[birding] Interesting Empidonax (Least?) Flycatcher at Luckiamute Landing, Polk Co.

Joel Geier joel.geier at peak.org
Fri Sep 25 10:58:51 PDT 2009

Hi folks,

I stopped by the Luckiamute Landing unit of Luckiamute State Natural
Area this morning to pick some of the hops which grow wild there (and
are in effect an invasive species). Before I started picking, I indulged
in a bit of birding.

Notables included a MERLIN (probably the same one reported by Howard
Bruner on Sunday's NAMC), a VESPER SPARROW in the former nesting area by
the reed-canary-grass slough (though I don't think any nested there this
year), and two late migrant HOUSE WRENS.

I also had a brief view of a puzzling EMPIDONAX FLYCATCHER sp. with a
distinct eye-ring and pale underside of the bill, which was foraging in
view for about 30 seconds on the SW edge of the woods, right where the
field road that leads toward the trail through the gallery forest takes
an E/SE-ward bend at the NE corner of said slough (the field road has
been planted over with fescue in this stretch).

I first noticed the bird while watching a couple of DOWNY WOODPECKERS
that were wrangling over a cottonwood until another woodpecker sp. flew
in that I thought was a RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER. I gave a couple of owl
calls to see if I could get the sapsucker to peek around the edge of the
cottonwood trunk, and then I heard an unfamiliar, buzzy sort note and
saw the flycatcher, which was moving through a small Oregon ash tree ash
tree (~30 ft high) that was standing a bit outside of the closed-canopy
part of the woods.

I had one good look at the underside of the bill. It appeared to be
entirely yellow or slightly orangeish yellow, as typical for "Western"
Flycatcher. However it struck me as a bit too narrow for a "Western,"
more like a Dusky in terms of length-to-width ratio.

The bird had a fairly bold, complete whiteish eye ring. However it was
not noticeably elongated toward the back, as I'd expect for a Western.
Also the head was rather rounded and the head color was more gun-metal
grayish (it reminded me of one of the more colorful Cassin's Vireos that
we sometimes see. 

I didn't get much of a look at the rest of the bird as it was moving in
and out of view, chasing insects among the branches of the ash tree. It
had some yellowish tones on the belly and olive tones on the back and
breast, and it did have two pale wing bars, but I can't say more than
that. I didn't get enough of a look to say anything about primary
projection etc. However, my overall impression was a of a somewhat
smallish, boxy bird compared with Western Flycatcher.

Aside from that first buzzy call which I took to be a scold note, I
didn't hear any vocalizations while the bird was in view. I lost track
of it when it flew back into the brush within the edge of the woods. I
waited around for about 15-20 minutes to see if it would appear again,
but it didn't. I did hear one two-syllable, flycatcher-like call that
sounded like, "CHEE-bek" coming from back in the brush, toward the end
of my wait, but I just heard it once.

As for possibilities:

A territorial male Willow Flycatcher was in this same area during the
summer months, but I'm sure that this wasn't a Willow Flycatcher (based
on the relatively bold eye ring, narrow bill, and rounded head, and
general impression of a more boxy shape). Dusky and Hammond's are
possible here as migrants but normally show mostly dark lower mandibles.
Pacific-slope Flycatcher is regular at this site but for the reasons
mentioned above, it didn't seem to be one of those.

I'm leaning toward LEAST FLYCATCHER, which seems to fit in all respects
provided that those can have an entirely pale lower mandible (Sibley
shows birds with partly dark lower bills but National Geographic, 3rd
Edition, shows mostly to entirely pale bills for this species. I have no
past experience with Least Flycatchers but they have occurred 2-3 times
at Ankeny NWR which is only 4 or 5 miles from this spot by air.

Sorry to say, this was not a "motorless" bird since I took our minivan
to haul along hops-picking paraphernalia. I may bicycle back over there
tomorrow to look some more.

Happy birding,

Joel Geier
Camp Adair area north of Corvallis

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