Crested Flycatchers Says "Wheep'

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

From late March into September, we regularly hear loud, piercing Wheep, Wheep, Wheep (some say Wreap, Wreap, Wreap) coming from the mixed canopy of pines, oaks, hickories and sweet gums around our home on the shores of Cotile Lake in northwestern Rapides Parish, Louisiana. The source in mid-March is usually a Northern Mockingbird imitating, in anticipation, the arrival of Great Crested Flycatchers toward the end of March.

This flycatcher species is easily heard but not so easily seen in the dense cover of leaves and pine needles where they are hunting insects and setting up their nest sites. But, if you are patient and have a decent pair of binoculars, you will see a classy, crested bird the size of a mockingbird. Look for a bird with an olive-brown crest and back, a gray face, throat, and breast, a beautiful yellow belly, and reddish brown/cinnamon wings and tail. Great Crested Flycatchers are cavity nesters and usually use natural cavities in trees or abandoned woodpecker cavities. I recall a pair nesting several years in a row in a cavity in an old gum tree in my in-laws' yard in the thriving Piney Woods metropolis of Pitkin in Vernon Parish.

Mr. Glenn Holloway, who attends our local church, sparked this report by describing the odd sounding, yellow-bellied birds that were nesting this past May in a bird house on his property near Kincaid Reservoir. So, yes, if the bird house is large enough to accommodate a mockingbird-sized bird, Great Crested Flycatchers will nest in one.

These flycatchers build normal nests with a twist. Most nests contain one or more pieces of shed snake skins. Pieces of plastic from bags are sometimes substituted for the snake skins. No one has yet been able to explain why real or substitute snake skins are included in the nests but it is characteristic behavior of this interesting species.

Great Crested Flycatchers feed on all manner of insects, especially flying insects. It is very interesting to watch any flycatcher, especially this large species, perched on a bare branch and sallying forth to ambush a passing winged bug. They are amazingly acrobatic in twisting and turning to catch their agile prey. I have found them feeding near the ground and at great heights depending on where prey can be located.

A close examination of a Great Crested Flycatcher's bill will reveal bristles surrounding its base. These are called rectal bristles and are useful to the flycatchers when they are catching flying prey.

Great Crested Flycatchers are birds of the eastern USA with their range extending westward into central Texas and northward just into Canada. Most field guides list five species of Myiarchus Flycatchers but the only one that occasionally finds its way into the piney woods area is the Ash-throated Flycatcher. This species has a very light colored throat and very pale yellow belly. The voice is also different with the basic sound being a pryt, clearly different from the Great Crested Flycatcher's wheep.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, LA 71409 , 318 793-5529