Identifying flycatchers is a difficult task for birders.

Watching the inscrutable flycatcher

In the last couple of weeks, Hammond’s Flycatchers have returned to our region.

In the last couple of weeks, Hammond’s Flycatchers have returned to our region.  Flycatchers are one of the most difficult groups of bird to learn, particularly those of the genus Empidonax. This group, known as the ‘empids’ by most birders, is conspicuously lacking in field marks and are all very similar in appearance. In the black and white photograph shown here, this bird could be any one of several species.  All empids are a shade of olive-grey on the back with pale, sometimes faintly yellow, undersides. All have pale bars in the wings and most have a white ring around the eye, more conspicuous in some than others.

The Hammond’s is a bird of the coniferous forest and is, therefore, the most common empid in our region. In damp places along streams and marshes the Willow Flycatcher is also quite regular. Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher and Least Flycatcher also occur in our region but are quite sparsely distributed. One other, the Alder Flycatcher, is rare here and are not seen every year. This brings the empid total to six species, six species that are almost indistinguishable to many people!

So how do birders tell one empid from another? The best method is by their song. The word song is perhaps used a little loosely here; the sounds that these birds make would hardly be considered a “song” by most people. But in some cases, even the song is of limited use. The Hammond’s and the Dusky Flycatchers have songs that are so similar that even experienced birders can sometimes have difficulty separating them. Often habitat preference is enough to separate them: Hammond’s in the coniferous forests; Dusky in the drier, more open habitats. In our region Dusky Flycatchers only occur in regenerating clearcuts when a good deciduous layer has developed. However, in the Castlegar-Trail region, or in the Okanagan, where drier open country and coniferous habitats exist side by side, many birders find identification quite frustrating. Identification by song also has its limitations: birds only sing during the breeding season. Birds seen at other times of year are often silent, making identification extremely difficult.

A few years ago I was birding near the campsite at Box Lake and could hear a Hammond’s Flycatcher somewhere nearby. When I saw it, I was surprised to see it so close to the ground. This species typically feeds much higher in the trees. I noticed that the bird was repeatedly perching on the same branch and then almost immediately flying off. After observing this behaviour for a few minutes, I realised it was building a nest on that branch. Hammond’s Flycatcher nests are hard to find; I had never seen one before, and have not seen one since. A couple of weeks later I returned and saw an adult bird sitting on the now completed nest. The nest was partially hidden by an overhanging branch and was very difficult to find, even though I knew it was there.

As the name suggests, flycatchers are insect-eating birds. Most of their food is taken in the air. Typically they sit on an open perch where they wait for a meal to fly nearby. With a quick burst they dash out, seize the prey, and quickly return to a perch to eat it. Some species habitually return to the same perch each time. So, if you see a small drab bird behaving in this manner, you are probably watching a flycatcher. Turning to your field guide, however, in the hopes of identifying it, might lead to considerable frustration!