Pacific-slope Flycatcher – The Third Time’s a Charm!

Posted by on Jul 18, 2011 in Farm Blog, Flora and Fauna, Native Wildlife, Natives | 27 comments

For the last two years we’ve had a pair of Pacific-slope Flycatchers (Empidonax difficilis) that, for reasons known only to them, insist on building nests on the house that seem doomed to failure. 

These Flycatchers seem to enjoy nesting on our porch light

Last spring, the pair nested on top of our porch light.  The female laid four eggs, all of which hatched, but the very next day the babies were snatched by predators (we’re presuming Steller’s Jays, but the perpetrator was never conclusively identified).

Last year's nestlings were snatched by predators when they were less than 48 hours old

Although we continued to hear the male’s position note call, that was the last we saw of the Flycatchers last year.

Then in May this year, we noticed the Flycatchers were back when for some bizarre reason they elected to construct a nest quite close to the ground, on our telephone wiring box on the side of the house. What could they be thinking building a nest there?!

In 2011 the Flycatchers nested on the other side of the house, low to the ground

The nestlings, remarkably, seemed to go undetected for five or six days, and their feathers were starting to grow in.

In May of this year, these Flycatchers evaded detection for some time, but ultimately were discovered by predators on the farm

Then one Saturday morning, during an early June deluge of 3 inches of rain, I went out to be sure our gutter on the side of the house wasn’t overflowing into the nest, but found the nest was empty.  A dead nestling was bloodied, on the ground below, and the other two were simply gone. So goes yet another episode of Predators & Prey at the farm.

Almost immediately, within a few days, we spotted a scruffy mess of spiderwebs and redwood litter being deposited on top of our front porch light again. Again, the female laid three perfect little eggs in the nest, and began incubating them earnestly, and we were sure we knew exactly how this episode would end.

A second nest was constructed in June, on the porch light, and contained 3 eggs

On June 29th, the first nestling hatched, and by the next morning all three had popped from their shells.

Oh! Somebody has just hatched!

Over the coming days we’d occasionally notice a parent flying in, with various flying insects as food, including termites, which caused me to mutter a little cheer, and each evening we could see through the window in the door that the female was settled on the nest for the night.

For as long as we could see the parents, we continued to use the back entrance to the house to avoid unnecessarily startling anyone, after a while we stopped paying much attention to the comings and goings on the porch.

Even if we couldn't see them, the adults were never very far away

After some 10 days had passed we were quite surprised to see there was still quite a lot of activity atop the light.  Then one morning I noticed that the parents hadn’t been around at all.  I suspected the worst.  I went outside the front door, and very slowly and carefully raised the camera over my head, hoping the resulting photograph would be in focus.  Well, it wasn’t quite, but it was enough to see these young birds seemed to be well feathered! 

A little crowded, but almost fully feathered!

These nestlings were the most far along of any of the nestlings we’d seen so far.  Would they actually make it?  Could this nest survive?  We could only wait and see.

By day 12 it was clear there was no more room on top of the light.  The nest had become stretched and flattened so that part of it now extended under the cross-bar to the opposite edge of the lamp, and we could see one nestling on that side on its own.  Heads were periodically seen bobbing about, and even a little preening activity was seen.  Again, with no parents in sight (even though I’m sure they were watching), I managed to sneak out the door, quickly snapped a photo over the top of my head, and came back inside to see the results. 

Sporting shrubby eyebrows, these nestlings were growing fast!

I love this photo, those are some SERIOUS eyebrows!  Their eyes were clearly open, and it was looking like it wouldn’t be too long before they’d be ready to leave.

After that day I left them completely alone.  The last thing I wanted to do, as they’d made it this far, was to flush them prematurely.

Crossing my fingers that this brood would succeed, I kept an occasional eye on the floor of the porch for the next couple of days, as it seemed likely that with all the wiggling about on top of the light, someone was bound to get pushed off.  It’s pretty slick up there, and sure enough, two days later, late Wednesday afternoon, I looked out the window, and there it was.

The first little fledge to the leave the nest

Our first ‘fledgling’, grounded on the porch floor, but seemingly unharmed.

I left it alone, as I knew the parents were still around, but kept a watchful eye.  It’s a good thing nobody was about to see a crazy woman in the front yard, crouching in the shrubbery, clutching a camera with a 300mm lens pointed at the front of the house!

Quite an adorable little fellow, and looking almost grown up

After about 15 minutes, the parents returned, and fed the two remaining nestlings on the light, and just as the male parent flew off, this ball of fuzz that had been sitting on its haunches on the floor, launched itself, albeit somewhat awkwardly, across the front garden to a low hanging branch on a coast live oak, with the female parent in hot pursuit!  How did we go from bushy eyebrows to flying in just 48 hours?  I lost sight of the fledgling among the leaves in the tree, but observed both parents zipping back and forth for a while between the porch and the oak.

The second fledgling, perched just before its first flight

Turning my attention back to the porch light, we now had a second would-be-fledgling perched on top of the crossbar on the lamp, preening.  All of a sudden, the male parent flew in, and for some absurd reason landed right on top of the youngster!  Literally, the male was standing right on the little one’s back!  What the…?  Feet and feathers started flailing about, and I watched as the young Flycatcher finally lost its footing, and slid over the far edge of the lamp.  I winced, but without even touching the floor, it righted itself, and launched out toward the workshop roof.

The second fledge safely landed on the workshop roof

By now it was almost 7:30 PM, and the light was fading as the sun dipped behind the trees.  As the fledgling sat there alone for a few minutes, I wondered how safe this youngster would be alone out on the middle of the roof.  No sooner had that thought entered my mind, than one of the parents showed up, offered a meal, and both took off toward a nearby bay laurel tree, hopefully out of sight of night predators.

It wasn't long before one of the parents (left) dropped in to check on this fledgling (yellow arrow)

That left one nestling on top of the light, as the sun went down, and I hoped it would stay put until morning, as by now it was almost dark.

The next morning, I looked out through the window, and I couldn’t see any sign of the little one on top of the lamp.

By morning the third one was gone, and the nest was empty

Clearly I was too late to see this one fledge, and just hoped that its first flight was a success…but, just as I was getting ready to leave to run an errand, I spotted this attached to the side of my truck!

Fledgling three must have only recently taken off, and landed on my (albeit horribly dirty) truck!

Presumably this is fledgling number three, based on how low to the ground it was.  My truck wasn’t parked very far from the front steps, and of all the places to land, it picked this slick surface.  Although I must admit, with as dirty as my truck is at the moment, that probably improved its footing somewhat. 

I put my errand on hold, and watched for a bit to see if the parents were about, and of course they were, and keeping a close eye out.  Eventually one of the parents zipped by, and actually bumped the youngster off of my truck, and down into some Spanish lavender under one of our front windows, where I finally lost track of it, because really, I did have an awful lot to get done that day, and hadn’t factored fledgling-watching into that day’s schedule!

Male Pacific-slope Flycatcher

So, despite two previous nest failures, and being completely convinced these youngters would meet a similar fate, we’re so happy to say…we were wrong.  Congratulations little Flycatchers, the third time really was the charm!


  1. Yeah flycatchers!

    Love those eyebrows.

    I wonder if the local predators had finished feeding young of their own at the later date of the second clutch so weren’t as busy scouting for
    vulnerable hatchlings.

    • I’d had a similar thought Anne. We definitely are hearing less Jays about at the moment, no doubt because their young have all fledged. For a while this spring the brutality of baby bird life around here was evident, and the robins here seemed to have more than their fair share of grief from the Steller’s Jays, as did some of the finches. I wouldn’t be surprised if the timing of this late clutch was what ultimately made all the difference.

      • Hello Clare,
        You are so well read and knowledgeable about many things of interest and I delight in reading your notes. I joined your forum last year and left a couple of posts regarding our Pacific Slope Flycatcher experience here on the Monterey Peninsula. It was heart breaking to read about your broods demise. We are in our fourth year where Mama and Papa Flycatcher have chosen our electric garage door opener for nesting and having their brood. The garage has proven a safe haven from incubation through fledging. Mama has produced two clutches each year. The chicks come parachuting down to the garage floor where we are on serious watch to make sure that they make it to the bush. Today I got up on the ladder to see if the chicks were in the nest. This is a small feat due to the fact that once I am on the proper rung I have to slide a large flat mirror up against the garage ceiling in order to see what is in the nest. Just as I suspected, there were three adorable chicks snuggled together sleeping. They appeared to have pretty full coats. I am completely baffled because my car, which sits directly under the garage door opener where the nest sits, today was covered with broken egg shells and yellow droppings. Hence the ladder and nest inspection. I was confident that the eggs were hatched because Papa swiftly flies from a nearby tree branch directly into the garage as soon as I enter the garage whether it be from the car or from the house. We have learned through the years that this was our signal indicating the chicks were hatched. So, where did the broken egg and shells come from? Do you have an answer or any possibilities as to why or how this could happen at this time since the chicks are fully feathered in the nest? Perhaps others might have an explanation.

        • Not sure. The female would usually have removed the shells at hatch. However, my best guess would be that the female only moved the egg shells to just outside of the nest, but still on the garage door opener, and now the nestlings are feathered in, and much more active, that they knocked them down, along with the failed egg. Our nest here was practically flattened by the nestlings by the time they fledged.

          • I had just researched when I saw your reply. I read where some species eat the shells, others carry them away. I think your take on this is probably what happened. Always learning!

  2. I was almost in tears at this story! I love bird happy endings! Thanks for sharing, as always1

    • I was almost in tears watching them all take off. I’d really given up all hope of these birds having a successful nesting season!

  3. Yeah, success!! It gives me hope that the robins who nest every year in my mock orange and whose eggs are always raided by crows may someday manage to rear some nestlings to fledgling status. Your fledglings are awfully cute.
    Jean´s last post…Approaching High Summer: GBBD, July 2011

    • Jean, I hope your robins have the same success soon. As Anne suggested above, the fact this was their second clutch of the season, and quite late, probably helped these young ones survive. We’re conspiring to build some bird boxes to place under the eaves of our roof for next spring in the hopes they’ll use them and be successful next year too!

  4. Dear Clare, And congratulations to you on your new brood. As I read your story I was getting more and more anxious and I am so glad it had a happy ending! P. x
    Pam’s English Garden´s last post…English Cottage Garden Style for July GBBD

    • I didn’t even post the failure of the second nest this spring, because I didn’t want to publish such a depressing post. Like you, I’m thrilled this time we had a happy ending!

  5. Your photography antics remind me of my crazy antics as I have attempted to capture photos of our yard wildlife. This was fascinating. I was so hopeful that there would be success at the end, and I am so glad the little ones made it. Thanks for sharing…
    The Sage Butterfly´s last post…The Last Hurrah – GBBD – July 2011

    • I’ve been known to have to change my clothes as a result of laying in mud in the garden to get ‘that shot’. Or losing half a day of productivity because I’m lurking behind a shrub waiting for my subject to cooperate 😉 The things we do for pictures LOL!

      • Your photography is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Realizing that the photographer is what makes the photo exceptional, what camera and lens do you use? It surely can’t be a point-and-shoot!

        • Thanks. I’m using an old Nikon D200 DSLR. The fledgling photos were mostly taken with a 70-300mm 4.5-5.6 ED VR Nikkor lens.

          • In my humble opinion, you have mastered the Nikon SLR!

  6. Clare,

    They kept trying, that is a good thing! Glad there is a happy ending. I have seen this bird here in North Carolina, it was a rare bird and birders flocked to see it. If I’m right there is 2-3 records of Pacific Slope Flycatchers here in NC.
    Randy´s last post…101 degree day in the Carolinas!

  7. OMG, Clare – they are soooo adorable! I am super jazzed that these young ones have successfully fledged after the unhappy demise of the last two broods. Your photos and account of the trials & travails of this empid family make for a much better reality show than the average reality show out there! Keep up the excellent adventures!
    Camissonia´s last post…What’s up with the May grays & June gloom? Who cares, cuz it’s all about that ginormous gopher snake…

  8. We lost a clutch of sparrows last year to the neighbor’s cat. It totally broke our hearts. I’m glad you were able to see some babes successfully fledge.

  9. Hi Clare, I do love those eyebrows too! Isn’t it strange that the male parent landed on one of the fledglings? Do you think he was trying to hurry it off the nest somehow?
    GippyGardener´s last post…Garlic and the Clay Man.

  10. Obviously where we see some crazy unsuitable spot they see a desirable building plot. It does make you wonder how some species survive given their apparent incompetence regarding nest building. Glad to see yours made it into the big wide world.
    easygardener´s last post…Inter species co-operation

  11. Those baby birds are are adorable! I always enjoy your animal stories. I am glad this one, finally, had a happy ending.
    debsgarden´s last post…Chinese Pistache: A Gawky Adolescent Grows Up

  12. Great story, these are charming little birds and it sounds like they will be a big help in keeping the insect population at bay on the farm.
    Marguerite´s last post…Garden Wonders

  13. Littles!
    Really jaunty eyebrows…I had no idea! I like reading about all the nature dramas going on at your place, Clare, and it’s a shame we have to go when we’d like to stay and watch.
    Sue Langley´s last post…Wild Wyethias- sunflowers in the foothills

  14. I have a robin’s nest outside my office window that has repeatedly been raided. I have been watching the parents for two weeks and have not had the nerve to get in close to see what’s up. I am glad you checked in on the flycatchers. It was interesting to see the progress and good outcome.
    Donna´s last post…Garden Extraordinaire

  15. Hooray!!! I had a wren nest that was attacked, even though it was in a bird house. I still don’t know who/what the culprit is. Baby birds in the fluffy/fuzzy stage are so cute. I’m glad your fledglings made it! 🙂
    Casa Mariposa`´s last post…A Most Useful Plant

  16. I won’t even get started on the Stellar’s Jays, the dive bombers, bullies, the arrogant thieves… although they are beautiful. I am constantly shooing them away, but they don’t seem to care.

    Clare, I’m so tickled that the little ones found their wings. The photo of the eyebrows is simply the best!

    We are currently at 70, but totally cloud covered. I’ve even started more brassicas since we harvested the last of the cauliflower yesterday. And a week ago we finally had our first few ripe tomatoes and picked a few more yesterday, all Stupice. I only started 3 this year, one our daughter wanted, a niece another, and left me with one. Next year, 2 Stupice for me. Hope you are harvesting good things to eat.
    Diana´s last post…Full Buck Moon