The Great Crested Flycatcher has been a regular visitor to our front yard the past couple weeks. We had been hearing its ascending whistled ‘wreep, wreep, wreep’ call in the forest, but one day when my husband Mike was out taking photographs, he decided to induce the pretty flycatcher to come in closer for a photo op. He has an App on his phone that plays voice recordings of various birds. This new tool is another technological advance for the hobby of
birdwatching. It is very effective but he uses sparingly, because as soon as a breeding male of any species hears the call of one of its kind, it immediately sets out to investigate who has invaded his territory
Not taking any chances the Great Crested arrived almost immediately and perched at the top of an old aspen by our deck and began a loud and vociferous duet with the recording. These males will aggressively defend their territory from other males by engaging in mid-air fights, clawing one another and sometimes even pulling out feathers.
The bird sat in full sunlight, so Mike got some beautiful pictures of its lemon yellow breast, grey throat, rusty colored wing and tail feathers and the dark olive head feathers raised in a Mohawk style.
At 8.5 inches it is about the same size as an Eastern Kingbird and a larger member of its group – the Epidonax – which is the Greek name for many of the flycatchers and means “king of the gnats”. Certainly gnats could be one of their food sources, but it would take a LOT to feed one of them, let alone a brood of their young. Most of their food consists of larger insects, like beetles, crickets, caterpillars moths and butterflies. They will also eat some fruits and berries and have been known to occasionally take a lizard.
Typical of all the flycatchers, the Great Crested hunts with sorties out from a perch into the air where it will snatch an insect in flight, then return to its perch to eat it. This species of flycatcher tends to stay higher up than the others, both for hunting purposes and for perching. Many people never see the bird, as it is often hidden in the thick canopy of leaves. Backyard bird watchers are not familiar with this beautiful summer visitor, because it will not come to birdfeeding stations. But occasionally you’ll get lucky, and the bird will find a bare branch where it can be seen and heard in all its glory.
Great Crested Flycatchers tend to build their nests at the edge of a deciduous forest, using natural or old woodpecker-excavated cavities, usually 20-50’ up from the ground. On our property, there are an abundance of suitable trees and I should make a concerted effort to locate the nest. It is made with grass, weeds, bark strips, rootlets, feathers, fur and often is topped off with a shed snakeskin. If that isn’t available they’ll make do with onion skin or even cellophane or plastic. There is usually just one brood each summer.
Ever since that morning encounter with the recording, the male has come back to our front yard. Looking for that invisible intruder. He sits there and calls ‘wheep, wheep, wreep, wreep”, as well as a drawn out and ascending ‘prrrrrrrrrreeeet’. Sometimes the “wheep” notes are repeated in short, rapid succession of three or more. This repertoire repeats over and over and I can’t help myself, because this is one call that is fairly easy to imitate with a whistle. So I answer with my version of ‘wreep wheep’. Back and forth goes our repartee, until I grow bored and give up.
By Kate Crowley