A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Mostly a summer bird in Sonoma County, but migrants pass through as well. Numbers begin to pick up in mid-April, but seems most abundant during autumn migration. Uncommon from mid-October to the following spring.  Preferred habitats are wooded areas and wooded edges, especially near water, but may be seen in suburbs with appropriate habitat during migration. Winters in South America. Often seen flycatching from a perch. Tends to forage lower in the canopy than Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi) but higher than Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilus). Breeds mostly in the wooded western parts of the county.

Western Wood-Pewee is a medium-sized, brownish flycatcher with a slight crest. Lacks a distinct eye-ring, which separates it from Pacific-slope Flycatcher, our most common flycatcher aside from the very different Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). Brownish-olive above. Drabber and less green than most of the Empidonax flycatchers. Pale, slightly yellowish underparts but with dusky flanks and upper breast, which give it the look of wearing a vest (photo below). Narrow, indistinct wing bars. Smudgy undertail coverts. Fairly long wingtips. Often confused with Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii) during migration. The primary extension should be markedly longer than in Willow Flycatcher (see link below for more about primary extension). Comparatively short tail. Apparent shortness of tail accentuated by long primary extension.

Often seen flycatching from a perch, but Western Wood-Pewee tends to sit still, looking around for insects before flitting out to catch food, often returning immediately to the same perch. Note that pewees generally do not flick their tails like Empidonax flycatchers. In contrast, Willow Flycatcher appears fidgety, tending to change perches frequently, flicking its tail while perched. Aside from voice, that behavior is one of the best ways to separate Western Wood-Pewee and Willow Flycatcher when in doubt.

Voice: Western Wood-Pewee gives a nasal pee-yeee, or pee-eer, less clearly articulating “pee-wee” (from which the birds get their name) than Eastern Wood-Peewee (Cantopus virens). Willow Flycatcher says fitz-bew, often described as having a "sneezy" quality. Sibley describes this Willow Flycatcher vocalization as a "burry rrrEEP-yew." Call note is "whit." See links below to compare vocalizations.

Trivia: The Latin name sordidulus refers to the bird's "dirty" color.

What is primary extension?

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 81

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 307

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 99

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 294

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 328

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 378

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 241

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 289

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 238

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 180-183

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 344, 348

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 177-178

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 48

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 242

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

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 280

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 454

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 247

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Western Wood Pewee

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Willow Flycatcher



© 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 Wood Pewee, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, September 18, 2012

For comparison: Willow Flycatcher, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, September 18, 2012

Note lack of eyering, comparatively heavy bill, short primary projection

Western Wood-Peewee

Willow Creek Rd., Jenner, May 18, 2013

Western Wood-Pewee

Contopus sordidulus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 21, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County