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Just about everyone who answered this photo quiz knew that this was an Empidonax flycatcher. But how? Empids are small drab birds that perch upright, characterized by shades of olive, yellow, and buff with darker wings and tail—this certainly fits our bird. True, some other birds may come close in plumage; Ruby-crowned Kinglets and some warblers are olive-colored, but they don't sit upright like this and have a much shorter tail and smaller bill.
The first step in identifying an Empidonax flycatcher is to make sure that you are really looking at an Empid. The species that can cause confusion are the pewees. In the field, note that most Empids are relatively active, with many species flicking the wings and tail. Pewees, by contrast, just sit and wait and sally out and often return to the same perch. They sometimes quiver their wings when they land, but that's about it. Of course, with a single photo, you can't see that so we are forced to look at other clues. In this case we have a bird with a relatively bold white eye ring, far beyond what we would ever seen in either North American wood-pewee [Cuban Pewee would show a tear-drop shaped eye ring].
So the shape, overall coloration, darker wings, tail and presence of a bold eye ring lead us to Empidonax. Now what? In this case we are presented with an Empidonax that is very bright yellow below including the belly breast and throat. While many Empids show some yellow on the belly only four species regularly show this much yellow (particularly on the throat)—Cordilleran, Pacific-slope, Yellow-bellied and some Acadian Flycatchers.
When identifying empids, it is often helpful to age the bird, particularly in this case when the date was not included. Looking carefully at the wing bars we can see that the lower wing bar (tips of the median coverts) are white, not buff as they would be on a first-fall bird.
Now let's start with Acadian Flycatcher. The great majority of Acadians seen in the ABA Area are not bright yellow below. Adults are bright olive above, but generally pale below with a pale grayish throat. By late summer they are almost white below. Fall birds are significantly brighter but typically depart the ABA Area soon after molting. First-fall birds are brightest of all, and most closely resemble this bird, but as we already noted our bird has whitish tips of the median coverts. While we can't see primary projection (which would be longer on Acadian) we do see that this bird's tail appears shorter and narrower than Acadian.
Let's now move to the Western Flycatcher complex—Cordilleran and Pacific-slope. The two species appear virtually identical in the field and are currently thought to be impossible to identify in the field without using geography and/or vocalizations. Since one of the rules for the quiz is that answers must be a "species" currently on the ABA list, many of you probably (correctly) surmised it couldn't be either of these since you couldn't ID them from a single photo.
It's hard to make out many of the details to separate Western Flycatcher from Yellow-bellied Flycatcher—In general Yellow-bellied has blacker wings with boldly contrasting wing bars and tertial edges, the tail is shorter, and the primary projection is longer and more staggered. None of which is all that helpful here. We can make out details of this bird's head. Note that our bird has a rounded eye ring that is typical of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Western Flycatchers usually have a broad pale eye ring that is often broken or very narrow above the eye. The eye ring also expands noticeably behind the eye creating an almond-shape to the eye ring—quite different from our bird. Western Flycatchers, also, usually have more of a peak to the back of the head, and our bird's head shape is certainly consistent with the more rounded head shape (though a single photo is probably not enough to use this character with confidence).
This Yellow-bellied Flycatcher was photographed in central North Dakota in May 2007.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the July Bird Photo Quiz—Yellow-bellied 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.