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Monday 22 July 2019
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Flycatchers Abound

Yellow-bellied Elaenias hardly ever flatten their crown feathers, this crest is a diagnostic feature in identifying these birds. Photos by Faraaz Abdool
Yellow-bellied Elaenias hardly ever flatten their crown feathers, this crest is a diagnostic feature in identifying these birds. Photos by Faraaz Abdool

Birding enthusiast and photographer, Faraaz Abdool, takes us into the world of Tyrant Flycatchers. These birds are found all over Tobago and Trinidad. Enjoy Faraaz Abdool’s
beautiful photos of these noisy little birds.

One of the largest families of birds in the entire world, the Tyrant Flycatchers have 39 members that live within Trinidad and Tobago. Of these, a dozen can be found occupying different types of habitat across Tobago. They are not the most dashing of birds, as they do not sport the rich blues, greens or reds that have made some other tropical birds famous. What they lack in chromatic extravagance they make up for in charisma, often calling loudly or boldly doing battle with a stinger-equipped wasp.

Most flycatchers have the word “flycatcher” in their name. For example, the Ochre-bellied Flycatcher is so named because of its rich ochre underbelly. The Brown-crested Flycatcher is named for raised brown feathers on the crown, giving it a mildly cone-headed appearance. This bird is relatively common across low-lying areas on Tobago, especially favouring mangrove swamps. Another flycatcher that seems to be fond of mangrove habitat is the Yellow-breasted Flycatcher. Formerly called Yellow-breasted Flatbill for its broad-based bill, this diminutive yellow bird is also found throughout most of the forests on the island. Become familiar with the vocalization of this bird and you realize how ridiculously common Yellow-breasted Flycatchers are across the island, as they have a habit of calling loudly wherever they are. In fact, the call of the Yellow-breasted Flycatcher is such a staple of the music of the forest that Violaceous Euphonias regularly mimic the flycatcher’s call, incorporating it into a myriad of tweets and chit-chat that form the basis of their own vocalizations.

Similarly plumaged, Yellow-bellied Elaenias do not carry the flycatcher moniker but nevertheless belong to the family. Frequently carrying a raised crest, the long-tailed and pot-bellied shape of the Yellow-bellied Elaenia may be seen in forests, suburbs and mangroves across Tobago. They are excitable birds, and often erupt into their version of song when another member of their species lands nearby. They have various common names, such as “jay” and “cutterhead”.

Tropical Kingbirds have grey backs and a yellow wash to their breast and belly area. Their vocalisations sound very similar to those of the closely related Grey Kingbird.

Sometimes confused with the Great Kiskadee in Trinidad, kingbirds have a similar, albeit slimmer structure – but their habits are very much alike. No kiskadees are found on Tobago, but two species of kingbirds are. They trade in the brown tones of many other flycatchers for a greyer appearance, especially on their wings and back. Tropical Kingbirds have a yellowish wash to the front of their chest and belly area, while the slightly larger Grey Kingbird is well, various shades of grey. Both species are very vocal and can regularly be seen perched on utility wires and the tops of trees, using their high vantage points to their advantage as they scan for flying insects. When a suitable target is identified, the bird will dart off in pursuit, only to return to its perch a few seconds later. These brief flights are called “sallies”, and it is a behaviour exhibited by most flycatchers.

Piratic Flycatchers usually perch on the highest branches of trees, calling incessantly for most of the day.

Forested areas on Tobago are home to an infamous and somewhat nefarious character. While it is surely a process of nature, Piratic Flycatchers have figured out a means by which they can avoid the tedious task of nest-building. Perched up high, they not only scan for insects, but also for birds such as the Crested Oropendola, a species that is well known for its incredible hanging nests. From the moment the oropendola has completed its intricately woven nest, the Piratic Flycatchers move in. Operating in pairs, they continually harass the original owner, with the aim of driving the architect away from its freshly finished nest. One bird will land close enough to be too close for comfort, causing the oropendola to chase it away. Once it makes the mistake of leaving the nest unattended, the second member of the pair of pirates darts into the nest and immediately takes up residence. This process is repeated until the original owner decides that it’s just too much effort to continually defend its nest in the face of such persistent opposition. Thus, the Piratic Flycatcher earns its name, and a nest in which to raise its young.

Fork-tailed Flycatchers are usually visible from a distance with their conspicuous long tails. Large flocks of these birds can be seen flying overhead to and from their feeding grounds during the morning and evening.

Although most flycatchers are resident birds, some are visitors that grace our lands for a few months each year in spectacular fashion. The extravagantly proportioned Fork-tailed Flycatcher has one of the longest tails in relation to body size in the world – males with the longest tails are actually favoured by females, as a longer tail makes it easier for the bird to get caught by a predator. If a bird has an extremely long tail, it would suggest that it has the survival instinct and capability to escape predators even given such a huge disadvantage of a streaming tail. These are the exact characteristics female Fork-tailed Flycatchers are looking for, to pass onto the next generation.

Flycatchers’ habits of calling loudly whilst perched on the highest, usually most exposed, branches of trees help us to locate and identify them. Some species are rare like the Venezuelan Flycatcher – a target for many visiting birders. Others are shy and retiring like the White-throated Spadebill. But all of them find commonality in their habits, diet and behaviour, whether they are found in the city like the kingbirds, or deep in the forest like the large and boisterous Streaked Flycatcher of the treetops or the ever-present, pensive looking Fuscous Flycatcher that hunts from low perches within the forest.

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