In the bird world, things are not always what they seem. Or maybe I mean that some seem what they aren’t.
The bird above is a perfect example. It’s an Eastern Phoebe. I see that clearly now.
But when I first encountered it, I wasn’t so sure. I had gone out to the mailbox by the road to pick up the mail. My camera was slung around my neck because I wanted to get a photo of the caterpillar I’d seen on the milkweed. But I didn’t have my binoculars—I was, as they say, “birding naked.” (That means without binocs: I assure you I was fully clothed!) As I turned to carry my junkmail back up the drive, I spotted a bird perched on a neighbor’s gray-green century plant.
True, it was just where a phoebe was likely to be, but it was most definitely not pumping its tail as phoebes “always” do. I know they do that, and every field guide says the same. Furthermore, it was not a dark brown bird but rather a lightish brown one. The phoebes I see around here always seem pretty dark. At least that was my impression.
I downloaded the day’s photos to my computer but didn’t look at the one of my bird on the century plant until late that night. When I finally did, I had no idea what it was. I still didn’t think “phoebe” since I had (too) quickly ruled that out. Its head looked kind of big, and the crown was flat. I considered some kind of flycatcher. The photos did show those little rictal bristles around the bill. There was no crest visible. It seemed too big for a Willow flycatcher or some other empid. The more I looked at the photos, the more I thought it was something I hadn’t seen before. Remember it was late at night. Flipping through field guides, I started looking for flycatchers but nothing looked right. Finally I saw Peterson’s illustration of a female Rose-throated Becard. My sleepy brain (it was after midnight) thought that was a match! Oh happy day (or night, or wee hour of the morning)!
Of course it wasn’t. In the light of day I looked at the illustrations in other guides and saw that the color was all wrong and the cap wasn’t dark enough. My lovely becard faded with the morning light. And with a friend who said, what about Willow Flycatcher, size is the key. I replied that it was bigger than a Willow; it was the size of a phoebe.
That’s when it hit me. Of course it was the size of a phoebe. It was a phoebe! I googled images of phoebes and saw several that were almost identical to mine. A flat-headed phoebe that didn’t pump its tail even once. An ordinary, everyday Eastern Phoebe. Not a new yard bird or a visitor from Mexico.
Still, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? Clinging to the sharp thorny end of the century plant leaf, it was motionless, perhaps posing just for me.
A few hours later my friend emailed me to say she “didn’t want to burst my bubble” but my photo was of a phoebe. I didn’t tell her I had already figured that out. Bursting bubbles is what good friends are for.
I saw a phoebe today perched in a tree in the back yard. It was dark brown and pumped its tail ferociously. I laughed. The Eastern Phoebe is beginning to be one of my favorite birds.