Unless you have ever gone birding in the desert southwest, you have not likely seen, or even heard of, a shiny black bird with a crest, called a Phainopepla. Phainopeplas belong to a small family of Neotropical birds called Silky Flycatchers, of which only one of lives in the United States. Another family member, the Gray Silky Flycatcher, lives in Mexico and occasionally visits our country. The closest North American relative is thought to be the waxwings.
The reason for writing about this southwestern bird is that one was seen in Gillespie County just before dusk on Christmas Day visiting a backyard water feature. The bird was not seen the next day, or since. This event is important because the first and last reported sighting in the Kerrville area was in February, 1895. Mark Lockwood in his book, The Birds of the Texas Hill Country, reports that a specimen was collected in Kerrville that year. Lockwood also reports that the bird has been sighted in the western fringes of the Edwards Plateau, the closest sighting in the Devil’s River area.
My column is being used as a rare bird alert in the Hill Country for this straggler from the west. If you see what appears to be slender black Northern Cardinal with a red eye, prominent white wing patches and a long tail, please notify me immediately, as I would like to document it with a photograph. Please photograph it, if you have a camera available. It might not wait for me to show up. I have included one of my photographs from Arizona for your perusal.
Phainopeplas can be seen regularly in Davis Mountains State Park near Fort Davis in the summer months. The bird likes of perch in the very tops of trees from which it can spot and chase a nearby flying insect for its next meal. Phainopeplas prefer arid mesquite woodland habitat where its favorite food, mistletoe berries, are common. If you have trees with mistletoe berries, this visitor may be present enjoying a feed. The Phainopepla may have to fight the Northern Mockingbird to gain access to the berries, but it would not likely be the first altercation between these two species.
One of the interesting and seemingly unique behaviors of Phainopeplas is that they breed in two habitats in the same year. Their first breeding territory is in the desert scrub in the early spring before the heat becomes too intense. After raising its first family in the desert lowlands, it moves to surrounding mountain ranges for its second try to raise a second family. These mountains that pop up in the middle of the desert regions are known as “sky islands” where summer rains produce a more lush vegetation cover in cooler temperatures.
I am not sure why this bird came calling to the Hill Country, but one possibility is that the very strong winds we had just before Christmas may have pushed the bird eastward. Another factor might be a lack of berry fruit this winter in the Desert Southwest, but during my visits this past summer indicated ample rains were present.
I hope all of my readers will keep an eye out for finding this unusual visitor to our region. That a sighting has not occurred here in the past one hundred twenty years is a good starting reason to make a search. In addition to seeing the birds using tops of tall trees as perching sites, I have often seen these birds using power lines as sites from which to take sallies out in pursuit of a possible insect meal. Thanks for your help in searching for the slender black cardinal.