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  • This eastern wood pewee came right over to me when I played a pewee song on my phone. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • The yellow lower beak and the uniform gray on the head, back and wings are field marks of the pewee. The buff edges of the wing feathers suggest that this is a young bird born this year. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson—

Published: 9/16/2019 10:00:51 AM

My baby sister, Laura, lives down in Raleigh, N.C. and she has been quite excited over the past few days because migration is starting.  She is seeing all sorts of species that only pass through during the spring and fall and she is compiling a list that has been specifically designed to make me jealous. I’ve been sure to tease her whenever I see something up here that she won’t be able to see down south, and now she is proving that she can give as good as she gets.

One species that she cannot taunt me with is a denizen of deciduous forests throughout the eastern half of North America. This small flycatcher is a relative of the eastern phoebe, but it is not at all inclined to build nests around and even on our dwellings. Instead, this bird prefers the woods. Any guesses? I am speaking of a wonderful little bird called the eastern wood pewee (Contopus virens).

There are many different types of flycatchers that live here in Western Massachusetts and some of them can be quite tricky to identify. One group, known as the Empidonax Flycatchers, is downright diabolical, but the wood pewee is a little more “friendly” to birders because of its song. By the way, the bird’s name is pronounced “pee-wee.” Why it isn’t spelled that way is a mystery to me.

Anyway, the song of the pewee is described as being somewhat “plantive” and is simply a two-part repetition of the name. The first syllable, which represents the “pee,” is always the same, flat note. The second syllable, which represents the “wee,” is the one that changes. The first “wee” is stretched out into three parts, like “wee-ee-ee” and the middle portion dips in tone. In the second version of the song, the “wee” is a single descending note. Difficult to describe in writing, but impossible to miss once you know the sound, this song is usually heard long before the bird is actually seen.

These small birds will set up shop in deciduous or mixed woodlands where there are a lot of exposed perches. As flycatchers, they are obviously interested in flies, but rather than zipping around in the air like a swallow, the wood pewee will use a technique of hunting called “hawking.” Basically, they sit in one place and wait for a fly (or other flying insect) to pass by and then ambush it. As a result, pewees have exceptional eyesight and fantastic flying skills.

A mated pair will stake out a claim in a forest and then set up shop with a beautifully camouflaged nest. The female will find a horizontal branch that strikes her fancy and then she will construct a cup-shaped nest of grasses, plant fibers and spider webs. Then she will decorate the outside of this nest with bits of lichens that are growing on nearby trees. In this manner, she will end up with a nest that just looks like a boring little bump in the bark of the tree.

Into the nest, she will lay three white eggs that are covered with brown splotches. Then the female will assume the sole responsibility of incubator for about two weeks. It is after the eggs hatch that the male really proves his value by catching and delivering food to his tiny chicks. Prior to hatching the male defends the pair’s territory and may even bring food for his beloved little wife.

The chicks are able to fly in another two weeks and then they have to quickly learn to take care of themselves because they will have to fly to Central and South America when they are only a few months old. This adventure is currently underway for the pewees in our area and you probably won’t see one after the end of September, so get out and keep your ears peeled for these wonderful little birds.

I happened to detect the presence of an eastern wood pewee while sitting in my “thinking chair” a couple of weeks ago. I heard the bird sing the “pee” note of its song somewhere off to my west and I quickly used an app on my phone to play the full pewee song.  Almost instantly, a young pewee came over to see what was going on and it lingered near me long enough to pose for some great photos.  

Some field marks that suggest this bird is a wood pewee are the bold bars in the wings and the distinct lack of an “eye ring” of white feathers around the eye.  Distinguishing it from a phoebe was easy because the bird’s head wasn’t a darker shade of gray than the back and wings.  You can also see that the lower portion of the bird’s beak is yellow, which is another clue. The lemony blush on the breast feathers and the buff margins of the wing feathers suggest that this is a young of the year bird.

This is an extremely exciting time of year for bird watching and if you have any chance to get outside I would suggest that you exploit it. Our “summer” birds are only going to be around for another couple of weeks and then our “winter” birds will start to show up. Get outside, keep your eyes and ears open and soak up as much nature as you can while you still have the chance.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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