Seldom seen but always appreciated are Great Crested Flycatchers who perch high and wait diligently while bobbing their heads in all directions in search of summer insects that vulnerably flit among foliage. Flycatchers may drop or crash into a bush to seize a bug but usually feed high by catching their prey on the wing. They are also capable of stopping abruptly in midflight to hover over an insect covered leaf or tree limb, picking them off like . . . . . well, you know. As their name suggests, Great Crested Flycatchers are primarily insectivores and one would think that flies are their staple food source, but flies make up only a small percentage of its diet. GCFs prefer butterflies, moths, spiders, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, bees, wasps and sometimes small lizards. When admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, usually as nestlings who have been displaced by bad weather or predator nest attack, their diet will consist of meal worms mainly, which is a great protein substitute for what they might grab and go in the wild. They also enjoy small portions of fruits and berries which they consume whole, and the pits or seeds are regurgitated later, occasionally quite a few at one time. They are usually very cooperative birds in the nursery who eagerly snatch meal worms from tweezers when offered, and their vocalizations are quite soothing compared to the shrillness of baby Cardinals or Mockingbirds! Flycatchers sing a fairly low-pitched, three-part song of “wheerreep, whee” and end with a soft, low “churr.” They also have an alarm sound, like most birds do when stressed, that is a series of a fast and higher pitched “huit, huit, huit.” Great Crested Flycatchers are reddish-brown-gray above, with a brownish-gray head, gray throat and breast, and bright to subdued lemon-lime belly. The brown upperparts are highlighted by rufous-orange flashes in the primary and tail feathers. The black bill, which is fairly wide at the base and flanked by black whiskers, sports a bit of pale color as an adult. They have a powerful build for a medium size song bird with broad shoulders and a large head with a crest that is not prominent and somewhat underwhelming compared to that of a Blue Jay. GCF’s do not display sexual dimorphism like Cardinals, Bluebirds and House Finches do. The male and female GCF look the same in color and size, so it’s easier to tell the girls from the boys by observing their behaviors rather than their physical appearance. Adult Great Crested Flycatchers are about the size of an American Robin and usually measure between 6.7 – 8.3 inches in length with a wingspan around 13 inches and weigh in between .95 – 1.41 ounces. Although slight in weight, the GCF is a mighty insect predator! Flycatchers don’t seem to be too romantic when it comes to finding a mate. Courtship and the mating ritual may only involve a tenacious male swooping after a female in and among the trees until she finally gives up the chase. So, they are not flashy and over the top with courtship displays but what they do counts because they are monogamous throughout breeding season and for years to come. Great Crested Flycatchers live in woodlots and open woodland, particularly among deciduous trees. Nesting occurs mid-April and the nest site is usually a hole in a tree, either a natural cavity or an old woodpecker hole found 20-50′ above the ground. Great Crested Flycatchers are the only Eastern flycatchers who nest in cavities, but they may also choose man-made sites such as birdhouses, nest boxes, drainpipes or hollow fence posts. Both sexes help build their nest, although it has been observed that the female constructs the majority of the nest while the male stands watch. They carry in large amounts of material to bring the nest level up close to the entrance of the cavity. The nest foundation is made of grass, weeds, strips of bark, animal fur, rootlets, moss, feathers or other debris and lined with finer materials. GCF’s have the odd habit of weaving in or lining their nest with pieces of shed snakeskin, and sometimes they add onion skins or pieces of litter such as clear plastic wrappers. The male defends the couple’s nesting territory with loud calls and if that doesn’t work, he may have to fight other males. Great Crested Flycatchers lay a single clutch of 4-6 creamy white to pale buff eggs, marked with splotches of brown, olive and lavender, per breeding season. The eggs are incubated for about two weeks by the female only. Both parents will bring food for the hatchlings for the next 12 – 18 days. Around 18-20 days after hatching is about the time the youngsters experience their first flight. Nestlings rarely return to breed near where they were born, but once yearlings have chosen a breeding area, they often return to that same area year after year. The Great Crested Flycatcher is a bird of the treetops. It spends very little time on the ground and does not hop or walk. It prefers to fly from place to place close to the ground rather than walk. So, if you are trying to locate one based upon their distinctive, rolling call, you should probably look up! Great Crested Flycatchers live along the edges between habitats, so they don’t need big stretches of unbroken forest canopy to thrive. This is a rare occasion when logging and development practices that increase forest fragmentation actually work to a bird’s advantage, rather than in sharp contrast to other birds that dwell deep within the forest. Although GCF’s breed in most regions of the United States, they are migratory birds who, when the temperatures drop in Autumn, head south to Florida and Cuba, as well as, Mexico and South America. The oldest recorded Great Crested Flycatcher was at least 14 years, 11 months old when it was found in Vermont way back in 1967. It had been banded in New Jersey in 1953. These little birds can be around for quite a long time barring troublesome hawks who give them the stink eye and loss of habitat or insect food sources. Insects procreate in crazy numbers, especially pesky flies!! It’s a good feeling to know that these ‘great’ little Flycatchers are out their making our world a better place!
author of “Save Them All”