As fall approaches, Leonard and I continue to see birds that usually do not venture close to the house in our yard (Modoc County CA). We speculate it is because of drought conditions that have persisted for several months. Perhaps water is the stimulus for their wandering close to humans. Our latest unusual visitor was a willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).
The willow flycatcher is almost identical to the alder flycatcher. In fact, these two birds were considered the same species until 1970. One needs to hear their call in order to separate the two birds. Range is also a factor with the willow flycatcher being the more southerly of the two. Many birders, when uncertain, simply refer to the willow and alder flycatcher by their previous name, Traill’s flycatcher.
The song of the willow flycatcher is innate and not learned. In experiments where young willow flycatchers were raised with alder flycatchers, the willow flycatchers sang the song characteristic to its species.
This small, drab bird can be found in wet, bushy areas, often near standing or running water. Upland pastures and abandoned orchards also serve as home to willow flycatchers. Willow flycatchers summer throughout most of the United States except the southeast and winter in western Mexico and Venezuela.
The willow flycatcher has an olive brown back with dark wings marked by two white bars. The throat is white and contrasts with a pale yellow belly. The thin white eyering may be lacking, particularly late in the season when the feathers have become worn. The willow flycatcher’s upper mandible is dusky and the lower mandible is almost entirely pinkish, although there may be a dusky area at the tip.
True to its name, the willow flycatcher eats insects which it forages in flight. Some berries may be consumed in the fall.
John James Audubon gave the willow flycatcher its species name, traillii, to honor the Scottish zoologist, Dr. Thomas Stewart Traill (1781-1862).