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Living Sanibel: Great crested flycatcher, gray kingbird

By Staff | Jun 1, 2016

Great crested flycatcher. PHOTO BY BEV POSTMUS

Great Crested Flycatcher

The great crested flycatcher inhabits the treetops and is seldom found in the understory and virtually never on the ground. Unlike its cousins, the eastern and gray kingbirds, it does not like perching on telephone lines. It sits on high exposed limbs and sallies out to catch insects in midair. Although it has been known to eat some seeds and berries, the majority of its diet consists of flying insects.

This bird has benefited, as has the white-tailed deer, from forest fragmentation, and it is thriving within its rather large range. It migrates as far south as Central America, and its numbers across Florida increase dramatically during the cooler winter months.

The great crested flycatcher is unusual in that its nest usually contains at least some crinkly material, formerly snakeskin, but now commonly plastic wrappers, cellophane, or onion skins. No one has really ever been able to explain this strange behavior. It is a cavity nester and will readily occupy an old woodpecker nesting hole or sometimes take to man-made bird boxes. The nests are preyed upon by other birds, snakes, and tree-climbing mammals. Because of its flying prowess, the adult is seldom targeted by falcons.

Gray Kingbird

Gray Kingbird. PHOTO PROVIDED

A neo-tropical species, the gray kingbird is a fairly common sighting here during the summer. It is unusual in that it comes only as far north as Florida to nest. It is fond of perching on power lines, and that is the most likely place to find one. It is also comfortable hanging around baseball fields and golf courses.

It looks similar to the eastern kingbird, which has the same migration pattern, but continues all the way north to the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada. Both birds are mostly gray, but the eastern kingbird displays dark black on the head and back, while the gray kingbird is gray throughout these areas. Whereas the eastern kingbird has a white tip on its black tail, the gray kingbird is solid black. At a distance, these two are easy to confuse.

The gray kingbird eats mostly insects while in Florida, but returns to fruits and berries once it heads back to the Amazon basin for the winter. It aggressively defends its range, as well as its nest. It has been known to shag off large hawks, crows, and blue jays and does not show any fear of these enemies. The kingbird is taken by a vast array of South American predators, especially large hawks and snakes, but the adult has few natural enemies in Florida.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.