Hotline Photos

Two Empidonax Flycatchers
(An enlightening discussion)

20 May 2010
Provo, Utah

(E-mails clip from Jeff Cooper, 11:43 PM, 20 May 2010)  [Photos]

[After a discussion about female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks] ...What species would you call on the two flycatcher photos in that same album?

(Clip for an E-mails from Cliff Weisse, 2:46 PM, 20 May 2010)  [Photos]

I was hoping you wouldn't ask that but since you did I'll take a stab at them. Obviously both are Empidonax flycatchers, which automatically makes them difficult to ID. I'm certainly no expert on Empids but I have some experience with Willow, Hammond's and Dusky on territory and limited experience with other species during migration. With that caveat I'll stick my neck out and suggest the one on the fence is a Gray Flycatcher and the one in the tree is a Hammond's. The bird perched on the fence looks gray on the back and head, has fairly bright white wing bars and eye ring, short primary projection, pale lores that possibly extend across the forehead above the bill, and the bill looks pretty narrow with well defined, sharply demarcated black tip. The other bird appears somewhat more olive on the mantle than the gray of the head, has bold white wing bars and eye ring, a short bill that appears all dark below, and the primary projection appears fairly long, although that's very difficult to judge in the single photo.

(E-mails clip from J. Harry Krueger, 5:37 PM, 20 May 2010)  [Photos]

Cliff, I agree with your deduction of the fence-sitter being a Gray Flycatcher. A combination of overall gray appearance, small head, indistinct eyering (doesn't jump out at you because of lack of contrast with rest of head), black tipped bill and short primary projection (usually an indication of a shorter migration) add up to Gray Flycatcher. I would want the underparts to be a little less cleanly whitish, but that may be a photo angle thing. It also seems to be in the process of a tail-wag, which these birds do consistently downward,

The second bird on the log by upperpart color, bill color and size, and eyering could be either a Hammond's or Dusky Flycatcher. I would lean toward Hammond's because the primary projection seems too long for a Dusky... but I could lean toward a Dusky because the throat seems too white and set off from the rest of the underparts (I find Hammond's to blend more from grayish throat into olive chest into more yellowish-white belly on spring adults, with no clear demarcations). I wish we had a better idea of the tail to primary relationship, which we can really only guess at from this photo. Therefore in my opinion, on the basis of this one photo, it's a tossup between Dusky and Hammond's Flycatcher.

(E-mails clip from Mark Stackhouse, 9:17 PM, 20 May 2010)  [Photos]

I've had a long back-and-forth with David Wheeler today about these birds that started by my taunting him to come up with an answer to the flycatcher question, after he did so well on calling the grosbeak as a female Black-headed.

At one point I said, "Trying to i.d. empids in photographs is useful only to generate arguments."

Since Cliff and Harry have boldly gone where we feared to tread, I guess I'll have to share some of my thoughts on these birds, as hashed out through today's very entertaining back-and-forth between very good friends. Particularly as I have a few problems with their conclusions. We couldn't have a good argument if we all agreed, could we?

My biggest problem is with the first bird (the one on the fence). While the color seems good for a Gray Flycatcher, I find the bill to be entirely too short. Looking at the photo, I don't think that this is the result of fore-shortening, Gray Flycatchers have the longest bills of the western, narrow-billed empids (Gray, Dusky, Hammond's). I have a hard time seeing a Gray Flycatcher with this short of a bill. Also, I think the primary projection on this bird, while somewhat short, is a bit long for a Gray. You can see both of these features on the attached photo of a Gray Flycatcher that I took on Antelope Island some years ago. (if you want a better copy of this photo, e-mail me, and I'll send you one - I didn't want to stress Birdtalk). Since the tail is too long, and the primary projections too short, for a Hammond's, my vote for the fence bird is a Dusky...

In general, I agree with the analysis of Harry and Cliff on the second bird (the one in the tree). That bird would appear to be either a Dusky or a Hammond's. To me, the bill seems a bit long for a Hammond's. The eye-ring is wider behind the eye - good for Hammond's. It's almost impossible to see anything about the primary projection or the tail length in this photo, but the impression I get is of relatively shorter primary projection, and a somewhat longer tail than I would like for a Hammond's. The head size/shape is hard to judge from this angle, but seems a bit too small for a Hammond's. In total, we have a set of apparent field marks (as seen in this one photo) that conflict between these two species. I lean towards Dusky on this bird, too, just on gut impression.

So for purposes of argument ;-), I see both of these birds as Dusky Flycatcher, with a very small degree of certainty...

(E-mails clip from J. Harry Krueger, 9:48 PM, 20 May 2010)  [Photos]

Respectfully (after all we are making an evaluation based on one photo!):
Hmm... Well, so much for the bird that I think is the easiest of the two to id. But now that I look closer and have read Mark's analysis I'm convinced... that it's a Gray Flycatcher. :)

I don't see a "short bill. In fact, with the bird facing away, at an angle, I believe it's impossible to gauge the actual length. Mark's analysis still leaves out the obvious black tip, which is uncharacteristic of Dusky (though I'll never say never.. that they have it, that is). Also, the uniform grayish-white underpart coloration is totally uncharacteristic of Dusky in spring (both Gray and Dusky are quite constant in Alternate plumage, while a species like Hammond's can be quite variable.) On the primary projection, note that the tail is tilted down, while the primaries are at a different angle, making the only appear longer than they are. Note that in the photo Mark uses as an example, the tail and wings are being held at the same angle, giving a truer impression (well, at least on a photo).

If nothing else (and I do sometimes wonder), an exercise like this makes us look more closely at the finer points of identification... and hopefully learn and become more informed, better birders in the process. Sincere thanks to Cliff, Mike, David and Jeff for taking us down that road.

(E-mails clip from Mark Stackhouse, 10:21 PM, 20 May 2010)  [Photos]

...Actually, look closely - the bird is facing away, but the head is turned towards the photographer. Check out the distance between the eye and the bill - there's no fore-shortening there, so there shouldn't be any on the bill, either. I agree that the color looks more like Gray, but I'm less trusting of color in a photo like this than structural details, especially shades of gray/white/yellow that can be very easily washed out depending upon the exposure/lighting, etc. The bill of a Dusky has more black than does Gray, that has almost all of the lower mandible yellow, except for the tip. Dusky usually has just the basal half (or even less) yellow. Of course, if you assume that the angle of the photo only allows the tip of the bill to be visible, then the "black tip" is all you would see.

But, as I said above, I think that a careful look at the posture of the bird reveals that we are, in fact, seeing most of the bill.

I'm sticking with Dusky. ;-)...

(E-mails clip from Jeff Cooper, 11:43 PM, 20 May 2010)  [Photos]

I apologize if this is only prolonging the agony for some, but I'm learning from this discussion. I went back to the disc and found all the photos I have for both birds.
I've labeled the files as "Empid1..." for the one on the fence and "Empid2..." for the one in the tree. You can see all the photos by clicking on the link below. I have also enlarged these for what I think is the best viewing without getting too blurry. I was able to get some better angles on the one in the tree.

Based on the discussions I've read and observing the additional photos, I lean toward:
Dusky for the fence bird (short, mostly black bill and short primaries)
Hammonds for the tree bird (long primaries seen in backside photo)...

(E-mails clip from Jeff Cooper, 7:28 AM, 21 May 2010)  [Photos]

Thanks for posting these extra images - especially for bird #2 (in the tree), they are very enlightening.

I agree with your call on these, Jeff. There's nothing in the new images to change my opinion that the first bird (the fence bird) is a Dusky. However, the two shots of the back of bird #2 give a new bit of information that we didn't have before. Look at the primary extensions on that bird - they are really long. That strongly supports Hammond's, and not Dusky. The tail is also visible in those shots, and although it seems to me to be on the longish side for Hammond's (perhaps because of the photo angle/posture of the bird), but I think within the range for this species. I'm pleased to see that, because the shape of the eye-ring (thicker behind the eye) really troubled me for Dusky. Now there are three strong features for Hammond's - the eye-ring, the all black bill, and the long primary extension, with two features somewhat against Hammond's - tail length and bill length, though I think both of those are within the range for Hammond's. By weight of evidence, I lean towards Hammond's for bird #2.

As you can see from my comments, I'm a big fan of structural features in empid i.d. (those who know me know that it's my first choice for all bird i.d.). Key structural characters for empids are the bill (my main focus on western empids), primary extension, and tail length. As far as plumage characters go, for me it's all about the eye-ring, although, as with all plumage characters, molt and wear can affect this. I am very distrusting of overall color, especially the color of the underparts, as I find these far too variable between individuals and even within one individual at different times of the year...

         Photos by Jeff Cooper  (Click the "back arrow" to return to the discussion).

 Photos by Jeff Cooper
(Click the "back arrow" to return to the discussion).

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