Eastern Kingbird

I miss Eastern Kingbirds.

It’s not that they’re not around — I’ve seen them at the National Bison Range, to name but one definitively Montana location — but they’re not AROUND, like they always used to be back on the Olde Homestead.

Instead we have other flycatchers, and I am not a fan of other flycatchers. Other flycatchers are not fans of me. When they deign to make a noise, I cannot easily correlate it with the little descriptions in my field guide. When they perch, they cunningly sit in shadows that make it hard to distinguish belly shading and beak color. When they fly, they catch flies and then disappear back into the shadows before I can focus on them.

Willow Flycatcher by Dave Menke

This has resulted in some severe fiascos, the most notorious of which was the Old Homestead’s first and only Western Kingbird. Which was, as best I can now tell, a Great Crested Flycatcher, but I was twelve and I think the pages of my Peterson’s were stuck together or something, which is the only way I can account for not even having considered the more logical option that a local forest bird had traversed a field rather than an accidental bird had traversed a state. Fortunately, I later saw Western Kingbirds for real and was able to paper over the weird hole in my life list that my realization had left.

This made me wary. I’m still not sure whether I’ve seen an Olive-sided Flycatcher or what. But sometimes, in spring, wildness gives way to wary despair, and yes, I confess, I’ve added Empids to checklists on the basis of a shrug and a ‘sure, it sort of sounded like that, I guess.’ I doubt it really matters. I don’t believe for a second that anyone else actually knows which Empids they’ve seen either, except maybe five people with mist nets and calipers.

So you can see why I long for the reassuring black-and-white tyrant who cheerfully sallies out to take on crow, hawk, eagle, or birder, and sits in full sun.

My great dread is being the finder of a legitimately rare flycatcher, one of those southern yellow and gray numbers. I saw the Queens Ash-throated Flycatcher in 2009, but someone else had identified that and I just went along for the ride. But between my flycatcher curse and my terrible photography skills, what happens if I’m strolling along one day and find another one that sort of looks like that? I will be mere chum in the waters of online id, and that’s before some smart alec brings up hybrids.

But sometimes the birding gods can be merciful, because the one time a rare flycatcher really did turn up at the Olde Homestead, it was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. An adult with a glorious tail and wonderful salmon wing-pits. Pretty hard to mistake that for anything, either.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher by Robert Burton

Images courtesy of the USFWS.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at DaysAtDunrovin.com.