A Say You Can See

Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya)

When I finished photographing the Burrowing Owl in the Nature Area on the north side of the park, another bird caught my eye. It perched for a few seconds on a stalk a couple of feet off the ground, then dove down into the grass, then up to another perch, and repeat. Its rapid movements made it a challenge to photograph. But I captured a few seconds, see above. What I saw was one of the Say’s Phoebe’s typical foraging methods. It’s an insect eater almost exclusively; seeds are of little interest. From its perch it surveys the scene below and plunges down to snatch a bug off a leaf, or even in midair. I’ve also seen the Say’s Phoebe hover in midair, like a hummingbird or a White-tailed Kite, but not this individual this time. I wondered how it could perch on very slender, delicate reeds without bowing them over. According to Wikipedia, an adult Say’s only weighs three quarters of an ounce. That would explain it.

The Say’s is a cousin of the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), which we see here more frequently. The Black probably nests here somewhere, but the Say’s is a migrant, coming probably from higher, colder latitudes where it likes to breed. There’s considerable variety among the authorities about this bird’s habits, with some opining that it likes to be near water, others that it prefers desert, that it breeds in the Arctic tundra (and even builds nests on the Alaska oil pipeline) but that it also breeds in Southwestern suburbs and backyard nest boxes. It’s a versatile bird! Given its adaptability, it’s not considered endangered.

The bird was named after Thomas Say (1787-1834), an American naturalist whose main interest was in insects and mollusks but who also did birds. On the bird side, not only this bird but the genus (consisting of three species) was named after him, so we get him twice in the Latin name: Sayornis saya.

Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) diving off perch

Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya)

More about the Say’s: Wikipedia Audubon Cornell In Chavez Park

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One thought on “A Say You Can See

  • have been seeing a single say’s phoebe around the park for the last year or so, have often wondered if it really is just one bird making its way around

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