Historically, the western kingbird inhabited an area from the Great Plains down into northern Mexico during the breeding and nesting seasons. In The Birds of Illinois, H. David Bohlen calls this species a “rare migrant and very rare summer resident” in our state.

However, this species has been extending its range eastward into Illinois and other midwestern states over the last century, especially during the last few decades. While this flycatcher has been at home in the open country of the plains, it appears to be adapting to midwestern farm country, with its open habitats along roadsides and fencelines that have scattered trees and utility lines.

The first Illinois record of a western kingbird occurred on June 6, 1924, when a dead male specimen was found on a road at Highland Park. Well over a hundred confirmed sightings have been made in the state since this initial observation. During the last 30 years, western kingbirds have been sighted at various locations across the state including Chicago, Alton, Homer, Lawrenceville, Taylorville, and Freeport. At least 37 sightings have been made in Illinois since 2000, with 5 made this last year. It is becoming apparent that a birder has the possibility of making a chance sighting almost anywhere in the state—be it in rural areas or other open habitats, such as parks and golf courses.

The first verified breeding record of the western kingbird in Illinois was made in Mason County just north of Kilbourne. The nest discovery was reported to Dr. William Starrett in June 1965. Frank Bellrose and the Grabers observed the nest on June 9, 1965. It was built in open country, near the top of a signal light post of the C&M Railroad (see Illinois Birds: Tyrannidae, by Richard R. Graber, Jean W. Graber, and Ethelyn L. Kirk, 1974, for this account).

The western kingbird is similar in appearance to our common eastern kingbird except its belly has a distinct, yellowish cast compar-ed to the white underside of its eastern cousin. Additionally, the western kingbird lacks the white band across the tip of its tail that is found on the eastern kingbird. Also, its head is somewhat lighter.

Be on the lookout. If you see a somewhat familiar kingbird this summer, sitting on a fence, utility line, or a dead branch of a tree, check it out. It may be a western kingbird spending some time in our state before heading for Mexico or Central America for the winter.

Another of the western flycatchers is making more frequent appearances in our state. Classed as a “rare vagrant” by Bohlen in 1989, the scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) is becoming more common, especially in the southern tip of Illinois. Its long tail, salmon-colored wing linings, and other characteristics distinguish it from both the eastern and western kingbirds.

Since first being seen in Illinois near Peoria in 1885, over a hundred confirmed state sightings exist for the scissor-tailed flycatcher. The first nesting pair in Illinois was confirmed by Steve Bailey, who co-authored an article in this issue of The Illinois Steward. On May 29, 2001, Steve found an active nest 60 to 70 feet up in a lone pecan tree in Union County, just east of the Mississippi River. The tree was growing on a levee a few miles due west of the Union County Conservation Area. Additional nesting attempts have been reported since Steve’s initial discovery. Traditionally, the scissor-tailed flycatcher nested as close as north-central Missouri.

Since 2000, the scissor-tailed flycatcher has been seen at over 30 locations throughout the state, including Cook, DuPage, and Jo Daviess counties. As this magazine goes to press, the last confirmed sighting in Illinois was made this year (2008) by Dan Miller on March 27, near Murphysboro.

So, here is another rare flycatcher that may be making birders’ days extra special again this year.