Flight Lines Audio: Flycatcher group presents challenge with
Specialists come in just about any field of interest, from automobile racing-- Indy cars, stock cars, and sprint cars for instance—all the way to medicine (neurology, otolaryngology, oncology, etc.). It should come as little surprise to find that bird watching also seems to have its niches.
I have a friend I consider a rock solid waterfowl expert who has no trouble identifying any duck or goose either flying or sitting. Yet another is an accomplished warbler guru, with the ability to hear a single chip note and know with some certainty, just which little neotropical migrant uttered it.
But among the birding crowd the converse is also true. That is, there are certain notorious closely related species of birds that defy simple differentiation. So much so that, particularly for beginners, they are often referred to with frustration, hand-wringing, or outright disdain. Some birders even go so far as to ignore them entirely.
The gulls come immediately to mind, with their dizzying seasonal molt patterns embedded into multi-year maturities. The sparrows are another group that can befuddle binocular-toting folks; so similar are they that the vague term "LBJ," or, little brown job, is frequently spit out between gritted teeth. And just the other day, a veteran birder from this area wrote, "My shorebird skills have become quite rusty from lack of use," in reference to the struggles that particular set of birds presents.
Still, topping the list of baffling groups might be a particularly irksome piece of the flycatcher pie.
Among the 44 species of flycatchers (which includes kingbirds, phoebes, wood-pewees, etc.) usually found in North America, 11 of them come from that dreaded genus, Empidonax. Or, known colloquially to birders: Empids.
Empidonax flycatchers are all fairly small stocky birds with olive gray upper parts, light colored breasts, two whitish wing bars, a light colored eye ring, and a head that is sometimes peaked. To step beyond that generalization and into individual species you must descend into nuanced hues, expected ranges, feather molt and wear, and weird phrases like "primary projection."
So alike do these particular birds appear that reasonable people have been driven to near madness while attempting to identify them. Heck, there's probably even a support group out there somewhere, Emp-Anon. Rest assured, even the experts are challenged.
Luckily, to help sort these lookalikes, there is a reliable tool that can be used during most of the year and that is voice. Over and over again a certain bit of wisdom is repeated in just about any guide with reference to empids, "best separated by voice." There is hope after all.
Locally, the job is fairly simple as there really are only four empids to worry about. The yellow-bellied flycatcher is a spring and fall migrant only and can actually be identified visually by the heavy yellow tones in its eyering, its breast, and its wingbars. The alder flycatcher is also a migrant (mostly) and sings a rough, short, two-syllabled "v'r'r'eee-beer."
The least flycatcher is the one most of us are familiar with as it enjoys a huge range across the northern U.S. and is found nesting in our city parks. This small, bullheaded flycatcher sings a quite familiar and quickly delivered "che-bek." Willow flycatchers nest here too but not in thick wooded riparian areas, choosing instead shelter belts or brushy open habitat as its name implies. "Fitz-bew" is its familiar song.
As helpful as voice can be it didn't solve a conundrum a few of us recently had in the Black Hills.
Hammond's and dusky flycatchers sing perplexingly similar songs and both Rocky Mountain species are present there. I was mildly confident we were looking at a dusky flycatcher feeding young in an eye-level nest but it wasn't until we got home that I determined we were correct. David Sibley's marginal notes say Hammond's flycatcher, "nests high on horizontal branch," while the dusky nest is, "in forked branch in low bush." Bingo.
As frustrating as this group may be, you are not alone. No one is ever positive 100 percent of the time; at least I haven't met that person. More than anything, the Empidonax flycatchers might actually be doing us a favor by reminding us of a truism that is quite often forgotten in the bird watching business: It's okay to say, "I don't know."