Hammond's Flycatcher is a bird I have misidentified. I can admit it. If they vocalized as often as some claim they do, this tragedy would never have occurred. Photographed at Coyote Hills Regional Park, CA.
As a great birder once said, birding is hard. An example? Empidonax flycatchers. Along with Catharus thrushes, they can be some of the most frustrating birds to identify during migration. Only two members of the genus (Buff-breasted and Black-capped) are an effortless ID, and many are so difficult and indistinct that it can be sketchy to make an ID on appearance alone. Being the #7 birder in the country, the struggles surrounding these birds are of grave concern to me. Time and time again I have seen birding "experts" advise caution in these situations (which is warranted), and to simply wait for the bird to vocalize. "Migrant Empids will almost always vocalize, eventually" or a similar phrase is something that has been uttered to the confused masses over and over again, to the point where it seems to be common knowledge. Well friends, I have news for you.
It's not true.
That's right. Lies. Total rubbish. Think about it...if Empids really vocalized so much, they wouldn't be very hard to identify, would they? Look, I have seen thousands of Empids. My sample size? Gargantuan. They often don't vocalize very much unless on breeding territory. Ask me to show you a migrant that will often call, and I will show a Yellow Warbler. I will not be showing you a Dusky Flycatcher. Sometimes they do call, but there is no way you can just expect an individual to pipe up if you wait around 10 minutes, which is more time than we often get to spend with a bird anyways. Do you know how much time I've spent in the last couple weeks waiting for silent Willow/Alder Flycatchers to call? It's not even funny.
I spent a good couple of hours with this confiding Acadian Flycatcher the other day. It was completely silent the entire time. Migrant Empids may not always call, but it's not always necessary to wring a solid ID from them either. Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.
Even if the bird decides to utter a quiet "whit" or "peep", then you have to contend with other random bits of bird sound in the area, especially at migrant traps where other confounding flycatchers can abound. The Two Bird Theory can wreak havoc in these situations. Eastern Wood-Pewees, experts at tricking unwitting birders, sure make a lot of noise compared to the average Empid...their "chip" note can be misinterpreted for all sorts of different Empids. Hell, the other day one skipped the call notes altogether and told me "Jose Maria!". I practically had a heart attack.*
So from the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 birder in the U.S. to you, I recommend you look at the bird. Look at the parts of the bird you are supposed to look at. Sharpen your visual skills. You may not be able to figure it out, and that's ok...despite yourself, you will live to bird another day. If the ID isn't coming to you, all is not lost...wait for it to call. But if you think the bird is obligated to vocalize, you might as well be looking for goshawks over Tucson.
* = Only Greater Pewee is supposed to say that. It was not a Greater Pewee. Neither species are Empidonax. Everything is fine.