A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Say's Phoebe is fairly common in Sonoma County in the winter months in its preferred habitat. Birds start arriving as early as mid-September, but most arrive in early October. My own earliest sighting in the county is October 9. Say's Phoebe stays in our area usually through the following March. Most are gone by around mid-April. Likes dry, open, brushy areas, and scrub near the coast, also agricultural land, canyons, and cliffs. Usually solitary. Behaves like the flycatcher that it is--typically perching, flying after insect prey, and then perching again, often in the same spot. Sometimes seen hovering over fields, looking for food. Often perches on posts. May bob its tail when perched. Winters in our area but also as far south as central Mexico. Breeds in Alaska, western Canada, and the west-central US, but this bird is rare along the Pacific Coast north of California.

Say's Phoebe is mostly a light charcoal grey, but darker on the head and a little paler at the throat. There is some variability in the overall color--some birds are paler, some darker, some are more tinged with browns, others are quite grey--and there is a great deal of variability in field guide illustrations. Peterson guides show Say's Phoebe as distinctly brown; Kaufmann shows this bird as much paler than the birds we typically see; the Sibley illustration seems much too orange on the belly; the picture in Birds of Northern Calfornia again seems much paler than the birds we usually see. Wingtips and tail black. Greater coverts show paler edgings. Pale rust on the lower belly and under the tail. At first glance, may suggest a slim American Robin (Turdus migratorius) or a small California Towhee (Melozone crissalis), but behaving (and shaped) like a flycatcher.

Trivia: According to Birds of Northern California, Say's Phoebe is the only bird with a genus and species name both derived from the name of the same person--in this case Thomas Say, a noted entomologist.  

Selected county sightings: Pine Flat Rd. (May 13, 2013, Jared Hubbell); Hudeman Slough (Sep 10, 2013, Susan Kelly); Tolay Creek (Jan 18, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Bodega Head (Nov 27, 2011), Shollenberger Park (Oct 9, 2010), Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility (Dec 8, 2009), Place to Play Park (Dec 4, 2009), Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility (Nov 12, 2009)

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 83

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 315

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 302

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 336

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 406-407

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 380

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 249

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 291

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 240

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 181

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 49

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 224

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 248

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 236

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 287

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 469

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 245

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Say's Phoebe



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Say’s Phoebe, San Simeon (San Luis Obispo County), December 30, 2011

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 30, 2013

Say's Phoebe

Sayornis saya

Reported occurrence in Sonoma County