Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

September 21, 2012

Willow Flycatcher (I think)

Filed under: Birds, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, favorite places — richditch @ 11:44 am
Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Nikon D300, 300/2.8 AF-S Nikkor plus TC20E III (2x), Gitzo tripod with gimbal head, ISO 800, 1/125th second at f/8, spot meter

The Empidonax flycatchers present a real challenge to birders trying to identify birds in the wild. They are a group of closely related birds that look very similar and require skill, experience, and good looks at the bird in question. All the field guides I own have variations on the same cautionary tale: these birds are best separated by call and breeding territory, two clues that are useless for almost all migrant birds who don’t call.

I learned most of what I know about birds and their identification when I lived in NJ and was an active birder for over 20 years. I knew the calls of each breeding species and through the excellent network of active birders I learned where most could be observed in breeding season. I tried to learn the subtle visual differences but even with years of practice I mostly passed on trying to id migrant birds, calling them simply “empids.”

When I came to AZ in 1994 I was confronted by a different mix of empid species that are seen primarily as silent migrants and I’ve never felt confident in any of my identifications of these birds.

Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Nikon D300, 300/2.8 AF-S Nikkor plus TC20E III (2x), Gitzo tripod with gimbal head, ISO 800, 1/80th second at f/8, spot meter

The subject of this post is an empid that I photographed at Boyce Thompson Arboretum on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 around 9:00 am in the Demonstration Garden.

Identification begins with classifying the bird as a flycatcher from general size, posture, activity, and overall color. The predominant greenish-yellow tones eliminate pewee and phoebe and put this bird in the difficult category of empid. The wing bars are good for empid, as is the two tone bill. Most empids have prominent distinctive eye rings; this bird has a very minimal eye ring. That, plus the buffy yellow color of tghe wing bars as seen in the top image, lead me to label this bird as a Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).

Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Nikon D300, 300/2.8 AF-S Nikkor plus TC20E III (2x), Gitzo tripod with gimbal head, ISO 800, 1/60th second at f/8, spot meter

But I’m still not 100% sure and I’d love to have comments from anyone explaining why they think it is or is not a Willow Flycatcher.



  1. I’m terrible at empid ID and you are much better at it than I am. I love these images Rich.

    Comment by Mia McPherson — September 21, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

  2. I think you nailed the i.d.. Great images Rich!

    Comment by Robert Mortensen — September 21, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

  3. that really heavy and broad bill rules out most other AZ empids (Gray, Hammond’s, Dusky) other than Western-types, which are yellower overall and have much more distinct (and pointy) eye rings. To the points you mentioned (bill, minimal eye ring, color) I’d add that the somewhat contrasting white throat is another really good mark for willow, as is the relatively brownish overall plumage.

    Comment by Brian Gatlin — September 23, 2012 @ 10:26 am

  4. Very interesting post on migrants and wonderful pictures, way to go Rich.

    Comment by jim — September 25, 2012 @ 8:17 am

  5. Well, it’s a bit greener (less brown) than I’m used to in Oregon. I do think there is a different subspecies there. Otherwise, have you considered its sister-pair from the East, Alder Flycatcher? I’m sure it’d be a rarity in Arizona, and without recordings of the calls probably not identifiable.

    Comment by Greg Gillson — November 17, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  6. Rich, the first photo is my lifetime favorite for a bird photo. The colors and composition are, for me, simply perfection. Thank you.

    Comment by Andrée Reno Sanborn — November 17, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: