A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Western Kingbird is the only kingbird/flycatcher of the genus Tyrannus normally present in Sonoma County. It’s a summer resident, usually arriving in early April and leaving by September or early October. Tends to stay in the drier inland areas of the county, but may be present near the coast during spring and fall migration. Prefers open wooded areas and grasslands with suitable perches (large shrubs, small trees) for flycatching. Comfortable near human habitation. Commonly perches on telephone lines and fence posts. Usually solitary, but may move in small family groups. May nest using manmade structures. Favors Eucalyptus trees near farmland for nest sites. The bird above was photographed at Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, Petaluma, near a pair of eucalyptus trees in which a pair was reported nesting at the time. Territorial. Can be quite loud when agitated.

Grey head and upper back; black bill (shortish for a flycatcher); broad, diffuse, dark grey eyeline; paler at the chin and cheek; belly and flanks a clear lemon yellow, upper breast grey. Dark brown wings contrast with paler grey back; black tail with white outer feathers (although these are not always easy to see, and tail edges may wear away completely on some birds before molting). When plumage is fresh, there is often a pale fringe on the secondary flight feathers visible in the folded wing. Field guides will show a rusty crown patch, but that is usually concealed and rarely seen in the field. As noted above, the only kingbird normally present in the county and present only during the summer months, so unlikely to be confused with other birds.

The similar-looking Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) is reported in Sonoma County from time to time, but that bird is a rare autumn vagrant. It lacks the white outer tail feathers of Western Kingbird, is notably more olive on the upper back, has more white in the cheek and throat, and has a stouter bill. The yellow extends further up the breast, into the area that is grey in Western Kingbird, becoming olive-yellow at the upper breast. Tropical Kingbird shows a notch in its folded tail. Its tail is browner than that of Western Kingbird. Western Kingbird lacks the tail notch. Note that juvenile Western Kingbird may have a little olive on the back, suggesting Tropical Kingbird. Kingbirds mid- to late September through November are always worth looking at closely, especially at the coast. Most will be Western Kingbirds, but you might discover a rare visitor.  

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 84

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 318

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 306

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 342

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 417-418

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 364

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 252

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 297

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 236

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 90

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 183-184

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 50

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 222

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 252

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 232

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 292

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 479

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 258

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Western Kingbird



© 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.


Western King Bird, Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, Petaluma, May 24, 2011

Note Grey back, head and upper breast, comparatively light bill

For comparison: Tropical King Bird, Sandpiper Ct., Bodega Bay, October 1, 2012

Note yellow and yellow-olive high up the breast, heavy bill, notched tail

Western Kingbird

Tyrannus verticalis

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 18, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County