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My Life’s Birds: #364

January 6, 2010
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May 7, 1995 – Springfield Conservation Nature Center, Mo – Listen well friend, and heed this tale of soul-crushing agony.  Young campers may tell stories about the boogie man or any number of lost convicts hitchhiking on moonless nights or starcrossed lovers unfortunate run-ins with hook-handed assailants, but for birders, especially those of us in North America, these are mere child’s fantasies.  There’s but one thing that makes our blood truly run cold.  For as long as birders sit around barrooms and spin horror tales, more often than not the subject is that most fiendish of avian adversaries, the unvocalizing Empid or, as it’s also known throughout birderdom, the “Why-won’t-you-effing-call-you-bastard Flycatcher”.

Of the half dozen or so eastern Empids I can only call myself really comfortable with one, the Acadian Flycatcher, the most reliable species in any eastern woodland and, not coincidentally, one of the most vocal too.  Its peet-sa or pi-ta or sweep-up is a commonly noted sound even in the heat of summer.  But without that audio cue even a common Acadian, especially one slightly more bright or drab or faint eyeringed or molty, becomes a maddening spiral into the deepest realms of a birder’s psyche where lie demons like primary projection and eyering shape and mandible color and the previously inconceivable number of shades between green and gray that would make both Sherwin and Williams run screaming for the hills.  It’s frightful stuff, folks.  Not for kids.

Solace, such that it is, can be found however, in the little Least Flycatcher who, as its name suggests, has the shortest primary projection and the boldest eyering (helped, no doubt, by it’s enormous looking eye) and the daintiest bill.  Why, the precious punum of our Leastest Flycatcher is almost enough to make Empids feel attainable, to make you feel as though you too can accomplish this most perilous task of the North American birder.  But even with the most visually distinct North American Empid, there’s nothing like a little taste of that ch-bek to make you feel like you’ve nailed it, especially if it occurs after you’ve accepted that you maybe, possibly, could be looking at a Least Flycatcher.  Among silent Empids, certainties are little more than strong suggestions even in the best of times.

Accepting your limitations, and understanding that the percentage of unidentifiable birds never reaches zero is part of becoming a better birder.  Know this, and you will rarely be surprised by even the quietest flycatcher.  Unless of course, the call is coming from inside the house!!!!!

photo from wikipedia

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8 Comments
  1. January 6, 2010 1:56 pm

    Amen to that! I hear ya brother. In my neck of the woods I still struggle with very similar appearing tyrants like Wood-pewees and Olive-sided adding to that the Empids like Willow. I am finally starting to learn their calls and can pick out Wood-pewees with confidence. I look forward to this Spring and Summer to sharpen my flycatcher skills.

  2. January 6, 2010 5:23 pm

    Hysterically true! We only have one resident species; the rest just pass through. That makes identification easy in summer, but early migrants in spring and autumn make it a call-or-nothing ordeal with putting a name to the face. (Though admittedly some are easier to ID than others, as you point out, but mostly they’re of your expertly called “Why-won’t-you-effing-call-you-bastard Flycatcher” variety.)

    Thankfully we can always fall back on our scissor-tails and vermilions to get a few flycatcher notches without all the frustration!

  3. Nate permalink*
    January 6, 2010 8:04 pm

    @Robert- I’ve thought quiet Pewees were Willows on a few occasions only to have the bird in question sing just as I’m starting to get confident with my identification. That can be a notoriously difficult call.

    @Jason- I’ve had a handful of birds that I can remember, mostly in fall, that I think were good candidates for Yellow-bellied or Alder, the least common migrants in my area, but even with drop-dead perfect eye to eye looks I’ve been too gun-shy to make the call without a bird vocalizing, which it invariably never does. On those occasions my language is likely a bit more, shall we say, “salty” than I indicate here.

  4. January 7, 2010 3:07 am

    Oh, it seems Empids are even much harder than I realized. I mean, how much can you even trust their vocalizations when they frequently hybridize, what with being “…-bastard-Flycatchers”.

    And if primary projection is a demon to you, come over to Europe with its Phylloscopus and Acrosephalus warblers for a crash course. Highly recommended – you know – NOT!

    Cheers, Nate,very nice post.

  5. Nate permalink*
    January 7, 2010 12:42 pm

    @jochen- touche. And I want no part of your old world warblers. Now that’s some seriously heart-stopping stuff!

  6. January 8, 2010 9:29 pm

    My best technique is to play the calls of them, if it is in the fall. Other than that, they’re all Acadians to me!

  7. Nate permalink*
    January 9, 2010 3:10 pm

    @Ali- Not a bad plan. I, too, generally assume Acadian unless given a reason otherwise.

  8. January 10, 2010 6:05 pm

    @Ali and Nate: that technique would get you in real trouble around the Great Lakes…

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