Black Phoebe

Dapper. Trim and sleek. Words to fit a Black Phoebe with his (or her) black frock coat and white tucker. The bird, solitary by nature, will be perched erect on a post or sprinkler head in an open space as it watches for the flying insects that make up its diet. The low branch of a tree will also do, as long as it provides a clear view. The bird seems like some avian butler in attendance on the open space, and will usually be found near water: a pond, a stream, even a swimming pool will do.

If you do not see the phoebe at first, you will know its presence by its cheerful call, two rising notes followed closely by a slightly higher descending couplet. A simple song: do, mi, short pause, fa, re, or something like that, perhaps accompanied by the flick of the tail.

I often see a Black Phoebe working the seashore. Perhaps to the phoebe, the ocean is just a big swimming pool. But there are swarms of insects available in and above stranded kelp and in the bordering plants. For Black Phoebes, a beach means the restaurant is open! And there a phoebe may well be––perched on a rock, from which it sallies out after something invisible to me, only to return quickly to the perch from which it started, or one close by. Butler of the beach. Neatly slick in black and white, in full charge of every eventuality. There is nothing subservient about this bird! Quick at hand, then gone. Ever efficient.

So what was this about one recent morning at Crystal Cove Stare Park? Two birds, abuzz over the rocks on the beach. Levitating to flutter three or four feet off the ground. Hovering. Chattering. Not at all like the usual lone bird I know. Up each went in turn, the other anxious on a boulder close by, fussing, carrying on.

And then, sliding over stones and sleeking out onto the sand, it came. A Western Rattlesnake surely aware of the two birds out of reach overhead, distressed at its presence, but almost as surely unaware that it was intruding onto a heavily used public beach where it would find even less welcome than it usually did. But in retrospect, I am sure the snake knew this beach, its sand, rocks and crevices well, as all animals that live in relatively small territories must if they are to survive, for it only moved along the sand a short distance before winding itself back into the obscurity of the rocks where it was safe from us and the hawks that regularly patrol the beach and bluffs, to say nothing of the scolding Black Phoebes.

Perhaps the two birds had a nest or young to protect. If so, I did not see it or them, but the behavior suggested upset parents. Not butlers this time. No, they were more like the furious maid below stairs, flailing away with broom in hand at the tabby that had just deposited something disgusting on a porch just scrubbed clean. It was a scene to remember. Like all else in nature, there is always a bit of twist available to alter how you see things you think you know well. Dapper Black Phoebes are, indeed—except when it is time for natural decorum to be shed like a molted feather, one too tattered to be part of such a sleek, black and white uniform.