Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sic Semper Tyrannus

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is an Empid I hold, for some reason, in high regard. I first met the species in Pennsylvania back in 2009, and we have since crossed paths in Florida, Mexico, Costa Rica, and now Texas. Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.

Texas is a state rich in flycatchers...with only one exception (Gray Kingbird), every flycatcher that breeds east of Texas is found regularly in the state. And then there are Scissor-tails, and the valley species, and all the vagrants they have been blessed to receive over the years. I'm not ambitious enough to post pics of every flycatcher species I saw out there last spring...but I can do most of them.

Are flycatchers a major headache migraine? Does looking at them make you feel stupid? Do high-ranking birders with mysterious motives make false statements about how often they vocalize? Yes! But that is part of what makes them so great. You don't have to worry about them hybridizing (much) and they are a group of birds that your new birding app won't be able to identify for you for a very, very long time. And they do stuff. Good stuff.

When you get to the end of the post and are drenched in sweat, feel free to cruise over to The Powdermill Reserve (the only place I've seen Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in hand) for a nice post on more eastern flycatchers.

I'm itching to find one out here in California...most (not all) of the individuals I've seen have been pretty easy to ID, and they tend to stand out...they are yellow (er...olive and faintly yellowish) and have a call that isn't a damn "whit" note. South Padre Island, TX.

Least Flycatcher...the gray flycatcher of the east. It is the most basic Empid of the east, in terms of color and abundance. South Padre Island, TX.

Least Flycatcher, probably the same individual as above. Note the amount of darkness on the mandible (or lower mandible, as most of us say), which is atypical. I've always found the amount of paleness here to be dependably variable in many Empid species, and a field guide could potentially lead the birder astray with this character. South Padre Island, TX.

Acadian Flycatcher has a big head and big bill, a true loggerhead of the Empidonax. South Padre Island, TX.

Traill's Flycatcher (the pre-split name of Alder and Willow Flycatchers) is one of the most troubling species-pairs that eastern birders have to face. Even California birders are pained by this problem, as a handful of legit Alders have been documented in the state over the years...and guess what? We want more. South Padre Island, TX.

This is the same bird as above. Note the overall gray-brown on the upperparts that does not contrast with the throat, rendering it quite dull even by Empidonax standards. There is an eyering present, but it is extremely narrow, which is to be expected in eastern Willow Flycatchers. There doesn't appear to be any greenish coloration from this angle, aside from the inside of the folded wing; it is remarkably drab. By all accounts, this is a Willow Flycatcher.

Here is a different Traill's from South Padre Island. This bird is a bit greener and more contrasty in the throat than the above individual, has a more pronounced eyering and seemingly has a shorter bill. It actually looks considerably different than the above bird. I'm going with Alder Flycatcher on this one. Of course, empids can look quite a bit different in fall, so there's only so far one can go with some of these field marks without hearing a vocalization...but it never hurts to try. South Padre Island, TX.

Eastern Wood-Pewee has the distinction of being one of the most misidentified flycatchers in the U.S., despite being one of the most abundant. Learn the pewees, and then you will love them. Until then, you will not have a healthy relationship. South Padre Island, TX.

Couch's Kingbird. This is a typical brightly-colored bird with a smallish bill. Atypical is how the tail appears completely unnotched. Willacy County, TX.

Couch's Kingbird. There is variation in bill structure in this species, and you can see that this bird has a heavier bill than the above individual, being especially deep toward the base. I reckon Tropical Kingbirds have a more consistent bill length, and still appear longer-billed (and not so big at the base) than this individual. Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, TX.

Eastern Kingbird, a true feel-good flycatcher. Everyone can love an Eastern Kingbird. South Padre Island, TX.

Brown-crested Flycatcher. This is cooperi, the subspecies found in Texas, and is less beefy than the magister that reside in Arizona. Note the unimpressive size of the bill. Hidalgo County, TX.

Great Crested Flycatcher. God, look at the tapering of the white border of the first tertial feather! That's what I'm fucking talking about. What I'm not talking about is why Great Crested Flycatcher and Brown-crested Flycatcher have more structural differences in the grammar of their names than the birds do in reality. South Padre Island, TX.


  1. This is some of the nicest, classiest, Flycatcher porn I've seen, definitely eligible for a Woody-Pewee award.

    Thanks for the information and stylish documentation, especially with those eastern empids.

    1. Thanks Laurence. I have a thing for Empids, despite my questionable/haphazard Empid skillset.

  2. This is a sick post. Informative as hell with well crushed birds to help understand what's going on with flycatchers. Well done.

  3. You are a brave soul for tackling this group of birds. My head literally did hurt halfway through this post. I give up on identifying eastern empids visually and just try to listen for the voice.