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Black phoebe is no longer a local stranger

There are some birds you just don’t expect to see in winter.

Bullock’s orioles should be comfortably sipping orange juice to the dismay of orange growers in western Mexico. Lazuli buntings will be nearby in hedgerows bothering no one. Western tanagers and many of our warblers should all have joined the mountain trogons and tufted jays in the pine forests in the mountains above Mazatlan with only a few durable yellow-rumped warblers remaining locally to tough it out. If the winter turns bitter, the few remaining birds will head over the hill into California.

Then there are the flycatchers. They should all have hit the road long ago if they hope to find a decent meal. Autumn frosts in the Rogue Valley cleanse the air of flying insects. It was mid-August when the western kingbirds abandoned the area. Soon thereafter western wood pewees and olive-sided flycatchers began one of the longest migrations of any of our backyard birds. Many are now in the Andes of South America waiting patiently for the next juicy insect to fly by. 

There is one notable exception, however. There is one flycatcher that sticks it out through the winter in the Rogue Valley. If you wish to pay homage to this hardy soul, bundle up and take a morning walk along the Bear Creek Greenway. Almost any section of the bike path will do. Listen for the soft, friendly call note of the black phoebe. Most likely it will be perched in the open on a stick close to the water. The black hood and back and its white belly clearly mark this bird. If that is not enough, look for the short bushy crest and the bobbing tail.

The one place in the valley where you can find flying insects on a frozen winter morning is along our streams and rivers close to the water. It is here the black phoebe survives in style. Just a bit farther north, the phoebe becomes much less common or absent altogether. It’s a reminder of just how far south we are and just how mild our climate is.

Black phoebes weren’t always present in the Rogue Valley. As of 1940, the only known birds were a pair that nested under the bridge in the town of Applegate. Black phoebes build a nest of mud and grass upon something under cover and near water. A bridge fills the bill quite nicely. 

By the 1980s they could be found here and there along the Rogue River as well as the Applegate River and occasionally along other streams. Birders still considered it worthy of mention to others if they encountered one during the 1990s. By the turn of the century they had become common enough to be passed over by birders for more unusual finds.

Observers along the central Oregon coast and southern Willamette Valley treat black phoebes as we in Jackson County did 30 years ago, excited by each new find.

Because black phoebes are largely non-migratory, and the riparian areas have changed little in the Rogue Valley in the last 30 years or so, I can only conclude that black phoebes are responding to climate change.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

This black phoebe seems puffed up, perhaps because it's cold. Photo by Gordon Sherman / courtesy Audubon Canyon Ranch