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Northland Nature: Least flycatchers call, feed in woods

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

A least flycatcher sits and calls from a branch on a spring day. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)
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It’s chilly, about 30 degrees, clear and calm as I step out on this May morning. Many birds sing in this early hour, taking advantage of calm conditions. This is migration time and each day, more is happening.

As I pass a wetland, I hear the persistent red-winged blackbirds that have taken residence here in late March and continue to sing about it. A swamp sparrow joins with its trill song. Ring-necked ducks and mallards along with a calling pied-billed grebe are out in the water. I expect to see the local Canada goose family.

At the shore, vocal sandhill cranes sound off. They are joined by weird squelching calls of a bittern and in the aquatic plants, a sora calls; both are easy to hear and hard to see. A pair of loud and large trumpeter swans fly over — hard to not hear or see.

Moving past a field, I watch a pair of tree swallows demonstrating aerial acrobatics as they feed. A morning dove gives it plaintive call while musical songs of robin and rose-breasted grosbeak emanate from nearby trees. A small savannah sparrow chimes in with a song sparrow, to sing at the field’s edge. White-throated sparrows sing among the blooming small trees of wild plum, pin cherry and juneberry.

As I approach the woods, I hear gobbling turkeys and drumming ruffed grouse. These large birds are non-migratory and are nesting now; on the forest floor. Most of the avian singing comes from migrants that have been here a while or recent arrivals. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers repeatedly drum on trees. Flickers, another woodpecker, give their whining calls. A couple vireos repeat their short songs from high in the trees.



And there are the warblers. Beginning with yellow-rumped warblers a month ago, others followed. Palm, black and white were next, and earlier this month, I listened to the “teacher, teacher, teacher” song of an ovenbird.
More warblers are here, too, and not all sing loudly. Late May is a great time to see a mixture of different kinds coming by: waves. But as I look in the trees for more of these migrants, it is a short song of another that causes me to stop and listen: a least flycatcher.

This tiny bird of about 5 inches is the smallest member of the flycatchers. We have seven kinds living in the region. These include kingbirds, phoebes, great-crested flycatchers, olive-sided flycatchers, alder flycatchers, wood pewees and the least. Though some can give loud calls, most are not too vocal and none are very colorful.

Living up to their name, flycatchers feed on insects and all are migratory. First to arrive in spring is the phoebe, in April, and others in May.

This is also the time of the arrival of other residents: the new batch of black flies and mosquitos. And flycatchers find plenty to eat.

I always hear the least flycatcher in these woods in May. With its small size and gray color with white undersides, it can be hard to see (if you can get a close view, an eye ring will show up). But as though celebrating their return here, they give a series of two-syllable notes, “che-bek,” accentuating the second syllable. This simple phrase is repeated many times.

As I listen to this call from the morning woods, I’m sure I’ll hear plenty more later in the day and on other days, even if I do not see the songster. One of many sounds on this May morning.


Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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