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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Fascinating Flycatchers of the Southwest: Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Greater Pewee, Buff-breasted Flycatcher and More

[AZ and TX. April/August 2015]

Flycatchers are the unsung avian heroes of America. Possessing neither the color of the warblers nor the song of the thrushes, the flycatchers, however, are nonetheless fascinating in their own right: for, where else can you find an intriguing family of songbirds that possesses the aerial acrobatics of fighter jets coupled with the stoic patience of raptors?

The modus operandi of flycatchers involves frequent sallies to pluck insects from the air before returning to a favored perch; indeed their ability to "flycatch" anything from the air underlies the origin of their name. 

Although similar in feeding technique, the New World flycatchers are not related to Old World flycatchers -- the former comprise 400 species in 97 genera spread across North and South America and are known as "Tyrant Flycatchers". And, in the US, we have less than 10% of these -- roughly 30-odd representatives of the Tyrant Flycatcher family. These are generally drab, small to mid-sized birds with simple vocalizations; indeed many species are difficult to tell apart by sight (especially those of the genus Empidonax) and call notes and song become important distinguishing factors. 

The "best" selection of flycatcher species in the US is found in the Southwest of the country -- and, of these we will profile but a small sample -- encountered recently on a trip to AZ and TX earlier this year:
  1. Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet
  2. Greater Pewee
  3. Buff-breasted Flycatcher
  4. Ash-throated Flycatcher
  5. Brown-crested Flycatcher
  6. Say's Phoebe
  7. Vermilion Flycatcher
  8. Tropical Kingbird
  9. Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Famed as the species whose name is bigger than the bird itself, the imposing-sounding "Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet" is a Mexican species whose range barely extends into SEAZ and SE Texas. It is a highly sought-after target species for visiting birders to AZ.

Although the name of this 4.5 inch flycatcher may sound somewhat indecipherable -- it actually makes sense: a tyrannulet is simply a small tyrant flycatcher; the "beardless" means it lacks the hairy bristles that most flycatchers have around their bill; and, the "Northern" comes from the fact that the species formerly known as "Beardless Tyrannulet" was split into two: a Northern and a Southern species based on their distribution.

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet seen at Tanque Verde Wash, Tucson, AZ
The small crest and slightly downcurved bill together with the small size are all helpful in identification. The individual pictured above was seen in Tucson at the Tanque Verde Wash.

Next up: Greater Pewee -- compared to the Tyrannulet, this is a giant at about 9 inches.

Greater Pewee, Rose Canyon, Mt. Lemmon, AZ
This is another Mexican flycatcher that, in the US, is essentially restricted to Southeastern Arizona. Seen in Rose Canyon, this flycatcher's "Jose Maria" song is loud and unforgettable; as is the yellow lower mandible of the bill.

Of all the Empidonax flycatchers, the Buff-breasted Flycatcher, is the most distinctive-- for one, it is the only one not in a shade of green -- sporting instead incredibly delicate hues of cream and tan.

Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Rose Canyon, Mt. Lemmon, AZ
This outstanding individual was also seen at Rose Canyon which in this blogger's experience the best place to see this species.

Ash-throated Flycatcher and Brown-crested Flycatcher are two similar flycatchers:

Ash-throated Flycatcher seen at Burro Pouroff, Big Bend NP,TX

Brown-crested Flycatcher:

Brown-crested Flycatcher seen at Daniels Ranch, Big Bend NP,TX

Both are quite similar but note that the latter has a stouter bill and is found primarily in forested habitat while the former prefers arid habitat and is found in mainly desert surroundings.

Other flycatchers observed were:

Say's Phoebe:

Say's Phoebe seen at Chisos Basin, Big Bend NP,TX

And for those that might be thinking that all flycatchers are dull, may we present the Vermilion Flycatcher:

Vermilion Flycatcher seen at Tanque Verde Wash, Tucson, AZ

Finally, two large flycatchers -- Tropical Kingbird:

Tropical Kingbird seen at Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, AZ
... and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher:

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher seen at Madera Canyon, Green Valley, AZ

Both these tropical flycatchers are exclusive to SEAZ in the US. The Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher is unmistakable with its prominent streaking and large bill. It also has a "squeaky toy" call that is distinctive.

Flycatchers are a fascinating family of songbirds that are well represented in the US with about 30 species that range in size from the warbler-sized Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Buff-breasted Flycatcher to the almost Robin-sized Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher or Greater Pewee. And, while found across the US, the most charismatic species will draw the intrepid birder to regions in the Southwest.

1 comment:

Bob Pelkey said...

A wonderful collection of photography of the species highlighted, Hemant. It's continually rewarding to read your text as well. As you're certainly aware, Western Kingbirds have returned to Church Road in Felda, Florida, as reported on the first of the month.