Midsummer is not exactly a birdwatcher's favorite time of year. It's hot, it's buggy, and vegetative growth is at or near its maximum which makes for difficult viewing. Then there's the mix of birds themselves. A few species have already left for the year and most sought-after migrants have yet to return. What we are left with can be summed up by the trite phrase, same old, same old.
While jogging last weekend I couldn't help but notice many species have simply quit singing. Once nesting has been attempted, hormonal levels in the creatures allow for a change of behavior bringing about a noticeable drop in bird song. Horned larks, for instance, which used to fill every moment with song a few weeks ago, are largely silent. Vesper sparrows can be heard in the grassy areas only very infrequently now. Even red-eyed vireos, the most common woodland bird in the eastern U.S., have tamed down their constant robin-like warbling.
One song seemed persistent last weekend though and it's a good thing. Because without it vocalizing, great crested flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) are difficult to find. I would even go so far as to say few people have ever seen this bird despite it being quite common in woodsy zones. They may, however, have heard them.
Great crested flycatchers belong to a large family of birds known as tyrant flycatchers. More specifically, great cresteds are placed in the genus Myiarchus, of which there are four species within the U.S. The other three are southwest birds which leaves only the great cresteds to occupy all of the eastern U.S. during summer months.
I confess to certain affections for cheap action movies. I happened to catch one of my favorites last weekend - "Predator," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this film, an alien hunter is stalking and killing jungle-bound American military personnel. For the first hour Arnold and his gang are defending themselves by looking outward. Only after learning the predator is using the tree tops to travel do the Americans rally. This is the main reason great crested flycatchers go unnoticed - it occupies the canopy tops where our attention is not focused.
Great crested flycatchers are rather robust, at about eight inches long with a lemon yellow belly, an olive brown back, and cinnamon highlights in its wings and tail. The upper breast of the bird is gray. Don't confuse it with the much more commonly seen western kingbird which also has a yellow belly. The kingbird is an open or sparse habitat dweller while the great crested is strictly a deep woods species.
Unique among all the eastern flycatchers, the great crested is a cavity nester, requiring a tree hollow in which to nest. Either that or a nest box which it will use on occasion. Confusing to experts is the birds' habit of lining the nest with a shed snake skin. No one really knows why, but it could have something to do with scaring off predators. The modern world has encroached upon these birds, however, as it will infrequently substitute plastic strips for the real thing.
Finding these birds is a simple matter of listening for it in likely habitat, which is almost anywhere in parks or along wooded rivers. Once located, the bird can be seen feeding in much the same fashion as the rest of the flycatchers, sallying out from a perch and picking bugs out of the air. It also hovers at branch ends to pluck insects from leaves.
Great crested flycatchers should be around for a few more weeks to challenge our eyes and our ears. I've never spent much time in Central America but experts tell us this bird sings the same song on its wintering ground. Most sources describe the distinctive call as a drawn-out "weeep" or "kreeep." I hear it as a "breeep," but either way it's easy to pick out. And unlike most species this time of year, this one should keep singing.