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Summer birding in San Diego: Pacific-slope flycatcher

Pacific slope flycatcher at Lake Murray.  Photo taken last spring.
Pacific slope flycatcher at Lake Murray. Photo taken last spring.
Darlene Luckins

Being in the southern part of the United States, San Diego usually has fewer summering birds than wintering birds. Many of the birds that stay during the summer are non-breeding breeds in their winter colors. But, there are a few species that travel north from Mexico and places south to breed in San Diego. One of these birds is the Pacific-slope flycatcher.

The Pacific-slope flycatcher used to be called a western flycatcher and was grouped together with the Cordilleran flycatcher. The main difference between the two is the range where they’re found. The Pacific-slope flycatcher is only found on the west coast except in southern British Columbia where it can also be found inland. The Cordilleran flycatcher is found in the interior west such as Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Both species winter in Mexico with one on the west coast, the other more widely spread inland to the Gulf of Mexico.

Most people can find the Pacific-slope flycatcher by its call. Though its usual song is a high-pitched three-note song, its call, a “chu-wee!,”can be heard from far away. The bird itself is fairly small, about the size of a song sparrow, or about 5-6 inches long, including its tail. It blends in well in the native foliage of San Diego with its gray and yellow-buff color.

Since they are cavity nesters, Pacific-slope flycatchers may utilize bird houses or similar man-made structures or platforms. They are considered beneficial to humans because of their immense appetite for flying insects such as mosquitoes. Like other flycatchers, they catch flying insects through a behavior called “hawking”. This is where they sit on a perch, wait for prey to fly by, and catch it in the air.

Most Pacific-slope flycatchers arrive in March or April, peaking in May and June. They begin to migrate outside the area in July. Though they are most comfortable in areas with plenty of trees and water, they can be found in many local backyards and parks.