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A largely olive-colored bird with a yellow belly, distinctive upright posture, rather small bill, and an eye-ring should call to mind only one group of birds: the flycatchers. And everyone who answered this quiz placed the bird in the correct family. While identifying flycatchers is often challenging, placing the bird in the right group is usually easy. No one would confuse this bird with a kingbird, or one of the showy flycatchers like Great Kiskadee, Vermilion Flycatcher or Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Then, there's that confusing genus Myiarchus, composed of relatively large species that are typically yellow-bellied with rufous highlights in the tail. And, again, we're all in agreement, this is certainly no Myiarchus flycatcher. Among the phoebes, only Eastern Phoebe is even similar to our bird. While many first-fall Eastern Phoebes are quite yellow-bellied, they never have a distinctive eye-ring like our bird, and their heads are much darker. Phoebes are also longer tailed.
Contopus Pewees (Greater Pewee, Olive-sided Flycatcher and the two Wood-Pewees) typically appear more elongated, show more of a crest and lack eye-rings, and aren't this bright below.
I generally prefer to consider common species before vagrants, but since someone brought up Caribbean Elaenia, let us recall that elaenias, like the great majority of "tropical flycatchers," have very short wings. Carribean Elaenia is also quite dull, and the underside of the lower mandible is bright orange.
This leaves us with the often confusing genus, Empidonax. If you made it this far, great job. There's certainly nothing wrong with saying this is an Empidonax flycatcher, and moving on from there. But, if you do that, you don't win the binocular, so onward we go!
We know that this photograph was taken in mid-September during fall migration, and we see that the lower wingbar (the tips to the greater coverts) on this bird is buffy, perhaps buffy-yellow. In any event, the wingbar is not white as it would be on an adult. So we know we are dealing with a first-year bird.
This bird obviously has a bright yellow belly, brighter yellow than is typically shown by most Empidonax flycatchers. It also has a fairly prominent eye-ring. When we think of Empidonax with eye-rings and bright yellow bellies, three species may come to mind: Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Cordilleran Flycatcher (which I will collectively call Western Flycatcher given the extreme similarity of what is currently considered two species) and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Western Flycatchers typically show an almond-shaped or teardrop-shaped eye-ring, which extends to a point behind the eye. The eye-ring on our bird is similar, but the back of the eye-ring doesn't form a point, but rather is simply a bit broader at the back. Western Flycatchers also have narrow tertial edging, unlike the relatively broad pale tertial edges on our bird. The underside of the lower mandible on a Western Flycatcher is also typically bright orange, without the dark coloration that our bird seems to show. Our bird also has a pale gray throat, while Western Flycatchers should have more of a yellowish tinge to the throat—at least on a bird that has this bright of a belly.
So this must be a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, right! Well, not so fast. While Yellow-bellied Flycatchers have yellowish bellies, even more importantly they have yellowish throats. They also have more uniform eye-rings than on our bird. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher also has very dark inky-black wings that contrast markedly with the mantle and underparts, again totally unlike our bird. So, no, this is not a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
Having eliminated the three species most often considered to be "yellow-bellied," we should probably return to the basics of Empidonax identification. This is a short-billed bird. It's even short-billed for an Empidonax. As we already noted the eye-ring is also pronounced. The combination is enough to eliminate Willow and Alder Flycatchers, species that would also not appear as bright yellow below as our bird. Acadian Flycatcher is quite similar to eastern Willow Flycatchers and can be eliminated for similar reasons.
Least Flycatcher is quite similar to our bird, but again the bill seems too small even for that species. Furthermore, Least Flycatchers rarely, if ever, appear this bright below. Of course, this could be a trick of the harsh lighting. Less subjective is the long primary projection shown on our bird, which is considerably longer than on any Least Flycatcher.
This long primary projection is enough to also eliminate Dusky and Gray Flycatchers, so we are left with Hammond's Flycatcher.
The format for answering a photo quiz means that we typically consider every other species before we actually come to the answer. But first-fall Hammond's Flycatchers are rather distinctive, at least for an Empidonax. Assuming they aren't molting, all Hammond's Flycatchers are small, compact flycatchers with a short tail and long wings. The eye-ring shown by this bird is also typical of Hammond's, expanded at the back and thinnest at the top. First-fall birds are particularly distinctive with quite bright yellow bellies that contrast with a dusky-olive wash to the sides of the breast (which gives Hammond's a rather "vested" appearance) and a pale gray throat. The wings are also rather dull, particularly when compared to something like Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
Of course when we are in the field, it can be hard to obtain good looks at Empids, and there's nothing wrong with leaving them unidentified. I don't know anyone who correctly names them all.
This Hammond's Flycatcher was photographed by the author at Greenwood Cemetery, Sydney, Cheyenne County, Nebraska on 19 September, 2002.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the September Bird Photo Quiz—Hammond's Flycatcher:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.