Eastern Wood Peewee

Birds of Barrington with Wendy Paulson | Eastern Wood Peewee


On these waning summer evenings, one sweet birdsong often pierces the quiet that’s settling in. It belongs to the eastern wood pewee (Contopus virens), a bird that soon will depart for the Andes of northern South America. The song has been shortened from the longer version of spring and summer. Then, it was a high, clear, two-note peee-weee! – unmistakable for the way the bird announces its name. But now there’s only one languid note – solitary, plaintive, just a peeee! or weeee! depending on how one hears it.

I feel a special affection for the pewee. It’s not the first of its flycatcher family to arrive in the Barrington area; that distinction belongs to the eastern phoebe. The pewee doesn’t reach this latitude usually until May. The announcement of its arrival by its distinctive, impossible-to-miss song, always makes me smile because then I know that the migrants from the tropics have found their way from winter homes thousands of miles to the south.

The pewee has a fondness for oak woodlands and savannahs. It is there that it can most easily found. I recall one walk in the woods south of Penny Road Pond in Spring Creek Forest Preserve when our group stood and listened to a pewee sing, found it in the treetops, and followed it to a horizontal oak branch where it was constructing a nest. The nest is small, round, built largely of moss and grass stems, covered with lichens, and so well camouflaged that it can be almost impossible to locate unless the bird directs you to it. Naturalist John Burroughs wrote in 1893, “….few nests, perhaps, awaken more pleasant emotions in the mind of the beholder than this of the pewee….”

While the pewee is easy to identify by song, it is not so easy to distinguish visually. It resembles many of the smaller, mostly gray flycatchers of the Empidonax genus, even though it comes from a different flycatcher tribe. The pewee is a bit longer than those birds, a bit grayer, especially around the face, with a slight crest and only a hint of an eye-ring. But when it’s not singing, it takes practice to come to a confident identification.

Like all flycatchers, the pewee has a distinctive habit of “sallying forth” for insects. It perches on a branch, flies out for an insect on the wing, then returns to the same perch, often over and over. That’s helpful for birdwatchers who can observe the bird easily for minutes on end.

But we do not have much more time to find eastern wood pewees this year. They will soon leave us as they head to northern South America for the next five to six months. They have been sweet, musical companions for the summer and I savor every note in these days of shortening light and diminishing birdsong.

Would you like to learn about the Barrington bird population with guided tours from Wendy Paulson? Here are the dates and locations for Wendy’s series of 2018 Fall Bird Hikes cosponsored by Audubon Great Lakes and Citizens for Conservation.

September 14, 7:30AM
Crabtree Nature Center (3 Stover Road off of Palatine Road)

September 21, 8:00AM
Beverly Lake* (parking lot on north side of Higgins Rd/Rt. 72 west of Sutton Rd)

September 28, 8:00AM
Deer Grove East (entrance on north side of Dundee Road, west of Hicks Road, east of Smith Street. Go to farthest parking area)

October 19, 8:30AM
Cuba Marsh (Park in parking lot off east side of Lake Zurich Rd just south of EJ&E RR tracks. Lake Zurich Road runs between Rte. 14 and Cuba Road)

October 26, 8:30AM
Galloping Hill* (park at Penny Road Pond parking lot in Barrington Hills)

November 2, 9:00AM
Crabtree Nature Center (3 Stover Road off of Palatine Road)

*indicates a more strenuous hike

Walks are free though space is limited and RSVP’s are required. Please RSVP to: Daniel Wear (312) 453-0230, Extension 2010 or dwear@audubon.org and let them know how best to contact you should that be necessary.

Before you head out, please be sure to check the Citizens for Conservation website for any last minute changes or cancellations. Waterproof boots are strongly recommended and don’t forget your binoculars!

About the Author

Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.

Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson

During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.

Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.

CLICK HERE to explore all of the local bird profiles Wendy has authored in our Birds of Barrington series at 365Barrington.com.


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