Olive-sided Flycatcher

May 13th, 2020: Mini-midday-fallout at Queen Elizabeth Park

Queen Elizabeth Park was PACKED with birds today. So packed that I made a trip before (eBird list) and after lunch (eBird list). A small mid-morning storm rolled through Vancouver and seemed to have knocked a bunch of migrants out of the sky.

Some storm clouds near QE Park
Some storm clouds near QE Park

They were mostly Wilson’s Warblers (WIWA). I’d guess at least 200 of them in the park. You could stand under a tree and just watch them stream from one to the next above you. Little, bright yellow, black-capped warblers zipping by… I savoured the little yellow gems as they coated the trees and busily foraged everywhere. And I watched for differently-shaped birds in flight. Then I’d try to track those down in whatever tree they paused in next.

A male Wilson's Warbler during the briefest of pauses (didn't manage any good photos of WIWA today)
A male Wilson’s Warbler during the briefest of pauses (didn’t manage any good photos of WIWA today)

Of the non-WIWA, most were Warbling Vireo. But there were also several Western Tanager in with the huge mixed flock today. I watched them zip between the trees that line the edge of the golf course, mesmerized. I also turned up Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, and a single MacGillivray’s Warbler.

Western Tanager at QE Park
Western Tanager at QE Park

Perhaps today’s biggest prize was a Cassin’s Vireo that actually paused for a few minutes in a small tree. I was able to get reasonably close, managing my first decent photos of this species. They move through Vancouver every year and someone always sees one or two at QE. This year, I’ve seen three now at QE! I’ll chalk it up to COVID and more time to get out birding.

Cassin's Vireo at QE Park
Cassin’s Vireo at QE Park

But I’ve already written about Cassin’s Vireo here and you know the rule: a new bird every week. So I thought I’d focus on one of my favourite flycatchers in the park today: the Olive-sided Flycatcher.

This bird was a sort of nemesis of mine for my first few years of birding. I just couldn’t manage to track one down. I see them lots now that I know where and when to look. In a nutshell: high in a dead snag if you can find one, and during migration. They nest in the mountain slopes nearby (Belcarra is a good spot), but only pause briefly at city/coastal places like QE. Still, I’ve seen lots of them in the park this year.

Olive-sided Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher

You could see up to 5 flycatcher species at QE Park some days this spring: Hammond’s, Pacific-slope, Dusky (rare), Western Wood-Pewee, and Olive-sided Flycatcher (and Willow a little later). The Olive-sided is the largest and most conspicuous of any of them. While many of the other species like to perch in denser trees that already have their leaves, the Olive-sided (and often the Western Wood-Pewee) tend to perch in the open.

An Olive-sided Flycatcher tolerates an Anna's Hummingbird high in QE Park
An Olive-sided Flycatcher tolerates an Anna’s Hummingbird high in QE Park

At QE this tends to mean that if you find the highest few perches in the park during migration, you might find an OSFL. The perches with the best visibility and little-to-no needles or leaves in the way are the ones where the Olive-sided Flycatcher(s) tend to park themselves.

The Olive-sided jumps out too and it’s easy to ID. It’s bulky, heavy-headed and billed, and has a very clearly defined gray “vest” along the sides of the breast, with white down the middle. (The vest is olive if you’re really close, but it looks pretty much gray most of the time.) The most similar bird out here is the Western Wood-Pewee, but it’s missing this clear vest (and it’s smaller).

An Olive-sided Flycatcher's "vest" stands out even in poor light
An Olive-sided Flycatcher’s “vest” stands out even in poor light

They eat some big insects too. They’ll nab flying ants, wasps, and bees for a snack. But they also regularly eat grasshoppers, moths, and dragonflies. That big bill does the job!

The Olive-sided Flycatchers in the park aren’t singing because they’re not on territory. But they have a fun song. It sounds to many like “quick three beers.”

Olive-sided Flycatcher’s three-note “quick three beers” (from xeno-canto)

Olive-sided Flycatchers winter in northern and central South America, migrate up through Central America, and summer in a wide swathe across North America that covers all of the west (right up to Alaska) and from coast to coast in Canada. This means it has the longest migration of any flycatcher that breeds in North America!

I’ve really been enjoying seeing these flycatchers regularly over the past week or so. They won’t likely stick around much longer. But there are tons of migrants pouring in now, and who knows what else will show up!

A Spotted Towhee enjoys a view of the north shore mountains from the upper gardens at QE Park
A Spotted Towhee enjoys a view of the north shore mountains from the upper gardens at QE Park

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