics assigned to any of them. Alphabetically, they are: flycatchers, kingbirds, phoebes and wood pewees.
One of these four is the subject of this week’s column. The sparrow-sized phoebes are represented by two species found in Saskatchewan – the Eastern and Say’s. The Eastern is a bird of the more humid plains and woodlands; the Say’s is a bird of the drier plains, deserts and mountains. One has to keep in mind that both species can be found coexisting in west central Saskatchewan.
What physically separate the two species are the differences in colouration. The Eastern is greenish brown with a whitish breast and belly; the Say’s has a browner back but a rusty red belly. Some birders have described it as a dull little Robin. It really is quite easy to identify.
We tend to be more familiar with the Eastern because it is the only one around Foam Lake, and because of its tendency to nest inside buildings. The Say’s likes to be a little more distant from man and prefers to nest in abandoned ranch buildings. Both like to build their nests under bridges giving rise to their sometimes being called “bridge pewees”.
This week’s photos of Say’s Phoebes was taken in the desert mountains of southern Arizona and in the Batiquitos Lagoon in California. The first was perched on the tip of a dead Saguaro Cactus; the second was sitting on a snag looking for flying insects in what can only be described as a classic flycatcher pose.
To see the Say’s Phoebe in Saskatchewan, one has to travel south of a line running from Lloydminster to Weyburn. If anybody is traveling in that area for business or pleasure, be on the lookout for it. It is quite common there.