During a recent Cactus Wren monitoring outing at the Starr Ranch National Audubon Sanctuary in Santa Margarita, I found a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers bringing food to their nestlings. The Ash-throated Flycatcher, Myiarchus cinerascens, is a common breeding species here in Orange County. It’s typically found in open woodlands, at the edge of scrub-land and in partially-wooded suburban settings. Ash-throats are medium-sized flycatchers, reaching up to 8.5 inches in length. Flycatchers of this genus are particularly handsome, with reddish webbing in the outer wing and tail feathers, a yellowish wash to the belly and gray throats set against a browner back, cheek and crown. Like many flycatchers, they have a crest that they can raise, giving them sort of a punk look (as in this shot), or smooth down for a round-headed appearance.
Ash-throated Flycatchers are cavity nesters: they require a nest hole, either natural, like a woodpecker hole or artificial, like a nest box. This pair is nesting in a hole in a massive old California sycamore (also called an “aliso”), which formed where a large branch broke off. The cavity in this tree is so deep that when the parent birds came in to feed their young, they disappeared entirely from view in the hole. Typically, the birds were quite conspicuous, hunting and perching on exposed branches and vocalizing frequently with their loud “chi-beeer!” calls. They were often surprisingly open about the location of their nest, flying in without hesitation and disappearing deep into the tree, to reappear later. These parents were quite attentive to their young, and rather successful foragers, as attested by the spider and unknown insect in their beaks. They were quite rude, frequently talking with their mouths full! But they were also cooperative, frequently posing on nearby perches and enabling my photography.
Ash-throated Flycatchers are the expected members of this genus in southern California, and here in Orange County, any other flycatcher in this genus would be considered a vagrant. That being said, at least four other members of this genus have been recorded in the county, including Dusky-capped (native to southeast Arizona), Brown-crested (mostly in southern Arizona and south Texas but with small breeding areas nearby, including Big Morongo Preserve), Great-crested (the common eastern Myiarchus flycatcher) and, most famously in the year 2000, a single occurrence of Nutting’s Flycatcher. Ash-throated Flycatchers are migratory, appearing between mid-March and the end of May and departing, from mid-August through September. Ash-throats over-winter in Orange County fairly regularly but are never common, averaging about one bird per year, according to “The Birds of Orange County California – Status and Distribution” by Hamilton and Willick.
These pictures were taken with the Leica digiscoping rig comprised of the D-Lux4 digital camera attached to the Apo-Televid 82 scope with the D-Lux4 digiscoping-adaptor. While somewhat slower to deploy than a regular digital camera and long lens, the large magnification of the Televid scope as a telephoto lens and high resolution of the D-Lux4 camera make for some great pictures. I snapped off perhaps 20 shots of these birds in the space of a few minutes, and while not all were of publication quality, only one wasn’t in sharp focus. With the camera set on aperture priority, the exposures were pretty much spot-on every time. I’m not a great photographer, but this rig allows me to fake it pretty well! And with spectacular and willing subjects like these gorgeous Ash-throated Flycatchers, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.