Like other Tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae), the Hispaniolan pewee is not a particularly showy bird. However, it is a pleasure to see it in the woods where it lives, as it is quite tame and allows a person to approach it easily. At 16 centimeters in length, the Hispaniolan pewee is a small bird of gray-olive color, a little darker on its head, with pale yellow-gray or beige under parts. Its beak is relatively long and broad, dark above and yellowish or pale orange below. Because its colors blend well with the vegetation, the Hispaniolan pewee can be difficult to detect when perched and unmoving. However, once located, it is easy to follow. Tyrannids are a diverse and numerous family of the American continent, especially in South America, specialized in eating insects.
Its name comes from one of its genus, Tyrannus meaning tyrant, given the aggressiveness of many of these flycatchers in defending their territory or their nests, attacking birds much larger that dare to approach. However, the Hispaniolan pewee is not aggressive like other members of its family, such as the vociferous Gray Kingbird (Tyrannus dominicensis), often found throughout the island fighting and driving away other kingbirds, red-tailed hawks, white-necked crows, American kestrels and any others seen as a potential threat.
Although they seem to prefer mountains and foothills, Hispaniolan pewees can be found in a wide variety of habitats including pine, dry and broad-leaved forests, scrublands, shade coffee plantations, orchards and mangrove areas, from sea level to at least 2,000 meters. This pewee usually forages closer to the ground than its larger relative, the Stolid Flycatcher (Myarchus stolidus). A Hispaniolan pewee will sally regularly from its perch to capture flying insects on the wing with a snap of its beak. It then returns, often circling to the same branch from which it just left. After it perches, it typically bobs its tail in a characteristic, entertaining way. Especially in pine forests, Hispaniolan pewees often join mixed flocks with other bird species to forage on insects. Occasionally they also feed on small wild fruits.
“The Hispaniolan pewee is not a very attractive bird. Nor does its song draw much attention. However, it gains our admiration because it not only eats many insects, but is also a clown.” Anabelle Stockton de Dod
“In the great forests of pine near Constanza he heard on many occasions a mournful call of considerable carrying power coming from the tops of the pine trees. After several days of searching he traced it to the quiet little wood pewee, which was entirely unexpected ...” Bradshaw H. Swales, writing about Alexander Wetmore
One can find the Hispaniolan pewee by following its call, a variety of sad notes consisting of pip-pip-pip-pip. Their singing at dawn is strong and rising, and consists of a fast succession of shurr, pet-pet, pit-pit, piit-piit, rising. This species makes its cup-shaped nest with care, using lichens, moss and small roots placed in the fork of a tree or shrub not very high up, in which the female lays 2 to 4 whitish mottled eggs. Only recently, differences in the calls and morphology of the three Contopus of Hispaniola, Cuba (Contopus caribeus) and Jamaica (C. pallidus) prompted them to be recognized as three distinct species. Happily, the Hispaniolan Pewee remains relatively common in appropriate habitat on Hispaniola. There is also an endemic subspecies of Hispaniolan pewee from Gonâve Island, Haiti, but little is known about its current status.