To me, one of the most attractive features of birding is the identification challenges that are presented from several families of birds. Perhaps the most challenging is dealing with the small flycatchers of the genus Empidonax when they are encountered in the field.
There are five representatives of this group that are likely to appear in our area during the migrations. They all are small; olive-green to olive-brown on top and white with a yellowish wash on the bottom; possess at least some semblance of an eye ring; and generally behave in similar fashions.
To make matters worse, there is a wide variety of variation in plumage within a single species. In many cases it is impossible to positively identify a species, even with a prolonged look. If you have a field guide, check out the Empidonax flycatchers for yourself to see how similar they all are.
These species – the Acadian, least, yellow-bellied, alder, and willow flycatchers – are easy to identify during the breeding season because their calls and breeding habitats are distinctive. Unfortunately for the birder, fall migrants are often silent and can visit any habitat. Identifications then must be based on the subtleties of plumage and behavior.
On a recent outing at McAlpine Park I encountered an Empidonax around the beaver pond. This bird was small, very active and appeared relatively big-headed. It appeared more greenish than brownish on top, another clue. The eye ring was prominent. The underparts were clearly washed with yellow. I eliminated alder, willow and least flycatchers from consideration based on these features. Those species tend to be more brownish on the upperparts with less yellow wash.
The overall greenish tone narrowed down the choices to yellow-bellied and Acadian. The smaller size and active, flitting behavior did not suggest Acadian; generally a larger, more sluggish species. So I am pretty confident that I saw a yellow-bellied flycatcher that day. That’s a nice bird to see in Mecklenburg County, though they are not considered particularly rare. It is overcoming the challenges in identifying an individual bird from this tough group that is satisfying.
Taylor Piephoff is a local naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.
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