Glorious September tiptoes about, cool in the mornings, warm in the late afternoons.
Rains have turned the lawns green again, but the trees are washed with an inkling of autumn, blotches of orangey-red leaves high up on the maples. Birch leaves flutter to the ground spotting the area beneath as if with a toss of golden coins. Masses of goldenrod, now a rich, pale sepia, fade along the roadsides and across the fields. Brilliant lavender and purple asters add splashy bits of color to the waning landscape.
Walks in the morning are fairly quiet. Occasionally a bird sings as it feeds upon seeds or insects preparing for the long journey ahead. Flocks of sparrows that fly into the still-dense shrubbery are all chipping sparrows — no juncos or whitethroats yet. Nuthatches and chickadees flit about the house as if looking for filled feeders. “Not yet,” I say. “Not yet.”
Most migrants fly by night, stealthily and silently. They feast and sleep during the day. Those singing by day recently have been yellow-throated vireos, pewees, towhees, catbirds and kingfishers. Robins hop across lawns; great blue herons grace the ponds.
Every morning the resident red-shouldered hawks squeal and shriek at one another. I hear a loud rising and falling “beeep-baup, beeep-baup” and finally locate the raucous performer. High on a bare branch, a red-shouldered hawk jerks up and down, while making these weird sounds, new to me. I saw a lingering broad-winged hawk Sept. 14, perhaps now adding to the hawk watch count at Cape May, N.J.
One morning as I amble along, startling deer and turkeys as I go, a few Canada geese paddle about on the big pond. Out of the corner of my eye, a bird flies up, twists about, snags an insect and dashes back to its wire perch to devour its prey. Maybe a phoebe, I thought, a bird often seen here. Then the bird, sitting quite erect and a little larger than a phoebe, turns and faces me. An olive-sided flycatcher, the sides of its vest prominent on its chest. It turns around again as if to show me the silky white patches on the sides of the lower back. They’re not as prominent as they are in the springtime.
Will the bird sing? Not a peep! It is too busy snagging insects and filling up for the next stage of the journey south to its winter residence in Central or South America. This isn’t a lifebird, but it’s definitely a first for my “road list,” now totaling 163 species. You never know, do you, what avian strangers may find their way to your pea patch!
The olive-sided flycatcher is a bird of the northern or boreal forests, more often, unlike children, heard rather than seen. When you do hear the call, it is fairly easy to track the bird to its perch. In early literature, this “song” was written as “gluck, phe-bea” or “quip, gree-deal,” translated into English as “look, three deer” and the very familiar “quick, three beers.”
These birds are rather reclusive. To find them, go to unfrequented areas with swamps, lakes or streams surrounded by conifer forests. The literature claims that they’re quite aggressive or pugnacious, defending their breeding territory from any intruders including their own kind. I have never observed this, since I have only seen a single bird at a time and not very often at that.
Populations across the country are dwindling. The olive-sided flycatcher is a dedicated insectivore, with 99 percent of its diet consisting of insects: beetles and bugs, dragonflies and damselflies, bees and wasps. If bug populations are declining — and they are — then this flycatcher has a real problem. If the northern or the South American forest habitats are being timbered, the bird is definitely in trouble.
One problematic positive note is that these birds thrive on feasting on insects found in burned forests. Those west coast fires are A-OK in their book!
A flycatcher by any other name ...
The taxonomic name for the olive-sided now is Contopus cooperi. The first specimen, taken by Richardson in 1831 and described by Swainson, was dubbed Tyrannus borealis. A year later in 1832, Thomas Nuttall, the British-American botanist and ornithologist, found this bird in Auburn and had his companion, J.J. Audubon, shoot it after much observation. Nuttall, believing this was a species new to science, called it Muscicapa cooperi. In 1887, Robert Ridgeway changed the name to Nuttallornis mesoleucus honoring his friend Thomas Nuttall, tossing the honorific cooperi (for William Cooper, one of the founding members of the American Museum of Nature History in New York City) onto the word pile.
It did not stop here! By 1904, the name became Nuttallornis borealis using the species portion to indicate this was a creature of northern or boreal forests. In 1942, Arthur Cleveland Bent in his “Life Histories of North American Birds” mentions the borealis change, but he uses the mesoleucus for the species indicator. In 1947, Peterson in his guide uses the borealis. In 1983, The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding uses the American Ornithological Society-created Contopus borealis, since the bird is most closely related to the pewees, all Contopus.
A little later, out goes the borealis descriptive, and the definitive name becomes Contopus cooperi, back to that honorific. Curious, I had thought that the AOU was moving away from using peoples’ names in favor of more descriptive words. What were these ornithologists thinking, changing the name again and again as if the poor bird were in witness protection?
Thankfully, the common name has always been the olive-sided flycatcher. This bird may be more prevalent throughout the west, but it has always had a presence in New England and New York. In Massachusetts, this incredible insectivore breeds in a few places in Worcester and in Berkshire County; in New York, it is found primarily in the Adirondacks.
What a treat to see this bird on my morning walk! I wonder what new bird will appear next?