I staked my claim to a small piece of the Hill Country in 1992 when I purchased a property just a few miles west of Fredericksburg. I retired here in1994, and one of the first priorities was to record the names of birds with whom I would be sharing my place; many species were different from my previous properties in Texas. For the first ten years I was kept busy adding names to the list; however, the last five years the numbers of new birds dwindled to an average of fewer than one per year. Being a birder for so many years, I kept a sharp eye on every bird I saw to make sure it was not new addition.
Last week while working on removing a huge native pecan tree that toppled over into Live Oak Creek near my low-water crossing, I saw a bird land only a few yards away while chasing bugs near the edge of the creek. I did not have my binoculars or my camera, so I had to sit very still while I studied the characteristics to make the identification. My first impression was that it was an Eastern Phoebe that commonly is seen in this area of the creek. I was completely sure that it was a flycatcher, but things didn’t match the Eastern Phoebe. The more I convinced myself that this bird was not what I initially thought it was, the more excited I became.
The bird was less than 15 feet away, so I didn’t need binoculars to see what I needed to make a determination of its name. It seemed to have rufous-colored flanks similar to a female Vermilion Flycatcher, but its breast was clear of any markings; a female Vermilion Flycatcher has light buffy breast with narrow streaking and a narrow light colored eye line. Eastern Phoebes do not have any brown or reddish tint in their flanks, I felt confident it was neither of these flycatchers.
The bird made a pass at some insects flying near the edge of the creek and I focused on the color of the flanks and under tail coverts. Without binoculars I could see that the flanks and under tail coverts were a tawny color, and the top of the tail was dark gray to black with white edges. This revelation pointed to a Say’s Phoebe, a rather uncommon bird in Gillespie County and one that frequents drier brushy habitats and not creek bottoms. It was getting much more exciting as a Say’s Phoebe would be an new bird for my place.
Without a field guide to consult, I started think about my past experience with Say’s Phoebes, a bird much more common to the west of the Hill Country. I considered what I remembered about seeing this bird often during trips to West Texas. This bird appeared lighter gray than what my memory was flashing in my mind, but plumages can vary, so its lighter color was not a deal breaker. The thin black bill, the dark to black tail with thin white edges and tawny coloration of the rear underside plumage were solid ID markers. Phoebes are known for their tail-bobbing behavior, but this bird was not making a big effort to bob its tail. Hmmm!
On some occasions, phoebes don’t seem to be bobbing their tails. I was confident it was a phoebe, even if the markers and behavior were not true to what is commonly observed. The bird made another pass at the bugs on the water’s edge and all of my thoughts I had about the bird remained positive. I didn’t see the bird again after its last sally for bugs. It was getting near dusk, so I gave up the chase and decided to go to the house go through my bird field guides and photos.
I checked several of my favorite field guides and my own photos of Say’s Phoebes. My photos of known Say’s Phoebes were very close to the bird visiting my creek. The plumage was consistent with the field guides, leaving the behavior and location possible areas of concern regarding confirmation as to this bird’s identity. My analysis was good enough to confirm that I could add my141st bird to my place list. In addition to being proud of my new discovery, I hope my process of making a call of identification will be helpful as you try to identify a bird you might not have seen before.