[Originally appeared in the Sierra Wave newsletter, Vol. 26, No. 5, May-Jun 2008 – click here for original with photos]

Western Kingbird, Photo by Jo Heindel

There are 400 species of Tyrant Flycatchers, family Tyrannidae, all found only in the New World. The kingbirds belong to the genus Tyrannus, one of fifty-two genera that make up the family. Ten species in Tyrannus are found in the U.S. and six of those have been reliably documented for Inyo County.

The most common kingbird in the Eastern Sierra is the Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis. It migrates throughout most of Inyo County and breeds annually in the Owens Valley towns and ranches as well as Deep Springs College. Arriving in April, they set up their territories in towns, often using electrical boxes as nest platforms, and in cottonwoods at ranches. They regularly begin singing before daylight with an electrical song that resembles a tape recorder playing on fast forward. Early in the breeding season they may sing all night long eliciting amazement from some people and anger from others. When they have nests with young they attack any and all birds, people, and cats and are vigorous defenders against much larger birds like jays, crows, ravens, and even hawks that try to predate their young. By September most have departed for their wintering grounds from Mexico to Costa Rica where the insect supply is bountiful. Don Nikolaus, a Big Pine old-timer, called this bird Bee Martin as a youth, since bees are a prime prey item in the Owens Valley.

The other breeding kingbird in Inyo County is the Cassins Kingbird, Tyrannus vociferans, which has bred at Deep Springs College but not annually. There are a few countywide reports of migrants in areas inappropriate for breeding but any sighting of this species is noteworthy and should be reported with substantiating details to the Eastern Sierra Birds website. During the fall when birds are molting, a kingbird without white outer tail feathers is not necessarily a Cassins since that is the time when a Western can lack the otherwise distinctive tail feathers. Attention should be directed at the contrast and colors of the cheek, throat, breast, back, and wings.

The Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus, unsurprisingly, is primarily an eastern kingbird but regularly wanders west and breeds in eastern Oregon and eastern Washington. There are over one hundred records for Inyo County with most birds reported mid May to early June.

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Tyrannus forficatus, is a kingbird since it is in the kingbird genus but for reasons known only to a few, and not us, its common name remains flycatcher. This species is found most regularly in southcentral U.S. but has been found twenty-one times in Inyo County with sixteen records between late April and early June and five scattered from late July to late October.

The Tropical Kingbird, Tyrannus melancholicus, is usually found in the New World tropics but has been recorded along the West Coast in fall and winter. There are two records for Inyo County with one at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley National Park, in late May and another photographed at Panamint Springs, Death Valley National Park, in mid September.

The Thick-billed Kingbird, Tyrannus crassirostris, a tropical species usually found from Mexico to southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, made it to Inyo County once. Its appearance in Lone Pine on 24 December 1991 was a very fancy Christmas present for the many birders who saw it. No one could have predicted that it was going to remain through 1 April 1992 since the insects it normally eats disappear during the winter. The temperatures dropped into the teens but it survived by snuggling up to a nearby greenhouse for added, although not tropical, warmth and when the ambient temperature increased a little it would fly out to a perch over a bee hive and wait for the bees to exit the hive to drink nectar out of a dish placed at the edge of the hive. Few bees made it to the dish, much less back inside!

Two other kingbirds have been reported in the state, each only one time. A Couchs Kingbird wintered in southern California and a Fork-tailed Flycatcher spent early September in Sonoma County (another Fork-tailed sighting in Sutter County is under review by the California Rare Birds Committee). Needless to say, the phones will be ringing off their hooks if any kingbird, other than the expected species, shows up in the Eastern Sierra!

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