PHOTO COURTESY OF GARRY KESSLER
An eastern wood-pewee. Males and females look alike. They have two white wing bars, a peak at the back of the head, and an orange lower beak.
September 4, 2015, Page A5
By Annie Reid
Westborough Community Land Trust
The wood-pewee’s lasting song
The insect chorus of summer continues into September but fades as the month wears on, but the song of a woodland bird of summer, the wood-pewee, often lasts well into the fall.
The song of the eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens) – or pewee for short – doesn’t fit our standard notion of a bird song, but it’s easy to recognize once you’ve heard it and realized what it is. The pewee is named for its song, a soft “peee-ah-wee” or “pee-oh” that often sounds like a distant cry. Pewees perch on exposed or dead branches to sing and to watch for flying insects. They move from tree to tree in the forest and often sing throughout the day.
If you come to the Bowman Conservation Area Discovery Day (Sunday afternoon, September 13, 1:00 - 5:00 PM in Westborough) sponsored by the Westborough Community Land Trust (WCLT), you might hear a pewee in the woods surrounding Sandra Pond. Pewees from farther north are likely to be passing through our area at that time, so there may be more pewees around than usual. Pewees migrate to northern parts of South America for the winter.
Pewees are flycatchers and seem to stay in our woods and sing as long as there are flying insects to snatch out of the air. Their flat, broad beaks are good for seizing insects. Pewees are not picky about the size of forests, so you can find them in deep woods, forest fragments, and forest edges. In this way they differ from ovenbirds, which need large forests, and scarlet tanagers and wood thrushes, which need forests of moderate size.
Pewees are usually easier to hear than to see. Males are the ones that sing, but males and females look alike. They’re gray birds (about 6 inches long) with a light throat and breast. They have two white wing bars, a peak at the back of the head, and an orange lower beak. They blend well into their forest surroundings. Unlike another small gray flycatcher, the eastern phoebe, pewees don’t typically pump or flick their tail. It can be hard to tell pewees from various other flycatchers by sight, but there’s no mistaking their distinctive song.
Eastern wood-pewees breed in our woods, but you won’t hear them in early spring. They arrive late – not until May. Pewees make a small nest on a high horizontal branch and disguise it with lichen. They typically lay three eggs.
Pewees are common in our woods, but Mass Audubon reports that their numbers have been declining faster than those of many other birds that nest in the forest, according to breeding bird surveys. It’s not clear why.
Enjoy listening for the pewee’s song in the woods in September and October, and think of it as a little piece of summer.