BIRD WATCH: Pacific-slope flycatcher are masters of camouflage

FEW BIRDS ARE as well camouflaged as those in the Empidonax Complex.

Drab, greenish-gray plumage makes it possible for them to blend in with their surroundings.

Their shared coloring makes it next to impossible to separate one from another.

This is especially true during migration when they are silent.

Knowing their “songs,” or calls, is the best way to identify them.

This is a good time to give that a try because they are vocalizing on nesting territories throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The most common “Empid” in our region is the Pacific-slope flycatcher.

At one time it was one species, the Western flycatcher.

Then it was split into two species, the Pacific-slope and the Cordilleran.

The latter is to be more expected within the Rocky Mountain region.

Every spring and summer, we hear the Pacific-slope calling in the backyard where a waterfall, stream and pond attract them.

So does the surrounding habitat.

The mixed deciduous and coniferous trees and shrubs is favorite nesting habitat for them.

This year, their presence is impossible to miss.

You can’t step out on the deck or patio and not hear a greeting.

Different field guides give various suggestions as to what the bird sounds like.

I like Peterson’s “an up-slurred tseep.”

I hear it as a high-pitched or ringing upward “pseet.”

It goes on and on and is only a few feet away.

I think I know where its nest is but hesitate to look too closely.

Even though this bird’s natural nesting habitat is found in naturally occurring cavities from ground level to 30 feet in the air, it will also nest on manmade locations — a porchlight, a woodpile, under an eave or, as I suspect, on the bend of a gutter drainpipe snuggled against the chimney.

During other summers, this flycatcher perched farther away from the house, behind the stream and waterfall.

Its hunting perch was about 15 to 20 feet off the ground in either a dogwood, plum or cedar tree.

In good flycatcher form, it would fly out over the water, snatch a bug from the air and return to the perch.

This action was repeated over and over.

Sometimes, a very quick dip in the water at the top of the falls was taken.

Then it sat not far from where it had previously perched and preened.

This year it continues to enjoy the waterfall area but has taken to perching very close to the house.

The first time that “pseet” came from nearby, I did some serious looking about.

This bird’s scientific name is perfect, “Empidonax difficilis.”

It not only looks like other Empids but also like them, is difficult to pick out of the surrounding foliage.

When I finally spotted it, it was perched at the top of a Japanese maple planted in a large pot alongside the sidewalk and about 6 feet from the side of the house.

It reminded me of the time my late sister had a pair of these flycatchers nest on her front porchlight.

People walked in and out of the front door every day, several times a day.

Now, when I am working with the patio’s pots and plants or just walking back and forth from the garage or anywhere the sidewalk takes me, I hear “pseet!”

This means everything from, “sit still,” to “be quiet.”

Either the female on eggs or the newly hatched young are tuned into that quick short warning call and behave accordingly.

In the backyard, a nearby park or on a walk in the woods, “difficilis” will be telling you it’s nearby.

Just don’t ignore that quick, short, “pseet,” or, “tseep.”


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected]

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