Over the past years I have developed interests in different families of birds, their behaviors and specific habitats in regards to breeding, nesting, foraging and migration. Some of the most fascinating have been the “Flycatchers”. I have witnessed many species actually catching their meals both airborne, on the ground or in vegetation, but the true flycatchers are the most interesting with their hovers and aerial maneuvers. I have set a goal to photograph and/or observe as many flycatcher species as possible during recent times and over the next few years. I have found this effort to be a fun, educational and a rewarding adventure.
I still have a few species that continue to elude me; such as the Western Kingbird, Florida’s Great King Bird, the Say’s Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher and to a lesser extent, the Olive-sided Flycatcher. I have seen, observed and attempted to photograph the Olive-sided on several occasions, but as luck would have it this bird always manages to have an obstruction to hinder photography or was out of my camera’s range for a suitable image.
I have experienced a number of false ID’s with the Olive-sided Flycatcher; mostly due to my previous lack of experience and wishful thinking. I remember a few years back when I took great photos of a rather large Eastern Wood-Pewee with the dark patches on the chest and narrow white strip, leading to the “unbuttoned jacket” appearance that is the distinguishing markings of the Olive-sided. “Wow” I thought; “I finally have one!” I have two friends that are somewhat experts with avian identification and they just had to burst my bubble and set me straight to my misfortune. I will say though, that this bird was the “largest” Pewee that I have ever seen and that the name “Pewee” was truly an oxymoron with this fella.
Another “photographic nemesis” of the Flycatcher realm is that of the Vermilion. As a kid growing up in Texas, I had seen this bird on numerous occasions and was forever impressed by its lovely and brilliant red coloration. A few weeks before my annual pilgrimage to my home on the upper Texas coast, I had decided to review the Texas birding lists and E-bird to see what I could expect in the area upon my arrival. There had been numerous daily reports of a Vermilion Flycatcher at the Skillern tract of the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge which was just a short drive away from my residence during my visit. The last report I read was on the day I was due to arrive. I tried for this bird over the week numerous times and my one and only contact was hearing its familiar song, but never a view, more-less a photograph. As long as time is kind, I will continue to seek this lovely bird. I keep a watchful eye on the birding list serves for my local area and study the “E-bird” data religiously hoping for more and better opportunities. E-bird is a wonderful resource and I contribute to it on a regular basis.
Flycatchers join the Taxonomic Order: PASSERIFORMES and family TYRANNIDAE thus are called Tyrant Flycatchers and include the genus groups Contopus, Empidonax, Myiarchus, Pyrocephalus, Sayornis and the Tyrannus.
Contopus includes the Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi), Greater Pewee (Contopus pertinax), Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus) and the Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens).
Empidonax includes the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris), Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens), Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum), Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii), Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus), Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii), Gray Flycatcher (Empidonax wrightii), Dusky Flycatcher (Empidonax oberholseri), Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis), Cordilleran Flycatcher (Empidonax occidentalis) and the Buff-breasted Flycatcher (Empidonax fulvifrons).
Myiarchus includes the Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) and the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus)
Pyrocephalus includes the Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus).
Sayornis includes the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) and the Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya).
And finally Tyrannus includes the Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus), Couch’s Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii), Cassin’s Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans), Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis), Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) and the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus).
There are a few more rarities that are members of the above genus groups and others that I did not mention that occasionally appear in south Texas and Florida.
I will begin with the “Empids” whom are the most common in interest to many birding enthusiast and avian photographers. With the exception of a couple of these birds, identification can be quite a challenge and is mostly accomplished by hearing their songs or close-up photographic documentation of specific markings and features such as eye-rings and wing-bar coloration of the bird. Looking through binoculars at a sitting bird absent of song can lead to false identifications. I know this by experience through “mislabeled calls” on my part on more than one occasion. However these little “mess-ups” can be fun and educational. So I have learned to listen for a song first and then make the decision on its identification.
I am including a link to a wonderful website with audio of song and calls for each of the species photographed for this article. Just click on the underlined link and choose from different recordings with notes as to locations and situations. (The link will open a new window) You will find “range” maps on this page as well.
The Acadian Flycatcher
Surprisingly the most common of the Empidonax genus, and the one with the most widespread range of breeding territory within the United States, is a species that I have observed and photographed only a couple of times since I have acquired my interest in exploring and photographing Tyrant Flycatchers. The Acadian Flycatcher juvenile (pictured above) was photographed near my home in southern Adams County Pennsylvania and within the Michaux State Forest. I found him on Quarry Gap road near the campground of the Caledonia State Park. I had been photographing a Hooded Warbler, heard his song and found him sitting just above me. He was more than a willing subject to bless me with a few images.
The preferred breeding habitat of the Acadian Flycatcher includes mature deciduous forests areas that may include Beech and Maple, swamps or Hemlock stands and especially along a stream. It can be found mostly under the forest canopy but occasionally in open clearings.
The Acadian Flycatcher can be difficult to distinguish from other Empidonax flycatchers, especially the Willow and Alder, but has a greener appearance and a paler face that lacks contrast with the throat. During the fall months the Acadian, like many birds can be confused with other species and notably the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher because of yellowish areas on their throat and underparts. The Yellow-bellied has shorter bill and tail, and the throat is more grayish yellow.
Song Variations of the Acadian Flycatcher (Follow the link)
The Acadian Flycatcher above was photographed at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge near the Finis Pool. Bombay Hook is located near Smyrna and Dover Delaware.
The Alder Flycatcher
The Alder Flycatcher and the Willow Flycatcher are almost identical and were thought to be the same species for years. The only way to truly separate the two is by song. The Alder is present in my area, but in limited numbers and can be a challenge to locate. An estimated 63% of their population breeds in Canada’s boreal forest so my two discoveries were by a chance of luck. It’s always an exciting to find birds somewhat rare to my area.
Once again, the Michaux State Forest section of Cumberland County blessed me with another interesting species and with voice for an easy identification. The Alder Flycatcher above was located along Toms Run (a small stream) near Michaux Road and Bunkerhill Road within the darkness of the canopy.
A neat fact is that during an experiment on song learning, Alder Flycatchers were “tutored” with the Willow Flycatcher song for the first two months of their life cycle. The following spring, the Alder Flycatchers sang the normal song of the Alder.
The Alder Flycatcher prefers wet Alder and Birch thickets, bogs, swamps and Maples near ponds and riparian areas for their breeding habitat, thus the boreal forest of Canada are ideal locations.
Song Variations of the Alder Flycatcher (Follow the link)
One of my favorite areas to visit in Pennsylvania is the Bear Meadows Natural Area of the Rothrock State Forest in Centre County just south and east of State College. Bear Meadows includes a shallow peat bog which covers 320 acres and has been forming since the end of the last glacial period 10,000 years ago and is surrounded by an old-growth forest of boreal species typically found much farther north. I found the Alder (pictured above) along Sinking Creek near its crossing of Bear Meadows Road. I heard the song and made the short hike to find the bird.
The Least Flycatcher
Another favorite from the “Empids” is the Least Flycatcher and the one pictured (both images) was a lucky find during a birding and photography exploration of State Game-land 169 in Cumberland County Pennsylvania near the town of Newburg. I had just photographed a Barred Owl perched in a tree above a section of flooded timber when I spotted this little fella sitting in a nearby bush. The very prominent eye-ring and size was a dead giveaway to his identification.
I considered this a lucky find, although I have observed this species many times. The breeding range of this species is typically much farther north of my area. However, if you compare the maps from xeno-canto (sound file) which shows the breeding territory well above Pennsylvania to the maps of Cornell and “What Bird” you will notice those two resources denote a range reaching farther south.
The breeding habitat of the Least Flycatcher consists of semi-open woodlands, orchards, shrubby fields along with shade trees in towns and city parks, and along rural roadsides.
Song Variations of the Least Flycatcher (Follow the link)
An interesting fact is that unlike most songbird species, the adult Least Flycatchers migrate to their wintering grounds before molting while young birds molt before and during fall migration.
The Willow Flycatcher
A common “Empid” throughout Pennsylvania and many states is the Willow Flycatcher. Easily confused with the Alder, voice is the key element to proper identification. The breeding habitat can also be similar to that of the Alder flycatcher.
The preferred habitat of the Willow will consist of moist, shrubby areas; often with standing or running water and can include swampy thickets, upland pastures, and old abandoned orchards. Other preferred habitats often occur along wooded lake-shores and streams.
I found the Willow Flycatcher pictured above at the Hopewell Township Park near a house with a spring seep along the road. It continued to frolic and forage while I photographed him without a care in the world that I was there. The Hopewell Township Park is a re-claimed landfill with a grassland habitat and is a favorite location for viewing raptors and Short-eared Owls.
Song Variations of the Willow Flycatcher (Follow the link)
The Willow Flycatcher pictured above was photographed in a swampy area along Kraft Neck Road, in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Once again a friend and I were photographing Barred Owls and this little one decided to show. He was vocal and very curious as to what was going on.
An interesting fact is the Willow Flycatcher was first described in 1828 by American ornithologist John James Audubon.
I have only photographed one species in this genus, the Eastern Wood-Pewee; although I am in “hot-pursuit” of the Olive-sided Flycatcher or at least with wishful thoughts and intentions. The remaining members, including the Western Wood-Pewee and the Greater Pewee will be on a basis of opportunity as it exists.
The Eastern Wood-Pewee
Looking for the Eastern Wood-Pewee was a simple chore and I had to look no further than my own neighborhood and the woods of the Hanover Watershed in southern York County Pennsylvania. I have observed and photographed this bird in many locations but my favorite images came from the local watershed. Both the above and below images are of the same bird with a variation in the pose and were taken during the fall month of September with a little color in the background. He responded to the playback of the Eastern Screech Owl, a favorite tool for probing the fall woodlands for avian species. The Hanover Watershed is an oasis of mixed forests and streams filling several reservoirs with precious liquid.
You can find the Eastern Wood-Pewee in just about every woodland habitat within the eastern United States. Their preferred habitat will include northern hardwoods, pine-oak mixtures, oak-hickory mixtures, bottom-land hardwoods, southern pine savannahs, and Midwestern mixed forests. They also can be found in orchards, parks, roadside thickets, and suburban areas with mature trees.
They are easily distinguished from other flycatchers, especially the Empids by whitish wing bars or the lack of an eye-ring or a very faint one. The Eastern Wood-Pewee will sing throughout the day, but you can listen to its song before dawn’s light and well after sunset when his activity peaks.
Song Variations of the Eastern Wood-Pewee (Follow the link)
Interesting facts from more research:
The Eastern Wood-Pewee seems to be in decline and possibly due to the overpopulation of white-tailed deer in our eastern forests. In areas with high deer populations, the middle canopy is disturbed by browsing, affecting the foraging space of the flycatcher.
Cornell declares the Eastern Wood-Pewee as one of the “Hallmark” species of the Eastern deciduous forest
Like the Contopus genus group, I only have images of one member of the Sayornis genus, the Eastern Phoebe; although I had read reports with locations of the Say’s Phoebe and showed up a “Day Late and a Dollar Short” on each occasion. Sometimes I wonder if the reports are factual or misidentification; and/or wishful thinking by a birder. I easily fell into both categories a few years back. Hopefully it wasn’t someone trying to pad their life-list with false data. I have never been one to keep a list other than a report of species found to E-Bird to assist in their record keeping.
The Eastern Phoebe
I remember back when I first took a serious interest in birding and avian photography. I had little problem finding other flycatchers, especially the Empids, but the Eastern Phoebe had become quite the challenge and somewhat a nemesis bird. The problem is that I was looking too hard and the little Phoebe was most likely perched just above my head thinking “Ha-Ha! Look at this idiot! Peek a Boo, I see you!!!”
Well! ” They’re not a problem any more” and now they seem to be the first bird I see at the beginning of each adventure. “They’re everywhere”; at least here in the Mid-Atlantic region.
I now have so many images of this species, it was hard to pick a couple of favorites for this article. The Eastern Phoebe pictured above was photographed on Decoursey Bridge Road near a swamp in Dorchester County Maryland. I believe I counted over a dozen along the 5 mile stretch of this road one morning.
Eastern Phoebe’s favor wooded areas near water for breeding, but will sometimes use human built structures for nest locations such as the eaves of buildings, overhanging decks, bridges, and culverts within open woodlands, farmland and suburbs.
After a little more research from the Cornell website, a cute fact is that members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her. “I can relate to this dilemma!!!”
Another cool fact from “Whatbird” is that the Eastern Phoebe breeds in eastern North America, although its normal range does not include the southeastern coastal United States. Also, the oldest known Eastern Phoebe was 10 years, 4 months old.
Song Variations of the Eastern Phoebe (Follow the link)
Does the Eastern Phoebe Migrate? Cornell describes the migration of the Eastern Phoebe as either “short or medium” and finding their wintering habitat in the central latitudes of the United States south to Mexico. The bird above chose the Union Mills Wetland in Carroll County Maryland, just below the Mason Dixon line for its wintering grounds. The image above was taken during the second week of February and I observed this little guy throughout winter at this location and all within the same general area of the wetland.
Two more of my favorites are included within the Tryannus genus; but then after-all, they are all my favorites. But there is one very special bird from this group; and a most lovely one with the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Every year, during my spring visit to my home state of Texas, I pick a few species to try to photograph that do not occur in my present area of residence within the Mid-Atlantic States and almost every year the list includes the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. The amazing thing is that every time I find this species it is quite by accident. This year I had been photographing another flycatcher species and when I left that spot, a Scissor-tail came into view very close by.
The “Scissor-tail” above was photographed at the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge just west of Lake Jackson Texas. The refuge is located in southern Brazoria and eastern Matagorda counties. San Bernard is perhaps my favorite refuge along the upper Texas coast due to the lack of crowds. I have visited this refuge on numerous weekdays and weekends arriving at dawn and not seeing another soul before leaving around 11am.
The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher’s preferred breeding habitat includes open country savannas with scattered trees, farm fields, pastures with shrubs and patches of brush, within the southwestern US. They also will breed in town parks and golf courses that include areas with a mixture of feeding perches, open space and trees for nesting.
They can be often seen on fence posts, barbed-wire and utility wires like the next Tyrannus member, the Eastern Kingbird. I have often seen these species together, just a fence pole apart.
Although a medium-distance migrant, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers tend to wander widely on occasion and can show up pretty much anywhere throughout North America. I have seen reports of this species in both New Jersey and Delaware.
Song Variations of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Follow the link)
The “Bird on a Wire” above was photographed along Skyline Drive; an elevated roadway on a levee following the coastline of the Galveston Bay, just before the Texas City Dike. The title image at the beginning of this article was photographed at the Houston Audubon Society’s Shorebird Sanctuary along Rettilon Road on the Bolivar Peninsula in Galveston County and not far from the Galveston Ferry terminal.
The Eastern Kingbird
A very common flycatcher and the most widely distributed member of the Tyrannus group, the Eastern Kingbird is a very familiar sight. I’m certain that most folks reading this article have observed this species on numerous occasions. Like the Eastern Phoebe and a few other species, I have many images of this species at numerous locations from Texas north to the Jersey Shore. Both of the images (above and below) were photographed at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.
The birds at Bombay Hook will often be seen low on the slightest elevated vegetation, perched and waiting for prey and then with a swoop, flutter and gulp consume their meal. I watched one have a “field day” with the small butterflies visiting Queen Anne ’s lace and some of the local summer wildflowers. It was a sight to behold.
Breeding habitat includes open woodlands, clearings, rural roadsides, farms, orchards, coastal areas, edges of fields, along streams, and suburban areas.
Song Variations of the Eastern Kingbird (Follow the link)
This is the last genus included within this article, but hopefully I will be able to add the Pyrocephalus genus at a later date. I will be searching high and low for the Vermilion Flycatcher on my next trip home to Texas. Both members of the Myiarchus genus outlined in this article are cavity nesters and the only ones to be found in the Eastern United States; although the Ash-throated Flycatcher is not a true eastern species but somewhat a vagrant at one time or another, especially to the eastern coastal areas. Inland sightings along the east coast are few and far between. I’ll save the Ash-throated for last and begin with the Great Crested Flycatcher.
Great Crested Flycatcher
My first exposure to the Great Crested Flycatcher as a birding enthusiast and photographer was on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Dorchester County at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge; although I had seen this species many times before in various states and locations. I have always been fascinated by its call and song; as well as its size. The large brownish crest and creamy yellow belly is hard to miss on this large bird.
The Great crested is a bird of the treetops too and can be hard to photograph without some type of enticement such as playback of recorded sounds. I found the trill of the Eastern Screech Owl is a prime candidate for coaxing the Great Crested to come have a look. It seems to work better than their own calls. The Screech Owl trill is a great sound for enticing many species throughout the year as it’s a normal sound the birds will hear often within the proper habitat, unlike disturbing breeding birds with the calls and song of an invading like species.
The swampy woodlands of the Eastern Shore also provide a lower canopy from which to find these birds. The preferred habitat of the Great Crested Flycatcher includes open deciduous woodlands, old orchards, riparian corridors, wooded swamps, parks, cemeteries and urban areas with large shade trees.
Both of the images (above and below) were taken in the swamps of Dorchester County Maryland.
An interesting fact about the Great Crested Flycatcher is that their nests almost always contain shed snake-skin and other crinkly materials, such as plastic wrappers, cellophane, and onion skins.
Song Variations of the Great Crested Flycatcher (Follow the link)
The Ash-throated Flycatcher
The Ash-throated Flycatcher was a very exciting and unexpected find during my trip home this past spring. I had never seen, more less photographed this species and the discovery took place at the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, a refuge fore mentioned as a favorite along the Texas Gulf Coast. I had completed my first loop through the refuge and was very near the exit when I noticed this bird perched in a nearby scrub oak tree. He sat, posed and preened for over 10 minutes, allowing me ample views and photographic opportunities (both above and below) as if he knew I was interested and he was my first of the species. He acted as if he didn’t have a care in the world as I clicked away at the camera’s shutter. He would move to several different perches; all within my range without having to move myself. It was a truly wonderful experience. I hope to have an opportunity to photograph this species again in the future.
The Ash-throated is a common flycatcher of the open and arid spaces of primarily the western states. Its preferred habitat includes arid and semiarid scrub-lands, open woodlands, and riparian woodlands, stream-side thickets and oak scrub, dry plains spotted with trees or cacti, and deserts.
A cavity nester like the other genus members of Myiarchus, its nesting materials somewhat differ from the others in that the Ash-throated Flycatcher only occasionally uses snake-skin in its nest and 98% of nests included mammal hair and rabbit fur was the most frequently used. Other nesting materials include dry grass, weed stems, manure, and dry leaves.
The Ash-throated will frequently use old woodpecker holes, nest boxes and holes in fence posts.
Song Variations of the Ash-throated Flycatcher (Follow the link)
I hope you have enjoyed my exploration of a few of the Tyrant Flycatcher genus and species within the southwest and eastern United States. I hope to find and photograph many more and will update this post and article as time allows and the images become available.
In the meantime I wish all Happy Birding and Wonderful Photographic Experiences……….. Jim