Wednesday, July 17, 2024

This ash-throated flycatcher was in Cambridge’s Neighborhood 9 on Dec. 2. (Photo: Will Kostick)

Ash-throated flycatchers (Myiarchus cinerascens) breed and live in the Western United States from Texas to Washington State. In the winter, they migrate to Southern California, Arizona, Mexico and Honduras. Single birds also wander away from their normal range, and it is not uncommon to find one from November through January here in Cambridge or other locations on the East Coast. Why would a desert bird travel to the Northeast? The answer is a mystery. But because these birds do wander here, their presence gives New Englanders an opportunity to spot it without traveling to the Far West. People have spotted this wandering bird in Danehy Park and other locations in Neighborhood 9, including on Sherman Street.

Ash-throated flycatchers like dry habitats such as arid deserts and scrub forests with mesquite, saguaro, pinyon pine, oat or juniper trees. These robin-sized birds forage near the ground and often perch on low branches. These brown birds sport gray wing bars, pale chests and throats, pale yellow bellies and black legs and feet. They have a long, rusty tail with dark tips. With their subtle colors, these birds are well-camouflaged in the desert.

A flycatcher in Neighborhood 9 displays its grayish brown back and cinnamon outer wing on Nov. 26. (Photo: Becca Evans)

There are quite a few different flycatcher species, and the easiest way to distinguish them is by their calls. Ash-throated flycatchers produce calls that sound like “kabrick,” “prrrt,” and “zheep.”

Like the birds’ presence here, scientists also know very little about the mating behavior of these unusual birds. They think that the birds are monogamous and that they mate in flight, but not much else is known.

A flycatcher perches in Cambridge’s Danehy Park on Nov. 30. (Photo: D. Dentzer)

What is known is that these birds are cavity nesters – but do not make the holes they nest in; instead, they look around to find preexisting hollows such as abandoned woodpecker cavities or even cactus holes. They will also nest in humanmade structures such as nest boxes or PVC pipe, exhaust pipes or mailboxes, hollow fence posts or clothes on a clothesline. They defend their nesting territory aggressively and compete for nest sites with tree swallows and bluebirds. Occasionally, they have been known to lay eggs on top of bluebird eggs, raising the bluebird chicks with their own.

Ash-throated flycatchers are often found at or near the ground, as seen by this one in Danehy Park on Jan. 2, 2016. (Photo: Tom Murray)

It takes the birds up to a week to complete a nest, which they line with mammal fur and grasses and roots. Upon completing the nest, the female lays four or five eggs in May. She keeps them warm for a couple of weeks until the chicks hatch. During this time, the male brings food to the female. The two parent the birds together, and in another two weeks the chicks leave the nest, although the parents may still catch food for them.

This flycatcher’s delicate hues help it blend into its surroundings in Rockport in November. (Photo: Samuel Zhang)

During the day, ash-throated flycatchers spend much of their time searching for food. Like their name suggests, they often catch flies that they pick off the ground or off leaves, tree trunks or branches. They also eat grasshoppers, wasps, bees, cicadas, termites, moths, caterpillars, beetles, spiders and dragonflies – helping to control insect populations along with dispersing seeds – and can snack on cacti or the berries of mistletoe, elderberries or nightshades. Once in a great while, they will eat a small mammal or reptile, which they may tenderize before swallowing by hitting it against a rock or tree. These birds are well-suited to the desert because they do not need to drink water. They get all the water they need from the insects they consume. When they wander to our area this time of year, they most likely subsist on berries.

This flycatcher displays its black beak, legs and feet in Danehy Park in January 2016. (Photo: Tom Murray)

In the late summer or early fall, these birds migrate to their overwintering grounds, often at night. During the rest of the year, they are most active during the day, though may go inactive during the hottest parts.

The population of these wandering birds is stable and may even be increasing, but they are harmed by noise pollution – it causes them to grow fewer feathers and stunts their growth. It also affects their ability to find prey and avoid predation, and because ash-throated flycatchers are small, they have many enemies: Hawks, owls and kestrels may make a meal of these birds. Jays, ravens, rodents and snakes prey upon eggs in the nest.

An ash-throated flycatcher in Rockport surveys the scene in November. (Photo: Becca Evans)

To see a West Coast desert bird without traveling there, head to Neighborhood Nine and look around at eye level for this itinerant bird. Don’t wait too long; this flycatcher will be gone by January.

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Seen nearby

8. Seven-year-old Nina B. spotted this great horned owl on Cambridge’s Strawberry Hill on May 21. (Photo: Stephan Grably)

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Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.