Field Notes: Texas Flycatchers

This post is for WC’s friend, Nils Warnock, a consummate birder. He has forgotten more about birds and birding than WC will ever learn. He has carte blanc to correct all of WC’s errors.

To misquote Calvin and Hobbs, there are about a bazillion flycatchers. Among the Tyrannidae, the New World’s Tyrant Flycatchers alone, there are 425 species spread across 101 genera. Many of them, especially the 15 members of the genus Empidonax, look pretty much the same, and some can only be distinguished by subtle behavioral cues or vocalizations. If at all. So this blog post, which WC thinks features three different Empids, offers uncertain identifications. So it goes.

Probable Cordilleran Flycatcher, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

We’ll start with one of the “easier” Empids. The Cordilleran Flycatcher used to be the Western Flycatcher, but that species was split into the Cordilleran and Pacific Slope Flycatchers a few years back, based on vocalization and genetic differences. Birds of the World candidly says, “In the field, most Cordilleran and Pacific-slope Flycatchers are not identifiable to species.” And, “”In the hand, Cordilleran and Pacific-slope flycatchers may be identified with extreme caution; many individuals must be left unidentified.” Isn’t that wonderful? Happily, in southeastern Arizona, the ranges don’t overlap, so the only challenge is to distinguish it from Yellow-bellied (E. flaviventris), Acadian (E. virescens), Pine (E. affinis), and Yellowish (E. flavescens) Flycatchers. WC’s best efforts suggest this is a Cordilleran. YMMV.

Probable Pine Flycatcher, Mt. Lemmon, Arizona

Another Empid, a Pine Flycatcher, presently hanging around the pines on Upper Mt. Lemmon, outside of Tucson, is a genuine rarity. WC watched this bird fly from the middle story of the pine trees down to the stream side brush, where “he” perched for perhaps 30 seconds in the dark, greenish light. He then flew down the wash and back up into the pines, where several other birders saw him and heard him sing. WC has images of what he thinks is the same bird calling, which Real Birders identified as a Pine Flycatcher call, but the bird is too far away to make out useful field marks, even in a very tight crop. So WC definitely photographed a Pine Flycatcher, and this might even be the bird. Or not.

Probable Willow Flycatcher, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Let’s torture ourselves with just one more Empid. In this case, the pale underside of the mandible, the absence of any eye ring and the overall darker color make WC think this is a Willow Flycatcher. Maybe. Sometimes WC thinks that keying out Empid is not that different from beating your head against the wall, without the satisfaction of at least making a little noise.

Tufted Flycatcher, Mt. Lemmon, Arizona

This is a very heavy crop, and the bird is still smaller in the frame than WC would like. Still, the field marks – the obvious crest or “tuft,” the buffy wash on the head and body and the very short wings – are pretty conclusive on the ID: Tufted Flycatcher. This is another Arizona rarity, mercifully in the genus Mitrephaes, and not an Empid. WC has much better photos of this species from Costa Rica, including a female on a nest.

Greater Pewee, Mt. Lemmon, Arizona

There are 13 species of Pewee, members of the genus Contopus, but this one is the largest, drabbest and has a bicolored bill, hard to make out in this heavily cropped, shadowy photo. It’s the only crested pewee in this range. It was calling, a plaintive Ho-say ma-ree-ah, and the call is distinctive.

Cassin’s Kingbird, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

At least in comparison to Empids, the Kingbirds are fairly straightforward. The gray chest, yellow belly and small white cheek, combined with dark gray and black and brownish wings give WC reasonable confidence that this is a Cassin’s and not its Western Kingbird cousin. Probably.

These six aren’t the only flycatchers WC photographed in Arizona. But WC suspects he has already bored his non-birder readers into a coma, and given his birding reader an Empid-induced headache. WC certainly has one.

3 thoughts on “Field Notes: Texas Flycatchers

  1. Pingback: Field Notes: Texas Flycatchers — Wickersham’s Conscience – ° BLOG ° Gabriele Romano

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