Black phoebes (Sayornis nigicans) are flycatchers of the Southwest. They range up through western California and into extreme southern Oregon. Mostly resident within their range, they do very little migrating. We only see an occasional stray here on our property in Modoc County CA. Yet thirty miles away (and 1,000 feet lower elevation) at Baum Lake they are active.
Black phoebes are distinctive with their white belly contrasting with a black head and upper parts. They have a habit of dipping their tail downward and moving it in a wagging motion.
A resident of woodlands, these birds are also found in parks and suburbs, often in close proximity to humans. No matter where they are found it is almost always near water.
Black phoebes are primarily insectivores but will also take small fish. According to a 1996 article in The Wilson Bulletin, Black phoebes will forcibly throw the fish on the ground or strike it on a branch to kill it before swallowing it headfirst. Last year I watched a black phoebe scan the water at Baum Lake while sitting on a submerged tree branch far out in the lake. At that time I did not know black phoebes would eat fish and wondered what the little bird was doing out over the water. Now I know it was simply searching for supper.
This cute little phoebe was standing on an electrical wire near a Crystal Lake Fish Hatchery employee’s residence.