The Western Wood-Pewee by Lisa Densmore
Location: Tongue River, Montana
My mother is a “snow bird”, a person who lives in the northeastern United States, two hours from the Canadian border to be exact. Every year, in early November, she migrates south to avoid the snow and cold. She returns each spring to the North Country to her traditional nest, the house where my brother and I grew up. Her imminent departure for the tropics reminds me of another snow bird that is likely winging south for the winter, the Western Wood-Pewee.
Despite their gray backs and lack of colorful hues, Western Wood-Pewees (Contopus sordidulus) are cute little fly-catchers that spend the fairer days of year in North America, as far north as east-central Alaska. They are common in airy forests and along river banks across the west, which is the setting in which I saw this one.
On day last August, I parked my car under a towering cottonwood tree in a picnic area by the Tongue River in southeastern Montana, seeking shade from the midday sun. I usually find it difficult to spot birds among leaf-laden branches, but this bold little pewee, which may have stretched to six inches long and tipped the scales at a half ounce, ignored my intrusion and flitted about its business. I enjoyed watching him fly here and there, likely nabbing a mosquito or fly with his black-tipped beak before returning to his perch on a bare branch about 15 feet above the ground.
He seemed identical to the Eastern Wood-Pewees I’ve seen until he opened his mouth. Eastern wood pewees call their name, “pee-ah-wee. Western ones emit an abrasive “peer” as if the last bug they swallowed went down the wrong tube.
I imagine the cottonwood tree has dropped its leaves by now, and, like other “snow birds”, this little fellow has headed to a tropical forest in Ecuador or Peru for the winter.