The Flycatchers

When we caught one, Tom said, “Uh oh.  Page 219 in Pyle’s.”

I'm a flycatcher, but guess which kind!
Yup.  I’m a Flycatcher… But which one?

Until the 1970s there were Traill’s Flycatchers.  Since then, there are Willow Flycatchers and Alder Flycatchers.  The most reliable way to tell them apart is by their songs and they rarely sing in the hand.  Because of the difficulty in distinguishing between these two in the hand, bird banders still use the term Traill’s Flycatchers for both.

It was interesting to watch Tom try to puzzle out the species.  In addition to the usual wing measurement and weight, he also measured the tail, the nare-to-tip length of the beak, and the width of the beak.  He looked at wing shape and beak shape.  He compared all his measurements and observations to a chart on page 219 of the bird-bander’s guide by Pyle.

Willow Flycatchers breed in moist, shrubby areas where thre is running or standing water.  This certainly describes the SWAT site where we were banding.  Their song is “fitz-bew” which Tom claims to have heard around the SWAT site.  Listen to it from Cornell by clicking  here.

Audubon has watchlisted this bird “Yellow” which is less serious than Red:

YELLOW: this category includes species that are either declining or rare. These typically are species of national conservation concern. 





Alder Flycatchers breed in wet thickets of alder, maple, and birch.  Well, I suppose that type of habitat can be found around SWAT, too, but seems more like the CLDC station.  The Cornell website describes their song as a “harsh, ripping ‘f-bee-oo'” and their call as “an emphatic ‘pip’.”  Listen to it by clicking here.

While some birds learn their songs and calls, these two Flycatchers seemed to know their own songs and calls by instinct.  The Cornell site tells us:

In an experiment on song learning, Alder Flycatchers were “tutored” with Willow Flycatcher song in the first two months of life. The next spring, the Alder Flycatchers sang normal Alder Flycatcher song.

I'll open my beak, but I will not sing!
My beak is open, but I refuse to sing!

Now, the two names Willow Flycatcher and Alder Flycatcher are rather descriptive.  You may wonder, as I did, where the name “Traill’s Flycatcher” came from.  Traill's Flycatcher by JJAudubonIn surfing around the net for information, I stumbled across something hidden on the National Audubon website that appears to be a collection of journal entries transcribed from John James Audubon’s work, along with photographs of his paintings.  You can click below to see the full account, but here is the pertinent passage:

I have named this species after my learned friend Dr. THOMAS STEWART TRAILL Of Edinburgh, in evidence of the gratitude which I cherish towards that gentleman for all his kind attentions to me.



Learn more:

5 thoughts on “The Flycatchers

  1. Interesting that the ID can be difficult even when you’re that up close and personal with the bird.

    Great photos and very interesting as well as educational commentary, as always.

  2. We caught a flycatcher here on Presque Isle that posed the same problem identifying. I even think it was trying to identify those same birds. Sarah was counting wing feathers and measuring. If the number * feather is longer than the number * feather then its a…… Wow, otherwise they look identical. I even think their songs sound alike except for a slight Canadian accent. 🙂

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