Brock Ranch Experimental Research Station
Imperial County, California
23 January 1999
Robbie Fischer and I decided to try for various rarities known to be at the South End of the Salton Sea, including the Greater Pewee at Brock Ranch. We got a late start, arriving at Brock Ranch about 20 miles east of Holtville about 11:30am. From the freeway, I noticed several birders looking at something through a scope. As we drove up, it turned out to be Dan Stoebel, Peter Willman and one other person whose name I didn't get. Dan had the bird in his scope, but as soon as we got out of the car the bird flew and disappeared for a few minutes. Soon Robbie relocated the bird in an adjacent tree and we spent the next half hour watching the bird through scopes as it moved east through the eucalyptus trees on either side of the freeway exit. Eventually we lost track of the bird. We never saw it near the bee-hives where it had been found by Michael Patten on 24 December 1998 and where it had been seen by most observers ever since.
The following description is based on notes made while watching the bird:
A fairly large Contopus flycatcher recalling Olive-sided Flycatcher, but with a longer tail, much more peaked crest, and closed vest.
Occasionally the bird gave a "pip-pip" call when perched and once gave the same call in mid-flight. This call was similar to that of Olive-sided Flycatcher, but was more musical in tone, and was invariably doubled. Olive-sided usually gives this call three times.
The bill was quite long and flat, triangular in shape with a slight hook at the tip. The lower mandible was entirely pale all the way to the tip while the upper mandible was dark.
The face was gray, slightly paler than the pointed crest, but darker than a diffuse pale gray area in the lores. At first I thought there was a narrow whitish crescent behind the eye but closer views revealed that the mark behind the eye was slightly pointed or almond-shaped, recalling the pattern on a Western Flycatcher. Nevertheless, this marking was inconspicuous and from a distance the bird did not appear to have an eye-ring.
The throat was very pale gray, contrasting with the somewhat darker gray breast. The gray of the breast extended down the sides and flanks forming a closed-vested appearance. This contrasted with the pale belly and undertail coverts which were strongly washed with yellowish.
The tail was long and dark with a square tip, although at some angles the tip appeared slightly notched.
The tertials and inner secondaries were fringed with pale gray while the greater and median wing-coverts were tipped with a brownish-gray. Thus the wing-bars were rather faint, and not as prominant as the tertial and secondary fringes. The primary projection was quite long with the wing-tip extending a third to half way down the tail depending on the angle of view and the position of the wing. I was able to count 5-6 black primaries beyond the folded tertials. I believe the longest two primaries (8th and 9th?) were about equal. Extremely narrow pale fringes were visible at the tips of the 2-3 shortest visible primaries. The ground color of the wings were quite dark and in some light appeared to have a brownish cast.
The upperparts were medium gray, slightly paler on the rump and around the nape and sides of the neck.
The legs and feet were dark.
The bird was quite active and conspicuous during the time of observation, often hawking for insects directly over our heads. The sky was clear and there was no wind. The light was generally good, although the bird spent most of its time on the south side of the frontage road, thus placing itself in shadow or backlighting at times. Viewing was mostly through my KOWA TSN-4 spotting scope.
This is the third Greater Pewee I have seen in California. The first was at New Brighton State Beach in Santa Cruz County during winter 1975-76. The second was at Union City in Alameda County during winter 1984-85.