Pink and white lotuses and yellow water lilies filled the ponds that dot the verdant landscape. The serene landscape had drawn us back to this peaceful spot countless times. The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, DC, always soothe away my troubles and leave me with a profound sense of calm. This year was no different.
I found myself gazing at the blossoms when a clear, slurred “pee-a-wee” ended my reverie. I know the bird by its song, but I pulled up the binoculars to find it in the trees.
“Pee-a-wee” again issued from a nearby tree line. Aided by its frequent song, I found it quickly. Perched on a dead branch about 20 feet off the ground, the eponymous Eastern wood pewee (Contopus virens) wanted all to know that this territory belonged to it. I love its call, and I can never resist looking its way.
Flycatchers are notoriously hard to identify in the field. Variations among species are subtle and many species geographically overlap. The pewee is easier to identify than most of its relatives, but not for the usual reasons.
At 6 inches long, it is about average for a flycatcher. The coloring is drab: grayish olive-brown above with a dull white throat. The sides are dusky and form an ill-defined “vest” across the pewee’s middle. The tail is long and forked. At rest, the wings reach back to cover two-thirds of the tail. The belly is off-white or perhaps tinged with yellow.
Pewees have a slightly raised crown, no eye-rings (many flycatchers do), and bicolored bills with black on top and yellow on the lower mandibles. There is no bright splash of color or distinctive pattern visible.
The lack of distinguishing marks is itself a diagnostic tool. If it looks anything but drab, it’s probably another species.
Habitat can also be helpful in identification. Pewees tend to perch on a dead branch halfway up a tree. The lack of foliage gives the bird a clearer view of its surroundings, including the flying insects that are its dietary staple. Pewees sally off the exposed branch to snatch insects on the wing. They return to their perch or a similar one nearby. Other flycatchers typically occupy higher (great crested flycatcher) or lower (Acadian flycatcher) perches in the woods.
Behavior, too, can be a clue. The pewee looks somewhat like the Eastern phoebe, but unlike that bird, it doesn’t wag its tail constantly.
I have found that the best way to identify the bird is by its distinctive voice. Its “pee-a-wee” is unique. Luckily, pewees sing all summer long and throughout much of each day. If you hear it call its name, all of the usual identification clues become superfluous.
Although its numbers have declined by half since the 1960s, pewees are still widespread in the Eastern United States. The decline may be linked to habitat loss or even the explosion of white-tail deer, which eat so much of the preferred understory in forests. Pewees are usually seen in open woods or forest edges, but you might find them in parks, small woodlots and many other locales.
The eastern wood pewee breeds almost exclusively in the United States. About 5 percent breed in Canada, chiefly around the Great Lakes region. Pewees arrive in the Chesapeake watershed in May and a few birds will stay into October. Although they spend five months in the breeding area, they only produce a single brood of two to four fledglings annually.
Every winter they leave the continent entirely, spending their time in the forests of northwest South America.
The pewee we heard and saw in the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens was typical of its species. Leaping off a dead branch in mid canopy, it snatched a winged insect in flight before alighting in the same spot. Our binoculars captured a visually unremarkable brown bird scanning anew for its next meal.
The aquatic gardens are home to dozens of species, from turtles and frogs to snakes and raccoons. There are hawks and the occasional bald eagle soaring overhead. Egrets and herons are regulars, including great blue, little blue and green. Songbirds are plentiful. Indigo buntings, various warblers, and orioles frequent this lovely unit of the National Park Service.
Amid this splendid display of aquatic plants and birds of every color and shape, the anonymous pewee continued to sing.
As I watched the flycatcher, I heard the clear voice of a creature saying, “Here I am. Don’t just look at the beautiful birds. We plain ones deserve a look as well!”
Throughout my life, I have known the pewee’s human counterparts. The unknown bureaucrat, the nameless store clerk, the unremarkable stranger on the street.
All have their own voices hidden behind drab exteriors. In the pewee’s song, I hear them all, and it is a captivating chorus.