Monday, April 16, 2018

Episode 416 (4-16-18): The Flycatching Eastern Phoebe’s Song Helps Listeners Catch Spring Fever

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (3:49).

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, images, and additional information follow below.

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 4-13-18.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of April 16, 2018.

This week, we feature a springtime mystery sound.  Have a listen for about 15 seconds to an April 2017 recording, and see if you can guess what bird is making the two-note, buzzing song, which you’ll hear along with a repeating song from another bird.  And here’s a hint: if you have birding FE-ver, your answer may BE correct.

SOUNDS - ~17 sec

If you guessed an Eastern Phoebe, you’re right!  And if you also recognized the repeating song of a Carolina Wren, you may indeed have birding fever.  The Eastern Phoebe is one of two phoebe species known in Virginia, and it’s one of over 30 North American species in the bird family of flycatchers, known for their habit of hawking, that is, flying out from a perch to catch passing insects.

The Eastern Phoebe is a summer breeding resident in most of Virginia and a year-round resident in the southeastern corner and Eastern Shore.  It’s found in woodlands, often near water sources.  Its nest of mud, moss, grass, and leaves typically is found on rock outcrops or on various human structures, like building eaves, bridges, and culverts, specifically in places somewhat protected from predators.  Those nest predators include raccoons, black rat snakes, chipmunks, mice, coyotes, and various birds. Eastern Phoebes, meanwhile, feed on a variety of flying insects along with other invertebrates, some fruit and seeds, and occasionally fish.  It’s known to respond to occurrences of high insect populations, including aquatic insect hatches and swarms of midges.

We close with a few seconds of music that celebrates springtime’s more active life by birds and by many other creatures, including two-legged ones. Here’s part of “Spring Fever,” by John McCutcheon, from the 1999 album “Springsongs.”

MUSIC - ~ 30 sec


For more Virginia water sounds, music, and information, visit us online at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close the show.   In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The Eastern Phoebe sound was recorded by Virginia Water Radio on April 16, 2017, in Blacksburg, Va.

“Spring Fever,” from the 1999 album “Four Seasons: Springsongs,” is copyright by John McCutcheon and Rounder Records, used with permission.  More information about John McCutcheon is available online at

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at

Eastern Phoebe in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, April 4, 2017.   Photo by N. Lewis, National Park Service, public domain. Accessed online at
John James Audubon painting of the Pewee Flycatcher—also called Pewit Flycatcher, both of which are older names for Eastern Phoebe—originally published between 1827 and 1838 in Birds of America (plate CXX [120]), as reprinted in 1985 by Abbeville Press, New York.   Photo taken April 16, 2018, from the reprint copy (no. 6 of 350 copies printed in 1985) owned by Special Collections of Virginia Tech Libraries.  Virginia Water Radio thanks Special Collections for permission to photograph their copy and for their assistance.  Information about Birds of America is available from the National Audubon Society, online at; the Pewit Flycatcher entry is online at   Information linking the Pewit Flycatcher plate to the Eastern Phoebe is available from Zebra Publishing, “Audubon Centennial Edition,” online at


The scientific name of the Eastern Phoebe is Sayornis phoebe.

Here are some points about the Eastern Phoebe, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Eastern Phoebe,” online at

Physical Description
“Males are 144-168 millimeters (mm) and females are 142-165 mm.  Males are generally larger than females. However, determining sex by size or plumage is not reliable.  Top of head clove-brown; back grayish olive-brown; bill blackish above and below; wings without conspicuous bars; underparts yellowish white or pale yellow; sides washed with grayish olive.  Most distinguishing behavioral characteristic is the tail wag.”

Nesting Habitat and Behavior
“Nest is generally built on a ledge, usually sheltered above by an overhang, often under eaves or on window ledges, barn beams, or bridge girders.  Nest is generally found in woodland or edge habitats near water, and are constructed of mud, green moss and leaves, and lined with fine grass stems and hair.  Three to eight eggs are laid in spring or summer.  They hatch in 15 to 17 days and nestlings leave nest 15 to 17 days later. Usually phoebes raise 2 broods a year.   Both parents will feed the young, although females feed young more often.  The nesting season ranges from late March to mid-July. …After breeding is completed, the birds disperse to a variety of woodland habitats… The song, ‘fee-bee,’ is sung to attract a female and to announce and defend a territory.  The territory centers on the nest site.  Territory size is from 3 to 7 acres usually, can be much larger is areas where food is not as available.”

“Hawking is used to forage for flying insects.  The birds appear to forage most actively during the morning hours…. Feed on coleoptera [beetles], orthoptera [grasshoppers and allies], hemiptera [true bugs], lepidoptera [butterflies and moths], diptera [flies], spiders, ticks, millipedes, [and] small fruits and seeds during fall and winter. …Have been seen catching and eating fish.”

“Racoons are frequent nest predators.  Other confirmed predators include the black rat snake, coyote, blue jay, American crow, eastern chipmunk, white-footed mouse and house wren.  Nest success is often hampered because of brown-headed cowbird parasitization.”


Used for Audio

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at; the Eastern Phoebe entry is online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at (subscription required).

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Flycatcher,” online at

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at; the Eastern Phoebe entry is online at

For More Information about Birds

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.  Information is available online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at   Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at  The Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at  The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

Following are links to some other episodes on springtime.
Episode 206, 3/14/14 – A Spring Serenade.
Episode 212, 5/5/14 – Timing and Cues are Keys to Flowers of the Forest—Musically by No Strings Attached and Biologically by Woodland Plants.
Episode 308, 3/21/16 – Treating Spring Fever with Water, Featuring ‘Until the Summer Comes’ by The Steel Wheels.
Episode 408, 2-19-18 – A Frog and Toad Medley.


This episode may help with the following Virginia 2010 Science SOLs.

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
K.7 – basic needs and processes of plants and animals.
1.5 - animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.
3.4 - behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 - living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 - food webs.
3.6 - ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 - ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
5.5 - cell structures and functions, organism classification, and organism traits.
6.7 - natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.4 - organisms’ classification based on features.
LS.8 - community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.9 - adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.

Biology Course
BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to previous Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels:
Episode 250 (1-26-15) – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade;
Episode 255 (3-2-15) – on density, for 5th and 6th grade;
Episode 282 (9-21-15) – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten;
Episode 309 (3-28-16) – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade;
Episode 332 (9-12-16) – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403 (1-15-18) – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade;
Episode 404 (1-22-18) – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade;
Episode 406 (2-5-18) – on ice on rivers, for middle school;
Episode 407 (2-12-19) – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.