This bird showed up on the wild blackberry patch at the corner of Marina Boulevard and the Virginia Street extension, across from the hotel. It flitted out of the bush onto the branch, and I just got it into focus and clicked once when it was gone again. I didn’t know what it was until I got the camera home. And then I really didn’t know what it was. Not a finch — beak too long. Not a sparrow, ditto. Not a Phoebe, wrong colors. Not a blackbird, ditto. Merlin, the online bird ID app, struck out. In desperation, I sent a photo to Oliver James, the young bird whiz who’s a fellow alum of Wesleyan (fifty years more recently). He wrote a beautiful bird book earlier this year. The next day his response: Ash-throated Flycatcher.
This bird, according to Wikipedia, is “prone to wander.” Indeed. Its normal habitat is arid scrublands and deserts of Arizona and elsewhere in the Southwest. A few wanderers have been spotted within the past several years up in Tilden Park. The last sighting listed on eBird for the Berkeley Marina was in this same spot in 2003 by Matthew Litwin. It’s so unusual here that it’s missing from George Suennen’s almost encyclopedic gallery of Cesar Chavez birds.
As a flycatcher, this bird found a hot spot. The blackberry patch seems to be a magnet for bugs. Barn Swallows and Black Phoebes, bug eaters both, congregate here. This flycatcher also likes the occasional berry, and they’re starting to ripen. The berries draw finches and blackbirds. What’s not to like? If I get lucky, I’ll get other photos of this bird, showing its whitish breast and pale yellow underbelly.
The Cornell bird lab website lists these “Cool Facts” about Ash-throated Flycatchers:
- Like many other desert animals such as the kangaroo rat, Ash-throated Flycatchers don’t need to drink water. Instead they get it all from the food they eat.
- Growing new feathers is energetically costly. That might be why Ash-throated Flycatchers make a so-called “molt migration” after breeding to areas in Mexico that are flush with insects. The plentiful food provides energy and nutrients for the flycatchers’ growing feathers. Unlike some eastern migrants, Ash-throated Flycatchers take more than a month to grow new feathers.
- Ash-throated Flycatchers are secondary cavity nesters and they are good at finding places to put their nests—even unusual locations including pipes, fence posts, and clothes hanging on a line.
- Unlike most members of its genus, the Ash-throated Flycatcher only occasionally uses snakeskin in its nest. Only 5% of nests examined contained reptile skin, but 98% had mammal hair. Rabbit fur was the most frequently used.
- Everyone likes to be heard and that may go for birds as well. Researchers examined how loud birds sang in different environments. They found that in noisy environments some birds sang louder or changed their pitch to be heard over the noise, while other birds left the area altogether. In their experiments, Ash-throated Flycatchers in noisy environments sang at a slightly higher pitch than birds not subjected to increased noise.
- The oldest recorded Ash-throated Flycatcher was just under 12 years old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during a banding operation in California in 2008. It had been banded in the same state in 1997.
- The Ash-throated Flycatcher is a rare but regular vagrant to the East Coast. Individuals turn up nearly every year across the U.S. and they have been found in all coastal states and provinces. See where they have been seen at eBird.