Enigmatic Empids


It was a fruitful trip out to Chico Basin Ranch, east of Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and one of the best birding spots in the country. With fall migration in full swing, we ticked off well over 50 birds, including a Common Nighthawk, which I tend to miss as they match the branch they’re sitting on, and both Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos—good birds for Colorado. There’s nothing like birding with a very experienced guide, and John Drummond definitely qualifies. I learn so much when he leads a trip.

But this time, I think I just have to admit that there are some things I’m not going to grasp. I can learn the sparrows and fall warblers—eventually—but I’m afraid that Empidonax flycatchers will always remain a mystery.

They all look the same!

If it’s spring time, and the males are singing, there’s a chance I can figure it out. Maybe. I’ve always struggled with the various mnemonics:

  • Willow Flycatcher: RITZbew, rrrEEEP-yew, or rrrrrIP
  • Alder Flycatchers: rree-BEEa, rrreep, rrreeea
  • Least Flycatcher: CHEbek, cheBIK
  • Dusky Flycatcher: three repeated phrases—sibip, quwerrrp, then psweet; dew-hidi
  • Hammond’s Flycatcher: three repeated phrases—twi-pik, swi-vrk, grr-vik; or peek
  • Gray Flycatcher: two phrases—jrvrip, tidoo
  • Pacific-slope Flycatcher: tsip, klseewi, ptik repeated three times
  • Cordilleran Flycatcher: similar to the Pacific-slope, but the pitch is slightly different

Just what does jrvrip actually sound like? Would I recognize the difference between rrrEEEP-yew and rree-BEEa in the field? Even if I could, it’s currently fall, and the birds aren’t singing.

Of course, the birds aren’t completely silent during the rest of the year (although all the ones we found that day were); they make call notes. Hammonds go “peek,” Alders say “pep,” and Leasts give a sharp pwit. Both Pacific-slope and Cordilleran females say tseet, and the males call tii-seet (the former species slurs his tii-seet while the latter usually doesn’t).  Unfortunately, Willow, Dusky, and Gray Flycatchers all say “whit” so that doesn’t help very much. Besides, I’m not sure I can detect the difference between a pwit and a whit.

You could try to name a bird based on its habitat. Willow and Alder flycatchers hang out with their name-trees. Unsurprisingly, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, split from the Cordillerans not too long ago, hang out along the Pacific coast, although I don’t know if anyone would notice if they showed up further inland. Dusky, Hammond’s, Gray, and Cordilleran are all predominantly western, while Alder and Least breed in the boreal forest, then migrate southward through the eastern half of the U.S. Since Colorado is in the middle of the country, we can reasonably expect to see a wide variety of species. Add in the disruption caused by migration, and any bird can pop up in any habitat.

You can get quite an education listening to the experts discuss which species you’re viewing. Head and beak size, wing length (how far does it stick out behind the bird), size and shape of the eye ring, and subtle variations in the color of the feathers all come into play. I find it comforting that even they don’t always agree. I can remember one trip led by three professional birders, all unquestionably experts. Each was convinced that his ID was correct, and could give a list of reasons why, but no two agreed!

Olive-sided Flycatcher

On our trip to Chico, we saw a lot of flycatchers. I was easily able to identify the Say’s Phoebe and I know the difference between a Western Wood-Pewee and an Olive-sided Flycatcher (right), both in the genus Contopus. But then there were the Empids. Our final tally listed three: Least, Gray, and Hammond’s. All were perched quite a distance from where we stood. Most were silhouetted.

Here are my photos for your amusement, both the way it was taken, and after some editing:

I think at least one of these is a Gray Flycatcher, although I could easily be wrong. Are they all the same? Different? I have no idea! Do you?

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