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Willow flycatchers are maddeningly difficult to identify in the field

Willow flycatchers have set up territories in Mecklenburg County a handful of times but are still considered a local rarity.
Willow flycatchers have set up territories in Mecklenburg County a handful of times but are still considered a local rarity.

I made an early morning visit to the wetlands behind Pike’s Nursery in Ballantyne last weekend. My birding this time of year is generally restricted to early morning; the birds get stifled by the heat as much as I do. The wetlands are extensive, running as a series of sloughs east and west of Pike’s. They attract some nice birds too, species that are characteristic of the soggy habitat that is hard to get good access to locally.

There has been one special little bird there for the past couple of weeks, a willow flycatcher. This is a species that has set up territories in Mecklenburg County a handful of times but is still considered a local rarity. It is a bird that is slowly expanding its breeding range though, and I expect more birds to be found in the coming years. I was successful in locating this year’s bird too, finally pulling his characteristic burry fitz-bew call out of the morning symphony of bird song.

Willow flycatchers belong to the genus Empidonax, a maddeningly difficult taxonomic group to sort out in the field. We have five species representing the genus that might occur in Mecklenburg during the migrations and breeding season, and they all look alike. They are small, they are olive-brown, they are inconspicuous, they are often quiet, and their songs are not really songs either. The best they can do is utter short, burry, unmusical notes that get drowned out by more lively songs from other birds. Field identification is easiest if the birds are singing.

Their songs are diagnostic, but they often are silent. Identification is then reduced to such subtle characters as primary projection of the wingtips, completeness of the eye ring, bill size and whether the bird appears nervous or calm. Even very experienced birders often fail to positively identify an individual, even with a good look. If I took a first-time birder into the field to practice up on the Empidonax, there is an excellent chance the newcomer would leave birding forever.

If you have a field guide handy, check out the Empidonax pages and see for yourself how similar they are to each other. Our possible species include the willow, alder, Acadian, least and yellow-bellied flycatchers. The Acadian flycatcher is a common bird in the deep, shady, lowland woods near creeks in the southern Piedmont. The alder, least and yellow-bellied only occur as migrants.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.

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