For me, the whistling, buzzy pee-wee of the Western Wood-Pewee’s song signals that the warmth and blue skies of summer are here.
Besides establishing territory and attracting a mate, I imagine the song celebrates its miraculous journey and successful arrival at the Arboretum. The Western Wood-Pewee is a medium to long-distance migrant that primarily winters in the north and west of South America and travels to North and Central America to breed.
It’s a little, gray bird with a peaked crown that gives its head a triangular shape. It is dapperly dressed in a vest that looks buttoned at the top, and has two pale wing bars. The bill is mostly dark with yellow at the base of the lower mandible.
Look for it perched on exposed branches constantly turning its head as it looks for insects. When it spots an insect it will fly out, grab it, and return to the same perch or one nearby. If you listen closely, you can hear the pop of its bill as it snags the insect out of the air. When it lands it will usually flutter its wings slightly as if readying for the next flight. It will eat small insects in midair and bring back larger prey like dragonflies to eat at its perch. I also see them on gravel bars on the river darting around the rocks and gleaning insects.
The nest site is usually at the fork of a horizontal branch. The female builds a compact nest out of small plant fibers and camouflages the outside with lichen, mosses, etc. It is about 3 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall. It can be from near ground level up to 80 feet high! Out at the Arboretum, I generally find them at around 20 to 40 feet. As the babies grow up and the nest gets crowded, I get nervous watching them especially if the tree is swaying in the wind.
This is a great bird to get to know. I feel it is very accessible to watch. It will often perch on a lower tree branch near the trail or on old plant stalks.
Nature is an inexhaustible source of wonder. I look forward to seeing you out there.
Peterson, Roger Tory, et al. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. 4th ed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
Western Wood-Pewee Identification, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Wood-Pewee/id. Accessed 14 June 2023.