Clellie Lynch: A harbinger of autumn


"In the shade of a tree in the heat of the afternoon

The wood pewee sings his portamento tune

That summer is over-ripe and autumn is soon."

He sings from a twig after flitting to catch a fly

And whether he sings September or July

He sings of the end of summer and sings good-bye."

"The Wood Pewee"

Robert Francis 1901-1987


August is coming to a close and few birds bother to sing as the sun creeps over the treetops, some with leaves already showing bits of red and gold as the nights turn cooler. Tanagers chip-bong, interrupted now and again by screeching bluejays. Some mornings a pair of cardinals calls to one another from within the tangle of the forsythia bush only to disappear again for another four or five days.

The most prominent songster, though, this last week, has been the pewee calling at matins, and then again at vespers, sweetly whistling its name over and over: "Pee-a-weeee, peer, pee-a-weeee." The Eastern Wood Pewee, Contopus virens, is a grayish flycatcher, unlike children, more often heard than seen. Not that you can’t track him down to his lofty branch under the canopy and watch him dash out, snag a bug and return to his perch to feast.


Identification is easiest if the pewee is calling his distinct riff. This bird is quite similar to the more social phoebe that may grace your house or barn with a muddy nest, audibly calling his name all day long. "Phoe-bee, ve-bliebt, phoe-bee." Note that if the bird you are observing is silent, look at the size ... the pewee is slightly smaller than the phoebe and does not flick its tail as the phoebe characteristically does. The notable wing bars of the pewee are a dead give away.

But then, another similar cousin, the least flycatcher, has prominent wing bars too. The least flycatcher or chebec, as it was formerly called for its repetitive song, "Chebec, chebec," is visibly smaller (by an inch) than the pewee and appears a bit chunkier. The pewee’s wings are proportionally longer than those of either relative, and gives the bird a sleeker appearance.

The pewee is one of the later arrivals in the spring. Often we do not hear or see one on our birdathon in mid-May, for it slowly makes its way up the coast and lays eggs when many of the other passerines are feeding young. By August, Mr. Pewee has center stage with almost no choral back up except katie-dids and cicadas. This solo performance tells us summer is coming to a close and autumn is rapidly approaching.

For a little woodland bird rarely seen, much has been written about this creature. John Burroughs says: "... this bird (the pewee) if not the plainest dressed is the most unshapely in the woods. It is stiff and abrupt in its manners and sedentary in its habits, sitting around all day in the dark recesses of the woods, on dry twigs and branches uttering now and again its plaintive cry, and with many a flirt and flutter, snapping up its insect game." This is a rather straightforward description though I am not sure what he meant by "unshapely.’’

Other ornithologists wax poetic about the bird’s singing. Dr. Elliot Coues, perhaps reflecting his own sensibilities, stated: "Wherever it (the pewee) may fix its home, whether in the seclusion of a sylvan retreat or in the vicinity of man’s abode, its presence is soon made known by its oft repeated melancholy notes seeming to speak some settled sorrow that time can never heal. The sighing of the pines is not more expressive of mournful fancies than the sobbing of the little somber bird, flitting apparently inconsolable through the shades." Whew! I picture rows of little gray weeping birds hidden in the forest creating a river of tears -- anthropomorphism at its worst!

You might expect the man who depicts birdsong with complicated staffs littered with quarter, half and 16th notes, F. Schuyler Mathews, in his "Fieldbook of Wild Birds and Their Music" to be a little more sentimental than the scientific Coues who devised the trinomial nomenclature for identifying subspecies. Mathews does claim that the pewee is a sentimentalist whose three or four notes are on par with Stephen Foster’s "Old Folks at Home" or the Irish melody, "The Last Rose of Summer." This too is a bit of a stretch for me.

Mathews goes on to describe the very slow dragging whistle of the pewee: "... there is no bird which compares to the Wood Pewee in sheer laziness of style; he does not attempt to ‘hit’ a note squarely, he reaches for it with all of the sentimentality (but none of the vulgarity) of the inexperienced and uncultivated singer, capturing us in spite of his error by the perfect sweetness of his voice." He makes the bird sound as if it is practicing to become the lead singer of a garage band: Pewee and the Wailers!


In "Life Histories of North American Birds," Bent tones down the flowery 19th-century verbiage a bit: "The wood pewee has a very attractive voice -- a sweet, pure, tranquil whistle delivered calmly in short slow phase. The leisurely notes, sliding smoothly and evenly as they change in pitch, give the impression of restfulness and peace, almost of sadness. All day long the pewee sings; even when the heat of summer silences more vigorous birds, and the midday sun sends light shafts to the ferns, the clear sympathetic notes of the retiring songster come from the green canopy overhead, in perfect harmony with the peace and stillness of the hour."

No matter how you would describe this little avian, the call of the peewee from the leafy shade of the forest is a sure reminder that summer is fading. Can fall migration be far away?

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle


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