Frazzled looking Dusky Flycatcher in Point Loma

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – While watching the very camera friendly Hammond’s Flycatcher at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery another dull olive-gray Empidonax, agitated and a lot more frazzled looking, suddenly came flying into the scene next to it. Interacting briefly with the Hammond’s, the new flycatcher then moved off to a distant isolated pine tree before finally returning briefly to feed along the fence line. At first I thought it might be another Hammond’s Flycatcher but its longer tailed look, different head shape, and strong looking bill, made me think again. After examining detailed photographs that show its very short primary projection, relatively scruffy looking plumage, strong bill, and mostly absent yellow coloration on the underparts, this does appear to be a Dusky Flycatcher Empidonax oberholseri.

The photographs below show very well the short primary projection characteristic of Dusky Flycatcher. One can compare it to the the rakish, extremely long, primary projection of Hammond’s Flycatcher (for example, see my previous blog post). In addition the pale whitish patch around the lores area is very evident along with the stronger bill and more rounded head shape. This individual has just begun molting with some patchy new and stronger colored plumage (more olive) scattered around on its body. Much of the underpart feathers appear to be worn looking.

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Viewed in ideal lighting conditions the outer edge to the outer tail feather (r6) appears distinctly white in Dusky Flycatcher. The short primary projection and long tail creates the relative impression of about the longest tailed Empidonax there is in my opinion.

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

It is difficult to capture images from below of Empidonax bills and usually the coloration is next to impossible to see. My only advice is keep taking photographs from all angles underneath the bird! The following images show the characteristic narrower spear-shaped bill and extensive darker coloration of the lower mandible of Dusky Flycatcher. It really only has a pale base. The Gray Flycatcher has a fully pale lower mandible with a small dark tip, while the Pacific-slope Flycatcher is wholly pale and in addition of greater width with a spade shaped morphology.

One novel field character which I believe can differentiate Dusky Flycatcher apart from the confusion species, Hammond’s Flycatcher, is the small overhanging hooked tip of the upper mandible. To my eye it looks like the small hook seen on a vireo bill and is noticeable in the close-up head-shot below. Certainly this hooked upper mandible feature is very difficult to see with binoculars! But I feel I can always notice this hooked tip in photographs of birds that I believe are Dusky Flycatchers. Hammond’s Flycatcher has a smaller bill with more closely meeting mandible tips without the hook present on the upper mandible like Dusky Flycatcher. Maybe a “birding photography” strategy here is to “get as close as you can photographs of the bill tip”! I think it could be very useful for differentiating the two species apart. The hooked tip of the upper mandible can also be clearly seen on photographs of a Dusky Flycatcher that I found at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery earlier this year. In my opinion Dusky Flycatcher is under reported in San Diego County due to the difficulties of identification. Look for the hook!

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Oct 2013

Camera friendly Hammond’s Flycatcher in Point Loma

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I am beginning to think video could be a great aid to teaching Empidonax identification. There is just a look-and-feel of each species in my opinion. I put together some high definition video clips of the Hammond’s Flycatcher Empidonax hammondii found by Sue Smith on 20 October 2013 at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California. This flycatcher was very approachable and you can hear the “flaparazzi” in the background. Yes, that noise is Matthew Binns’ Canon 1Dx shooting at a full 12.5 frames per second!

All the field marks appropriate for this species can be seen in the video including, most importantly I think; the extreme long primary extension beyond the tertials (start of the second clip, for example!), the strong yellow wash on the freshly molted plumage of the underparts, the small dark bill, and the light gray throat (tricky to see I agree, but it is actually not white). Digital photography, or videography for that matter, can be extremely helpful but lighting is a very important factor. To observe many of the subtle plumage coloration characteristics of Empidonax species avoid strong sunlight and follow a bird around into more shaded light conditions if possible. Also, obtaining truly representative images of primary extension can be frustratingly difficult. The best documentation photographs require the bird to be at camera height straight ahead of you standing with its side facing you. Photographs taken from above or below, or at an oblique angle, will be inferior and more difficult to interpret.

In addition the following still photographs show more of the field characters of this delightful small Empidonax species. Primary extension beyond the tertials is strikingly long in this species and presents a very good field mark if seen well at close enough range. Digital photography of course makes this much easier to study, but practice really helps when looking for this field mark. To photograph the flycatcher Mathew Binns let me try out his Canon 1Dx and 500 mm II lens and the first two shots below reflect this!

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 20 Oct 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 20 Oct 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 20 Oct 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 20 Oct 2013

First storm moves in – Great Crested Flycatcher and more!

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I have been anxiously monitoring the first “winter” storm to move in down here in Southern California with the hope it might steer some wayward vagrants our way. But after getting to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery at dawn this morning for a quick walk around it seemed like the high winds and rain might, literally, put a damper on everything. Add to that the virtual darkness under the thick, damp cloud cover and I was not hopeful!

Then one of those “uh-oh” moments! Here sat a perfect candidate – on the ground at the base of the fence in front of me was a very exhausted looking Myiarchus flycatcher! A bird that is tired looking, semi-moribund, tells me one thing – it probably came a long way! This needed checking out very carefully! I approached a bit closer but the flycatcher came to life and flew off low through the fence. I played cat-and-mouse getting looks at a bright yellow blob moving ahead of me with a shocking dark red-rufous tail. The bill did appear pinkish at the base and bright white markings stood out edging the tertials. Then it just flew out and flopped down on the grass in front of me about twenty yards away! I managed to get a nice series of photographs at this point, phew. I really thought the bird would just continue to hop around on the ground in front of me, but no, it flew up a small height and was whipped away by the strong winds! Aaarghh! I ran over to the pine tree, where it was blown to, but there was no sign of it in the noisy rustling canopy. That was it – the last view I got!

Great Crested Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 09 Oct 2013

My gut feeling, looking at the bill size and color, yellow underparts up to the lower chest, dark gray throat and face, and dark (olive) brown back and crown, was that this was probably a Great Crested Flycatcher Myiarchus crinitus. On my way home I called Paul Lehman for some advice on the flycatcher. In addition to the olive-brown upperparts, he also reminded me that this species shows off a large crisp white outer edge to the innermost tertial on the wing. At home, scrutinizing the photographs, this bird does indeed show off all the credentials of a Great Crested Flycatcher.

Great Crested Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 09 Oct 2013

Great Crested Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 09 Oct 2013

Looking to refind the flycatcher on the east side of the cemetery I then also found a Yellow-green Vireo Vireo flavoviridis actively moving along just behind the fence line in the southeast section. In fact from a distance I saw a yellowish-green bird perched on the fence top and thought it might be a small oriole! But a quick look through binoculars and I was soon running towards the vireo! It was hard to see in the gnarly Myoporum bush tops but I finally managed to obtain some reasonably good photographs of my second Yellow-green Vireo of Fall 2013!

Yellow-green Vireo – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 09 Oct 2013

Yellow-green Vireo – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 09 Oct 2013

Yellow-green Vireo – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California 09 Oct 2013

Spring migrant Dusky Flycatcher – awash with yellow

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – Hot on the tracks of yesterday’s Gray Flycatcher I was very happy today to find this colorful and very cooperative Dusky Flycatcher Empidonax oberholseri at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Again, a first impression from the birds behavior to help identify it – this Dusky Flycatcher repeatedly raised its tail upwards, with perhaps just a small dip too after each raise. Unlike the Gray Flycatcher, which seemed happy hunting insects from a perch a few feet from the ground, this bird preferred a perch 10 or 20 feet above the ground attacking fast flying prey items that passed beneath it. On occasion the bill snapping and loud crack of a caught beetle, being dispatched by whacking against a branch, gave away the birds close presence to me.

Care has to be taken separating Dusky Flycatcher from Hammond’s Flycatcher which is also present on migration here in San Diego at this “tween” date. Characteristic of Dusky, and unlike the grayer underparts of Hammond’s, this bird shows freshly molted body feathers with a bright colored light yellow wash throughout the underparts. Also, seen in the right light, other body plumage on this bird also appears quite brightly washed with green, unlike the more faded gray appearance of Hammond’s.

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

There are a few more field characters identifying this bird as a Dusky Flycatcher and not a Hammond’s Flycatcher – the short primary extension of the wing, stronger and wider based bill, and, most importantly, the pale whitish lores, which actually extend and meet on the fore-crown over the bill, forming whitish goggles when the bird looks straight at you. Other more subtle things to look for include the longer tail, a bit more rounded shape head (not as round as Gray Flycatcher), and the tail which is not as deeply notched at the end as Hammond’s Flycatcher. Take a look at my Hammond’s Flycatcher post below also for comparisons.

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Dusky Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Apr 2013

Based on the San Diego Bird Atlas (Unitt, 2004) the Dusky Flycatcher is a rare migrant in both fall and spring in San Diego County with just eight spring records from Point Loma. This record on 20 Apr would extend the migrant record dates, 21 April to 9 May, by a single day only. In addition the species is also a scarce breeder at high elevations in the mountains of east San Diego County and, surprisingly, has recently been found wintering on occasion in the county.

Tail dipping Gray Flycatcher – Point Loma

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I heard the “whit” sound as soon as I stepped out of my vehicle at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery this morning. Sure enough one of my favorite flycatchers, a Gray Flycatcher Empidonax wrightii, was actively calling from low perches such as the grave markers and a temporary plastic fence. It slowly moved about the cemetery grounds swooping down and resting on the lawn for a few seconds each time it caught an insect. Apart from the physical characteristics, rounded head, large strong bicolored bill, and voice, a soft but quite loud “whit” call, the behavior of this bird immediately reveals its identity. Unique among the Empidonax species it repeatedly dips its tail in the downward direction only. Since the vast majority of birds that move their tails flick them upwards this behavior is easily noticed, and even appears a bit odd! The tail dipping is quite slow too, almost pendulum like. Like other individuals I have encountered in the past, this bird allowed close approach. I would say it is almost tame compared to its high energy congeners! The close looks allowed some nice opportunities for photographs.

Gray Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 19 Apr 2013

Gray Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 19 Apr 2013

Gray Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 19 Apr 2013

Gray Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 19 Apr 2013

Gray Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 19 Apr 2013

Gray Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 19 Apr 2013

Springtime crown color of Hammond’s Flycatcher?

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I have been looking out for migrant flycatchers lately and was pleased to find this characterful Hammond’s Flycatcher Empidonax hammondii frequenting the “wall” area on the east side of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Based on the San Diego Bird Atlas (Unitt, 2004) the Hammond’s Flycatcher can be found on spring migration here generally a few weeks earlier than the similar looking Dusky Flycatcher – the first clue to its identity!

In addition to the date of observation, several important field characters of Hammond’s Flycatcher can be seen in the photographs below which separate it from the closely similar, and rarer, Dusky Flycatcher. The condition of the plumage is very worn, particularly the wing and tail feathers, and these look faded, almost brownish in fact. This worn condition is characteristic of Hammond’s Flycatcher in spring, and contrasts the relatively freshly molted plumage of Dusky Flycatcher at this time of year. In addition the primary projection extends a great length beyond the secondaries, characteristic of Hammond’s versus a short primary projection of Dusky. Finally the bill is narrow at the base and fine shaped, quite weak looking in fact, and dark blackish colored, characteristic of Hammond’s, and unlike Dusky which has a stronger looking, broader based, and usually bicolored bill.

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

I was lucky enough to obtain more photographs of this Hammond’s Flycatcher from different angles under cloudy late afternoon lighting. In fact it was raining lightly some of the time. This flat lighting helps illustrate some other important field characters. The overall grey coloration of the face and plain grey lores, giving it an “emotionless” staring appearance, also separates it from Dusky Flycatcher, which has pale-colored lores and a more aggressive appearance. The underparts are also a cool grey color throughout with perhaps only a hint of yellowish wash at the rear, unlike Dusky which is more yellowish in spring. Also important is the grey throat color, again unlike other species with throats that appear whiter. Really, only the back of this bird has a different color – a green tone – being olive in coloration. And there is, urm, maybe the hint of something in the crown color…

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher is about the second most likely Empidonax to be encountered in San Diego County, after Pacific-slope Flycatcher. I would say around 95%, or more, of Empidonax flycatchers that I find here on the coast are the latter species. There is always something new to learn or questions to be asked about this difficult to identify genus! Which in fact brings me to my question – maybe it is an artifact of lighting or the feathers are wet, or I am losing my marbles – does the bird shown here have dark reddish coloration in the crown feathers?

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Supermarket Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Not satisfied with my previous flight views and sun blinded looks on the overhead wire, I dropped by the Oceanside Fresh & Easy supermarket parking lot again today to see if the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus forficatus was around. My luck changed and I found it working along the tops of drought stricken fennel plants on the open waste land just north of the parking lot. Views were brief though before it bolted again, like a small pink and grey missile, heading for the hillside! This is one nervous bird and very mobile.

I managed to get a few level flight shots as it went by me on the way to the hillside but discovered later I had only captured images of the wing beats down! This bird is an adult at least one year in age because it has advanced through prealternate molt, sometime earlier this year in the spring, of the outer primary (P10). Prebasic molt in this species does not include outer primary replacement so this cannot be a hatch year bird because the retained juvenile P10 tip would be a rounded type without a notch. In flight the image below captures the shape of this adult plumage outer primary on the right wing which has a female type, smaller length, notched tip (thinner tip). Given the shorter tail and not very extensive reddish pink axillary coloration most likely this is an adult female Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

This Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was originally found by Oceanside birder Michael Martin on 05 Oct 2012. The species is considered a Category B rarity by San Diego Field Ornithologists which means we get about one record annually in the county. In fact the most recent report came some time ago in November 2009 when a long-staying individual frequented the Model Plane Airfield at Mission Bay. Perhaps this handsome looking much sought after flycatcher from the east now visits us less often than before.

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Strange Wood-Pewee

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – A lot of discussion was generated recently about a flycatcher found in the southeast corner of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I initially ran into this bird while it was in a stationary mode sitting around on a grave marker. It seemed a bit odd looking, sort of “legless” and inanimate perched on its belly on the grave marker, and was quite gentle looking and round headed. It almost looked like a big martin – perhaps a giveaway right there! As soon as it took flight however there was no mistaking the barrel-roll aerial acrobatics and large cloak like wings of a Wood-Pewee. This bird flew like a martin but in tight circles and with such swift turns you could not keep up with it visually. Later on I deleted all the photographs that I took not realizing they might be useful! Luckily I was back there the next day and took a few more photographs of it sitting on a grave marker which are shown below.

Even viewed from the back, foreshortened in perspective, this bird has a very long primary projection extending a good one-third of the way down the tail. It is a big tail too, wide all the way down its length and quite well notched. Perhaps a bit difficult to discern it does actually have three wing bars. The lesser secondary coverts, mostly hidden by the fluffy scapular feathers, are pale-tipped in addition to the more noticeable other two large wing bars on the median and greater secondary coverts.

One of the nice things about watching many different bird species sitting on grave markers at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is that you have available a standard size marker to compare against the bird! The Standard Government Upright Headstone is 42 inches long, 13 inches wide, and 4 inches in thickness. So if you can get a bird close to it then you kind of have a ruler sitting right there on the photograph!

The flight shot below of the Wood-Pewee captures the bird leaving the Upright Headstone, the headstone it flew from is below the bird. The bird is literally right on the headstone in flight since it is in the narrow depth of focus of the effective 640 mm focal length of my lens. Note the enormous cloak like wings that are just really long when outstretched.

The photograph below is darkened to show better the thickness of the Headstone Marker. To compare the bird versus the 4 inch thick Headstone Marker I simply measured a V from the middle of the bird’s back to each wing tip and scaled that total measurement against the thickness of the Headstone Marker below that it flew from. My estimate came out about a 10 inch or bit larger wingspan of this bird. Try it – it works!

The following wingspans come from Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology online species accounts; Western Wood-Pewee 10.2 inches, Eastern Wood-Pewee 9.1-10.2 inches, Least Flycatcher 7.9 inches, and Hammond’s Flycatcher 8.7 inches. It would seem to fit best in the Wood-Pewee range.

The mostly dark lower mandible indicates this is very likely a juvenile Western Wood-Pewee and not an Eastern Wood-Pewee which ought to show more light coloration. I think a bit of yellow-orange color can be seen also at the bill gape, it looks a bit swollen like a juvenile bird. Juvenile Western Wood-Pewees complete their first prebasic molt on the wintering grounds so we ought to see a few coming through the area at this date. I never heard it vocalize but think it is reasonable to assume it is the more common of the two possible species here in Southern California.

Migrants arriving – Willow Flycatcher “brewsteri” form

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – The weekend of 09 September 2012 turned out to be a hot one and my destination at Borrego Springs, San Diego County was cooking. I tracked around a few locations but ended up at the Roadrunner Club where at least there were some shade trees to hide under. I soon found out that the mesquite trees, particularly larger ones, were where all the bird action was happening. Migrants were about including small numbers of Warbling Vireo and Yellow Warbler but I also had success here finding several of the northwestern form of Willow Flycatcher Empidonax traillii brewsteri.

I found several Willow Flycatchers in the resort, they are usually quite easy to approach, but the silhouettes in late morning sunlight were tough to draw conclusions about how dark or pale individuals looked. Reading the literature it seems evident that most, if not all, Willow Flycatchers you might run in to on fall migration here in southern California are probably the more abundant and darker colored northwestern form brewsteri and not the Federal and California listed Endangered paler colored form extimus known as “Southwestern Willow Flycatcher”. Each individual I saw here appeared to be the darker brown brewsteri. The bright buffy wingbars on the greater and median secondary coverts indicated these were juveniles.

You might be forgiven thinking this bird resembles a Western Wood-Pewee Contopus sordidulus at first glance but several visible features are diagnostic for Willow Flycatcher. The primary extension is short. In the first photograph the closed wingtips meet above the upper tail coverts (rump) unlike the much longer wingtips of the pewee. That silhouette view from below gets you a look at the very wide, almost spade-shaped, bill profile unlike the finer tapered profile of the pewee bill. In my GISS (General Impression of Size and Shape) birding mind the Willow Flycatcher often looks as if it has “solid square shoulders” and a tapered body profile to the rear which accentuates the quite large long dark tail. The Willow Flycatcher has a smoother looking rounded head profile and concolorous breast, all features unlike the pewee. Finally behavior is different, although no strict rules apply! Willow Flycatcher is generally quite retiring, for example under mesquite canopies or along shady hedgerows (oleanders here in the desert) like these photographed individuals, while the pewee can be found perched prominently on fence-lines or exposed snags sallying out to catch flying insects. The audible bill snapping of both species is a good clue to search around for their nearby presence.

The temperature topped out at about 105F by 11:30 AM and my resolve to keep looking for birds collapsed so I headed out toward the cooler coastal mountains. Thunderheads were brewing on the horizon, away to the south coming up from Mexico, and the locals told me they were feeling earthquakes!