Meet the Eastern wood-pewees

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They are among the least conspicuous birds in the deciduous forest, at least visually. Eastern wood-pewees are usually heard before they’re seen. They perch quietly in the mid canopy on naked twigs and can be difficult to spot until they fly. From these perches, pewees launch foraging flights to catch flying insects.

The perch

Often they return to the same perch, so once an individual is spotted, focus on its favorite perch. Each time it returns, you’ll get a good look. But pewees are easy to detect by sound – it says its own name. Every morning as I lie in bed just before dawn, I hear the usual chorus dominated by robins, cardinals, and wood thrushes.

The song

In the background, from deeper in the woods, comes the pewee’s plaintive, two-part song – “pee-a-weee,” followed by a pause, then a down slurred “pee-urr.” The first phrase slurs upward and ends on a high note. Sometimes pewees sing the first phrase several times before repeating the down-slurred second phrase.

I use the adjective “plaintive,” meaning expressing suffering or woe, to describe the pewee’s song because that’s exactly the feeling it evokes. Or perhaps I’ve been influenced by the many field guides that use that word to describe the song. In either case, when you hear a pewee sing, I think you’ll agree “plaintive” is a perfect fit.

Forest preference

Pewees prefer the deciduous forest and can be found in small patches of woods of just a few acres as well as in larger unbroken forest tracts. Males sing most enthusiastically early in the morning and late in the day. Even a beginning birder should be able to recognize the sound.

Flycatcher

Pewees are small, dull, nondescript members of the flycatcher family. Big head, big bill, and fly catching behavior indicate “flycatcher.” The song says, “pewee.” The only color is the dull orange lower bill. Adults also have white wing bars, white throat, white belly, and a dark chest.

Another tip for finding pewees in the woods is to look for other species that occupy the same habitat. The presence of great-crested flycatchers, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, hooded warblers, and wood thrushes tells me to be alert for pewees. By expecting and looking for groups of species rather than individual species in particular habitats, birders are more likely to find less conspicuous birds.

Feeding perch

Next time you see a pewee, watch it for 15 minutes as it flies back and forth to a feeding perch. As it waits quietly waiting for another morsel to fly by, you’ll notice the absence of two common flycatcher behaviors.
Pewees do not pump their tail or flick their wings. This further distinguishes pewees from tail pumping eastern phoebes and many other wing-flicking flycatchers.

Pewees should have raised a first brood by now. The male sings to advertise and defend the territory, while the female builds the nest. During incubation, the male feeds the female on the nest.

Pewee nests

Compared to phoebes, which commonly nest on back porch light fixtures, pewee nests are hard to find. They are usually located on a horizontal branch far from the trunk and at least 15 feet above the ground. Often the branch that cradles the nest is dead. Placement of the nest far from the trunk and on a dead branch makes it difficult for large climbing predators to reach the nest.

The nest consists of a shallow, open cup of grass and other plant fibers. The outside of the nest is covered with sticky spider silk to which lichens are attached. From the ground, a pewee nest is easily overlooked because it can pass for a lichen-covered knot. With the lichen camouflage, it resembles a super-sized hummingbird nest.

Three eggs

Clutch size is typically three eggs. The eggs are white and wreathed with brown blotches on the larger end. The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days. After hatching, both parents feed the young. The young fledge sometime after they reach 14 days of age.

Migration

Fall migration begins in August and peaks in mid-September. Pewees winter in South America.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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