A few hundred miles north and east of Roosevelt Lake is Cottonwood Gulch.
It is a very different place.
Through old-growth Pinyon-Juniper Woodland (some living trees here date back to
the 1600s), flows, in spring, Sawyer Creek, and along it grow cottonwoods and
Ponderosa Pines. Today we are focused on the enveloping PJ, as everyone in the Southwest calls it,
a vegetation type that covers thousands of square miles in New Mexico and adjacent states.
And the most numerous bird in the PJ is the Gray Flycatcher. You could be forgiven for walking
through its haunts and not noticing its occasional churrips. But now it is
25 minutes before sunrise, and the Grays are piling it on. Here is the fastest one of the day. Many,
perhaps all, species of songbirds sing faster during the predawn minutes. This is when the syntax of
Gray Flycatcher singing becomes obvious, for they repeat one song-type several times before uttering the
other, and it is never repeated. This is actually a widely used pattern by tyrant flycatchers, the members of the New World
Despite numbering in the millions, the Gray Flycatcher is not very well known by birders,
perhaps because they don't bother to go birding in the PJ, or in the Sagebrush Steppe, where this
flycatcher also breeds. It actually sounds a bit like a Least Flycatcher, except that the churrips,
which resemble the chebecs of the Least, are punctuated with occasional tweeps. The Least
Flycatcher doesn't have a sound like that, and besides, wouldn't be caught dead in the PJ. Other western
empids that look a lot like the Gray Flycatcher and live nearby have three song-types. The Buff-breasted
Flycatcher does use two song-types in similar AAAB fashion, but their breeding range is entirely south of
the Gray Flycatcher's. And finally, should you get a look, the Gray Flycatcher famously dips its tail slowly downward, rather than
flicking it upward as the other empids do. So, if you live in the western U.S., head out to your local PJ and get to know the Gray Flycatchers.
They're waiting for you.