Scissor-Tails of Summer

July 19, 2020 ~ One of the most graceful birds here during the summertime is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

I found this fellow near Frenchtown Rd, in Point Bolivar on Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, about 3 weeks ago. He sat still for me as I initially shot from the driver’s seat out the passenger window then crawled out of the car and used first the roof and then the trunk lid to support my heavy 200-500mm lens.

Adult male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher looking pristine
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 640 at 500mm, supported on car
(Remember that you can click to enlarge any image in a new window; close that window to return here.)
Range map for Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, courtesy of All About Birds

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) is found in North and Central America, and is seen here along the Gulf Coast throughout the breeding season. They are a small graceful bird with a long elegant tail. Adults have longer tails than the juveniles; the adult males have the longest tails, and more intense coloring that the females. The lovely coloring shown above is typical of photos posted by bird watchers, but as you will see below, there is some color variation. The “Tyrannus” in his scientific name is due to the fact that these birds have been observed vigorously defending their nests and territories against much larger birds.

A pair of Scissor-tail Flycatchers with two juveniles have been regular visitors to our steamy back yard west of Houston for the past couple of days. Their silhouettes are instantly recognizable, and their flight pattern is swooping and aerobatic as they pursue flying insects. The male wind-milled a bit getting his balance, showing off his apricot armpits. Ha. The scientific term for that is “salmon under-wing coverts”, but my description is a bit more direct, don’t you think?

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, female on left, male on the right
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 200, handheld

Their preferred food is large fleshy insects such as dragonflies, grasshoppers and beetles, supplemented by smaller insects including bees, wasps and mosquitos, and occasionally berries. The long whiskers around the base of their beak aid in catching insects in flight.

Juvenile Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, not quite sure what to do about this prey, a honey bee
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800, handheld

One of the juveniles swooped off the wire in pursuit of an adult with a bug. The adult kept flying away by short distances, encouraging the youngster to follow, exercising his wings.

Juvenile showing off those handsome new feathers
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800, handheld

Dinner, in this case, is the Red Wasp, or Paper Wasp (Polistes metricus). It is common in our urban area, building nests under the cross-ties on wooden fences, under the eaves of houses, under porch railings. Wasps might not be preferred, but you eat what’s on hand, right? Note the worn tail feathers on the hard-working adult.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher bringing home the groceries
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800, handheld

This photo is one of a long series taken facing into the setting sun, and reaching out to see these small birds over 150 feet away. But the action was exciting! An adult bird perched on the curved wire, and the juvenile flew right past the Paper Wasp to beg from his parent. The wasp hovered, appearing in several photos both before and after this one. The parent finally swooped over and snatched the wasp, then landed on the main wire to hammer the bug. The juvenile quickly followed, and then the second juvenile squeezed in, landing between the parent and the first juvenile, screaming to be fed. What an uproar!

Just for documentary purposes, one in a series of hunting and feeding photos
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f6.3 ISO 800, handheld

Later, one of the juveniles sat and begged, while the adult flew away and returned with another big wasp. The adult spent several minutes beating the wasp against the wire, thoroughly subduing and tenderizing it for the youngster, hopping along the wire, with the youngster sticking close, keeping a watchful eye on his meal. Finally, he was given his dinner.

Dinner time!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800, handheld

But instead of swallowing it, the youngster flew a short distance with his prize clearly visible in his mouth. The second juvenile flew in to challenge possession of the wasp, and there was a vigorous contest of hopping along the wire and swooping short flights as the young birds worked their way down the line. Finally, the adult swooped in with another wasp for the second juvenile. This one also required a lot of bashing and repositioning before it could be swallowed.

Juvenile Scissor-tailed Flycatcher with Paper Wasp
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800, handheld

What’s a meal without dessert? Here, an adult flew high into the row of trees behind our back fence and collected a ripe Peppervine berry. The Peppervine (Ampelopsis arborea) is a woody vine related to grapes (but not edible by humans!). Vines of over 65 feet in length have been documented. Peppervine will be recognized by my Gulf Coast readers as a constant weedy plague in our gardens. I’ve seen Mockingbirds, Blue Jays and Cardinals, as well as these Scissor-tails, feasting on the berries… and of course, depositing the seeds (2 to 4 per berry) under every available perch.

Scissor-tail Flycatcher with Peppervine berry for juvenile
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 200, handheld

Here is a better view of the Peppervine foliage and berries some 30 feet up in the trees, with a young Mockingbird who was enjoying an early-season treat.

Found one!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 1250, handheld

I don’t feel too badly about the fact that most of these photos feature a cable or wire, because the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is known and documented by many bird photographers for perching on power and telephone lines and fences between hunting forays. The taut metal gives secure purchase and an unobstructed view of the air over their hunting grounds. I look forward to future opportunities to try to catch these graceful spring and summer birds in more in-flight photos.

2 thoughts on “Scissor-Tails of Summer”

  1. Years ago a storm blew a scissortail flycatcher from the extreme northwest of its range (southeast of La Junta in southeast Colorado) 180 miles northwest. And I was there to witness it hunting from the top wire of a fence on the high plains of unincorporated Arapahoe County just outside Denver. I had never seen one before. So when I saw the subject line of your invitation I was excited! Thank you for a thrilling exploration into the private life of a family of scissortails. I love the warm glow of their apricot armpits, their graceful tail and I can just imagine the parent birds knocking a wasp senseless. (Yipes! Brave birds!)

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