Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pro-tip From #7: The Truth About Empidonax

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.


  1. DUDE, thank you for saying this. Coming from the 7th highest birding pedestal in the ABA area it will have more effect, but I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually heard a migrating empid vocalize, and most of the time it's a Willow.

    They don't, and why would they!? What's really nice is when you get bushels of people at a place like Patagonia SP and people want to solicit responses so they start playing tape. The birds still aren't going to respond--they're not defending any territory here--and now the possibility of any genuine vocalization must be discounted.

    Where would an Eastern Wood-Pewee learn a Greater Pewee call??
    Also, it seems the internet has largely been de-Brief(er)ed as of late. I know the Tucson Goshawks were hounded so mercilessly that they all left, and Dr. Briefer with them, but where have they all gone since?

    1. Someone had to say it. Birders #1-6 have been purposefully trying to spread this misinformation for years, in order to keep flycatcher ID elite.

      I don't think the EAWP necessarily learned how to sing like a GRPE; they actually have similar voices. I can't really explain it though.

    2. On a side note--and maybe this is just a skewed observation from #999 (joint-tied with 1,258,394 other people at back of list)--it AZ anyway if it's not a Gray, 90% of the time it's a Hammond's?

    3. Hmm, I might have to ask #6 about that one.

  2. Great post. Relevant for me. Yesterday I uploaded a photo (taken in Fennville, MI) of a flycatcher for ID to, expecting the usual quick answer.

    Well, I found out it was empidonax - and possibly a Least or a Traills. The post caused a lot of precise ID discussion from the experts. Still don't know exactly what it is.

    1. With all the power vested in me by the Global Birder Ranking System, I pronounce your bird to be a Willow or Alder Flycatcher (in other words, Traill's). Empids can certainly be variable, but I have never seen a Least with such a thin eyering.

    2. Thank you! When I write my blog post on these little fellows, I will certainly quote you and (of course) reference your expertise and your fine blog.