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Sutro Bird Watcher: Black Phoebe

Grab your binoculars!

Wintertime. Looking up from the planting table in the Sutro Nursery, I spy a Black Phoebe overhead. His strong chirp pulled my attention. I see the form of the elegant flycatcher on the tip of a redwood bough.

The black phoebe is an unusually handsome and identifiable bird. It is cloaked in black, sooty grey and white feathers as if in a black vest and long-tailed coat over a bright white belly. This medium-sized flycatcher is relatively easy to follow as it flies from perch to perch, sallying forth to catch insects on the way. This time of year he makes a chirping call frequently.

With the use of a spotting scope or good fortune with binoculars, I would be able to see the sculpting of the feathers of the head that gives a wide field of view to the large black eye. All flycatchers rely upon acute vision to catch insect prey in flight.

The black phoebe’s crest raises and falls, probably startling passing insects to their doom. The phoebe’s long tail flicks upwards and down constantly, prompting insects to reveal themselves.

The black phoebe is a year-round resident of Mt. Sutro and the surrounding neighborhood. Spring will arrive soon and the male black phoebe will be heard calling its own name during the day. He calls frequently, an upward “phoe – be” followed by a downward “phoe – be.”

Native vegetation supports a wide variety of insects and habitats to support the phoebe. It can be found near the Pacific coast, in moist, riparian areas. I have seen the phoebe at a dripping water faucet and near ponds of water. Mud is required for its nest. Often the phoebe will be spotted atop a shrub or atop a residence in the neighborhood.

The black phoebe is one of the first flycatchers that a new bird watcher can identify and one that veteran bird watchers expect to see on Mt. Sutro, and in surrounding neighborhood gardens and parks. He is truly one of the handsomest birds in San Francisco!

Check out the link for more information, including identification, life history and sounds:

Note: The ruby-crowned kinglet is present now, during winter months. Visit the ruby-crowned kinglet blog for a description of this special bird.

Spot birds on Mount Sutro during a guided hike! Join Pat Greene of the Golden Gate Audubon Society on Saturday, February 18 for a free bird walk. Meet at the Woods Lot at 8:15am and bring binoculars if you have them. The hike will be about 2 miles on dirt trails. For more information visit the events page.

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