Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens)
Point Reyes Lighthouse
Marin County, California
22 June 1998
This morning, the Bodega Weather Buoy reported light southerly winds and there was a nice marine cloud layer inviting the possibility of vagrants along the outer coast.
I headed for Point Reyes arriving at the Mendoza Ranch to be greeted by a beautiful singing male Chestnut-sides Warbler. A brief stop at the Nunes Ranch yielded only a Western Wood-Pewee and a singing male Common Yellowthroat. I met up with Tony Battiste and we headed out to the lighthouse where we found an out-of-place Band-tailed Pigeon and an Ash-throated Flycatcher. Just as we were leaving, I heard a high sharp, insistent "chip" coming from the trees. Expecting that it might be coming from the baby Brown-headed Cowbird I looked up and was astonished to see a wood-pewee making this vocalization. I could see the lower mandible was all pale orange and I immediately called it an Eastern Wood-Pewee. I could see the pale throat and I could see the throat move every time the bird called. Tony took a couple of photographs from below in bad light that will probably not show much (photo added 29 June 1998 came out better than expected). We walked up the adjacent hill to get a better view, but something chased the pewee off and it headed over the cliff to the south. I felt surprisingly confident in the identification and headed for the lighthouse pay-phone to call the Bird Box. I also left phone messages with Rich Stallcup and Keith Hansen alerting them of the bird. When I returned the sad news was that the bird had not returned and that Rich Stallcup had come and gone without seeing it.
We then headed for Nunes to look for a Bobolink that Rich had seen but we couldn't find it. Then we went to the Fish Docks to look for a Rose-breasted Grosbeak Rich had seen but we couldn't find that either. Tony had a brief view of a Red-eyed Vireo there. Rich and Tony left the point and I headed back to the lighthouse to see if anything new had come in. All I saw was the Ash-throated Flycatcher again, but as I was leaving, I heard a high thin flat whistled "pewee" coming from the top of the trees. I climbed the hill and immediately found the Eastern Wood-Pewee flycatching from the bare branches near the top of these stunted Monterey Cypresses. Then it sang "Peee" (rising) "weee" (slightly descending - two-parted song). Over the next hour I was able to study the bird at close range and listen to it vocalize repeatedly while I took a some notes. Other vocalizations included a two-parted "peee-your" (rising and descending) and twice it gave a rising "pweeee" call. All of these calls were clear pure rather high-pitched whistles. But the most common call was an almost incessant, sharp high-pitched series of "plit" notes. I spent a lot of time trying to describe this note. I started out calling it "chip" and then "pleak" and finally settled on "plit." This call reminded me a little of the high "eek" note given by Rose-breasted Grosbeak, but otherwise I could think of nothing similar. It was very distinctive.
I also had plenty of time to study the plumage. The following description is based on notes made while watching the bird:
It was an obvious pewee; a small flycatcher about the size of adjacent White-crowned Sparrows. It was gray above, whitish below with an indistinct gray chest band. It showed no obvious eye-ring. It had two whitish wing-bars. Its crown was rather flat, but it showed a few shaggy feathers on the nape, giving just a suggestion of a crest. At no time did it pump or flick its tail.
The bill was flat and triangular in shape, with a small hook at the tip of the dark maxilla. The lower mandible was completely yellow-orange including the sides of the bill (lips) and the tip. This feature was checked repeatedly viewing the bird from the side where the all pale lower mandible could be clearly seen. The mouth lining was a very bright orange.
The eye was dark, with a slightly paler fuzzy area in the lores and a paler gray crescent behind the eye. These pale areas were visible only at close range and only when looked-for. They did not impart the appearance of an eye-ring.
The face and crown were darker gray contrasting somewhat with a pale extension from the white chain and throat which projected up the side of the neck. The white throat connected via a white line down through the grayish wash on the breast, usually appearing to connect to the pale belly, but sometimes stopping mid-breast depending on the position of the breast feathers. The pale area on the belly sometimes appeared to have a faint yellowish tint, visible only when the bird was well lit against the trees and even then, almost indiscernible. There was faint gray spotting on the flanks, and the whole underparts had variable feather texturing which may have been caused by the feathers being somewhat fluffed up most of the time.
The back was gray, with a noticeable olive tint. The rump and uppertail coverts were slightly paler and more neutral gray in color.
The wings were the same color as the upperparts. They showed a long primary projection and extended about half way down the tail.. In flight the wing linings appeared very pale, almost whitish with a slight tinge of yellowish. The marginal coverts were invariably concealed behind loose body feathers so they could not be seen while the bird was perched. The two wing-bars were formed by pale grayish-tan tips and outer webs of the greater and median coverts. These feather tips appeared somewhat worn, and the wing-bar pattern was somewhat scalloped because of breaks in the wing-bar along the inner web of each feather. The secondaries and tertials had narrow whitish fringing, with the innermost tertial showing a slightly broader fringe.
The undertail coverts were fairly long and unmarked whitish-gray. The gray tail had a slightly notched appearance at the tip caused by the shapes of the outermost rectrices when seen from below. However all rectrices were the same length. While preening, the narrow outer webs of the outermost rectrices were whitish and translucent along their proximal 85% or so.
The legs and feet were dark.
This is the second Eastern Wood-Pewee I have seen in California; the first being in August 1983 at San Joaquin City. However there have been an exceptional number of possibles and probables in California this spring. I am aware of one that was voice recorded at Bodega Bay in early June; a possible photographed in Monterey in April; calling birds in Kern and Placer counties in June; and another earlier possible sighting at the Point Reyes Lighthouse this month.
Identification of this species is notoriously difficult unless they sing. However identification may be possible in certain extreme cases with calling or silent birds. To this end there has been some recent discussion on pewee identification on the "Frontiers of Field Identification" mailing list prompted by a silent bird photographed in Monterey.
In this case I never entertained any doubt about the identification, but I had considerable doubt about whether I could convince anybody else. When the bird finally sang several times I hoped that would clinch it for even the most skeptical. Also I'll bet that "plit" call-note is probably diagnostic. It was given at approximately 2-3 second intervals and I have never heard anything like it from Western Wood-Pewee. In fact none of the vocalizations from this bird resembled those of Western Wood-Pewee. One problem stems from some Westerns giving a downslurred "peeeu" note under certain circumstances. This bird gave single upslurred notes, and two-parted songs with the second part downslurred. I believe all the vocalizations were typical of Eastern Wood-Pewee and I also feel that the appearance of the bird was completely typical of Eastern Wood-Pewee. I think the chances of an odd Western Wood-Pewee giving these vocalizations and showing this appearance are vanishingly small.
Additional Comments - Added 29 June 1998; corrected 5 August 1998
The bird was seen again the next day by Rich Stallcup. An additional spring report of a singing bird was from the Kern River Preserve by Steve Laymon seen and heard 27 June 1998.
380 Talbot Avenue #206
Pacifica, CA 94044