Back in September 2019 Sandra and I found an empid at Chebogue Point, Yarmouth County which was subsequently identified as a Dusky Flycatcher. The process was both a learning curve and a source of disappointment. If I ever come across a really drab empid again you can be sure that I will not let it go, at least Ronnie did see that bird. The disappointment came about because it wasn’t shared, I like all local birders to get the birds and I like it even better if birds stay long enough for travelling Nova Scotia birders to score as well.
On Jun-08, 2020 we had an appointment in Yarmouth and so naturally called in at Pont du Marais in Lower West Pubnico on the way to see a singing Willow Flycatcher – newly found that morning by Alix. We pulled up, it sang away, then got into a chase with another empid and we left, easy.
After the completion of business in Yarmouth, we decided to do what we usually do and wander to the end of Chebogue Point. In the fine but breezy weather I didn’t really expect much and I certainly didn’t expect the previous days fogged in Yellow-bellied Flycatcher to still be in ‘The Willows’. I was right, it wasn’t; in fact there was nothing at all there. Moving on to the farm, which was busy as usual, we paused by the small patch of shrubs at the entrance, a good spot for a tired, newly arrived migrant – well at least until one of the multitude of farm cats find them it is.
Because the farm was busy we didn’t intend to give it long, it seemed barren, but then some movement from the other side of the shrub caught our attention. Manoeuvering the car into the right position, we got a look at our bird, an empid, oh good!
Just for those reading this who don’t know, an empid is an Empidonax flycatcher of which there four in our bit of the east, Alder, Least, Yellow-bellied and Willow – given in order of NS abundance. There is one other eastern species, Acadian, which is actually rare in NS although probably overlooked. Out west there are a few more empids, and of those, Hammond’s and Dusky have occurred in NS as rare vagrants. There are four others species of empid on the North America north of Mexico list. The likeliest in NS, although they really are unlikely, is Pacific-slope, after that Cordilleran, Grey and then Pine Flycatcher although the latter is a vagrant to the whole area.
Pacific-slope/Cordilleran, as a species pairing, can be referred to as ‘Western’ Flycatcher, given the difficulties in identifying them unless vocalising. An empid in NS in 2015 was a ‘western’ but was never specifically identified.
Pewees can look like empids given a bad view, just ignore them.
So now you are bang up to date on NS empids and empids in general.
The first impression of the Chebogue empid was that it was greeny, I don’t think that there is another way to put it and that is what I said to Sandra as soon as we saw it. It didn’t have a crown peak and it didn’t look ‘big’ although the bill did. Big on a lone bird is subjective and big in this case isn’t duck to a goose big, it is a nominal quarter of an inch on each wing, with variability even there.
Conscious of the farm activity and knowing that the old farmer can be a little grumpy sourpus, we watched and photographed, then we quickly tried playback, a call would be diagnostic. I would record it, we would listen and, hey presto!, you have an ID, but it remained silent. It didn’t take any notice of Willow Flycatcher, positively ignored Alder Flycatcher but became visibly active and was searching the area from a perch as it tried to triangulate the source of the Acadian Flycatcher it could then hear, which was us. Not conclusive for an ID though, maybe it was just a genuine fan of empid songs.
After a couple of minutes, we left the area and I put a photo on our local Facebook Messenger group. I wasn’t going to call it an Acadian but it was different enough for me to suggest that it worth people taking the trouble to look at it. We passed Paul Gould as we left and he got a good look too.
After I’d sent out the image, Alix posted an image of a bird he’d seen in the same place the day before with Kathleen. Their bird looked greeny too, but they had duller light to photograph in than we did and I also had my camera set to over expose a little, making my images a bit washed out.
Back of my camera versus Alix’s photo posted on Messenger suggested that they were the same bird, there was also the news that Alix and Kathleen had got recordings of their bird.
Empid vocalisations are crucial to ID sometimes. On this occasion they have proved, so far, a source of confusion.
On Jun-12 I was wondering whether Alix and Kathleen had posted the empid recordings to eBird, Kathleen had. One song recording was so different to any of our regular empids that I took to Xeno Canto to see whether I could find something similar. I came across a not dissimilar Pacific-slope song but I knew that it wasn’t one of those. I mentioned this similarity to Alix though, and he sent their recordings to Dave Bell in British Columbia. Dave would be well-placed to comment on whether the some calls might be a variation of Pacific-slope vocalisation, although I was sure it wasn’t one visually.
Dave came back with the news that, in his opinion, it was an Acadian. At home I double checked my images against Alix and Kathleen’s and yes; it was the same bird (still!). Then I surfed Xeno Canto again, this time amongst the right species, and there are Acadian Flycatchers on there that match the two-part song in one recording.
Kathleen’s eBird checklist with the recordings and some photos is here:
Empids are rightly described as difficult, lone birds especially so. Digital photos are a boon in aiding identification but sometimes it takes a hunch, a ‘that looks green’ moment, the get a conversation going. In hindsight I should have made more of the bird, added the term ‘greeny’ to the image on Facebook which might have allowed more local eyes to get on it. At least this time I did put a photo out though.
With empids like the Chebogue bird, nothing is ever simple and there is a process. Part of that process is exposing the details to a wider, and hopefully more experienced audience. You should never be concerned about doing this as a good record stands and a bad one falls by this process. You should also consider that it is likely that some of the commentators will not know what they are talking about, sift the wheat from the chaff and then some.
Here are the comments on the bird from the Advanced ID Facebook group, I’ve added my comments after, where comments are replies to a different thread or additional they are added after the original:
1 – I listened to the recordings- I’m not an empid expert but I am familiar with Acadians (they nest in my neighborhood) and I don’t think the calls are a good match. They sound weaker and squeakier to my ear than typical ACFL. Not an expert, thanks for the comments though.
2 – Those calls sound fine for Alder to me. No they don’t, one vocalistation is nothing like an Alder.
3 – This bird does not look (primaries too short), or sound like an Acadian Flycatcher to me. I think Alder is a better fit. Judging an empid from a photo is subjective at best, you need to get the ruler out and do the math and then say why in detail.
3.1 – I think that what’s kinda confusing about this bird is the gestalt. It just (at least in these images) does not “present” like an Acadian Flycatcher. In my experience, Acadian is the most pewee-like of the empids, long, with long wings, a bit lanky and with a plain face and most often a hint of bushy crest. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it five thousand times: identifying birds from photographs is often more difficult than having the live bird in front of you.
3 – reply (not me): While Acadian does have long primaries on average, Pyle gives the range of longest primary minus longest secondary for Acadian Flycatcher as 13.3 to 23.5 mm, which overlaps with the other Empids. The short-looking primaries were why we initially discounted Acadian in the field.
There are Alder Flycatcher calls in the audio recording as well.
3 – reply to the reply: That makes sense! Some of the calls were too high pitched for Alder and some were too low pitched for Acadian.
4 – Me, clarifying a few things in the group comments: The images don’t actually do the bird justice in terms of being how green looking it was in the field. My wife and I saw the bird, it stayed silent, but it didn’t look like any Alder I’ve ever seen in terms of plumage and, bear in mind, that I see them almost daily, they breed in our yard and are common around Cape Sable Island where we live. I’ve obviously listened to the vocalisations on the checklist and one in particular I have never heard from an Alder, the two-part one. I don’t have a deal of experience with Acadian but birders who do have been happy with the identification.
5 – I’ve got recordings of confirmed Acadians giving this vocalization type, and the photos certainly look good for Acadian (narrow complete eye ring, long primary extension). I’d say that is the best choice.
An experienced recordist with examples, this is how comments should be, backed up with more details to help make a decision.
6 – To me this bird looks like a typical Alder Flycatcher. While the call is a little Acadian-like it isn’t quite like any I ever heard and I hear hundreds every year. No it doesn’t look like a typical Alder and to say so undermines the fact that the observers asking for comments already know what an Alder looks and sounds like.
7 – The higher-pitched vocalizations in all the recordings are made by Acadian Flycatchers. I hear these call types all the time. Yesterday, today, the previous two weeks when I hiked 70 miles in Acadian habitat, last year, year before…you get the idea. Supportive of Acadian but, to some extent, as subjective as saying it is just an Alder, even though the comment is meant with the best intentions and I don’t doubt the sincerity.
8 – Acadians are the local breeder where I am, and that certainly is not my impression, either by the photo (agree that the primaries look too short) or the audio. I am certainly not an Empidonax expert writ large, but I’ve been spending a lot of concentrated time with a nesting Acadian pair lately, and pretty familiar with them. This checklist wouldn’t hit a review queue here, since ACFL is the expected species – but if it did, it would raise flags among reviewers (myself included). I am not an… Move on.
9 – I’m no empid expert, but Acadians have a curved scimitar winged appearance, which this bird does not. We can read books too, thanks!
10 – This is absolutely an Acadian Flycatcher. The primary projection is within range, and the call notes are perfect. ALFL has a burry squeak call, not the clean and long call of ACFL.
11 – People focusing on the primary projection need to step back and take a look at the rest of the bird. Bill size, low color contrast, and wing pattern all support Acadian.
12 – I agree this bird looks and sounds great for an Acadian–the recordings really confirming it well. Alders have an equivalent call for both vocalizations given in these recordings, but their long “weew” call is burrier as previously noted and “pip” calls are less squeaky (a lot more like HAFL). Nice work for picking this out and obtaining outstanding documentation!
13 – Never thought the westerners would have to chime in on this — yes, this is an Acadian whether you consider the photos, audio, or both.
14 – The alula is retained and contrasts with the greater and primary coverts (obvious in the 2nd and 4th photo), which is regular in Acadian but unusual in Alder. I’m not very familiar with their call notes, but this looks like a relatively straightforward Acadian to me even if the primary projection is on the short side. It has a massive bill and low contrast overall, with yellowish green tones throughout.
15 – The (middle) bird’s head is tilted more towards the camera than the other two photos in this composite, which creates a shortening effect and makes it look more like the ALFL pic. That wouldn’t be the case if these pics were all taken from the same angle. Similar effect with the tail facing the camera in the middle pic but away or perpendicular in the other two; this makes the bird look relatively less elongated and therefore less pewee-like. But it’s because of the camera angle, not the shape of the bird.
16 – Those that band these, is there any merit to the buffy-tips to the lesser (?) coverts visible in the images as pro-Acadian? Do Alder and Yellow-bellied show these. Just curious.
16.1 – You mean the “third wingbar?” I think this can be a trait in other empids, but can be used as a supporting feature for ACFL.
16.2 – Well over 50% of the Acadians I see show this, while I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Alder with three wingbars. I think I’ve seen a few Yellow-bellied with it, but a tiny percentage.
So, as you can see there are mostly for and but the odd against comments plus one about turn, which is fair enough. I tend to think that when someone begins with “I’m not expert but…” you can ignore them. The issue of empid ID, when input is requested by observers who are not dummies, is one of the ‘hot coals’ of birding and you only want to hear from those with good, broad experience. You also want them to qualify their comments. The problem with such Facebook groups is that there is no data quality unless the commenters have a well-known ‘name’. The comments always require an element detail and should not be a dismissive for or against comment, nobody can learn from that.
I still think the bird is an Acadian Flycatcher, and, although my experience with them is limited, my experience with the other species of empid in the north-east is extensive and certainly enough to know that the Chebogue bird was not an Alder.
As updates on this debate happen, I’ll update here. For now I have reverted to ‘empid sp.’, in eBird, I hope to be able to confidently revert to Acadian, but sometimes life just isn’t like that.
Oh, and if you want to see how different settings can affect a digital image, ponder this one, a yard Eastern Wood-Pewee, photos taken seconds apart but with the camera set to different things.