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Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher. Photo: Dan Pancamo

This episode of Nature Notes was previously aired on January 17, 2013.

Vermilion flycatchers are found year around at stock tanks and other places with permanent water in the region, especially to the south of the Llano Estacado, but a few nest on the southern end of the plateau. For the last 4 years two have wintered at the Sibley Nature Center. Two are now present at the Center, and have been seen for almost a month, so they are expected to remain until March, as before.

Like all flycatchers, the vermilion feeds on insects caught on the wing. This bird often hunts near the water surface. Undigested materials are ejected in pellets.

They also alight on the ground to catch grasshoppers and then return to a perch to process the prey and eat it. The male often feeds the female while she is on the nest. The female builds the nest and incubates the egg. He never helps with those tasks, but he feeds the first brood while she incubates the second set of eggs.

This species is unusual among flycatchers in that the sgenders are differently colored. Vermilion flycatchers justify their Spanish name, “Brasita de fuego,” or “Little coal of fire.” The male Vermilion Flycatcher has a brilliant red crown and under parts which are contrasted by the black back. The female Vermilion Flycatcher has a bright yellow under part with a brown back. With binoculars or a good zoom camera lens, an observer may notice that the short, somewhat wide beak, has a slight hook at the end, enabling it to hold on to its squiggling prey until it can return to its favorite perch and smack it a few times on the branch to subdue it.

The male courtship display is stunning. The male will swoop from a height of up to 50 feet, then call while it frantically beats its wings and flutters downward. The nest site is chosen based on the display of the male. He flies to potential nesting sites and gives a soliciting call to the nearby females, encouraging them to look. They fly to each site, crouch, and make nest forming movements while letting out a chatter call. They also flutter their wings during this display.

The nest site chosen by the female is usually within 200 yards of the male’s preferred nest site. The female will often ignore the displaying male, but when she decides to accept, she and the male will land at different potential nest sites in a crouching position. They will display side by side. The male will retreat when he observes that the female is starting the nest construction. The construction begins almost immediately after the female chooses the site. The male often seeks to initiate copulation by delivering a butterfly or another large insect to the female.

The vermilion flycatcher typically perches quite conspicuously in open areas, often dipping its tail up and down. Its calls include a distinctive ‘peent’, given by both the male and female, and a musical song given by the male during display flights.

Vermilion flycatchers live in appropriate habitat from Peru north to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  The regular presence in winter of vermilion flycatchers in Louisiana and elsewhere on the northern Gulf Coast is not easy to explain. To reach Louisiana in fall these little flycatchers must, as a minimum, move more than a eight hundred miles eastward when most birds are moving south.

Vermilion flycatchers are rarely seen in towns in West Texas, seeming to prefer remote locations. Although it’s a beautiful bird, few residents of the region are familiar with it and its behavior.

Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams of the  Sibley Nature Center.

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