The Flycatcher Birds: Flying Under the Radar

Keep your eyes peeled for these unsung birds. The scissor tailed, vermilion and great crested flycatcher bird species deserve time in the spotlight.

Olive-sided Flycatcher perching on a tree branch in Burnaby, British Columbia, CanadaYiBaoTY/Getty Images
Olive-sided flycatcher perching on a tree branch in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

I was clad in chest waders, it was hot and the mosquitos were out in full force. I had been walking for miles in up to a foot of water atop slippery trails and tree roots. It’s the cost of field biology in the remote boreal forest of Alaska. A year earlier, an olive-sided flycatcher had been captured, banded and equipped with a tiny data collector near the spot where I was walking. My job was to see if it had come back. As I approached, the unmistakable quick! three-beers! song erupted. Finally I spotted the flycatcher bird through my binoculars as it perched at the very top of a spruce. It had returned!

This olive-sided flycatcher had arrived from its wintering grounds in the Amazon rain forest. I’ve spent time in the jungles of South America, and the place seemed so far removed from the spruce forests of the subarctic that it was almost too much to believe. When I captured the bird two days later and removed the tiny geolocator from its back, the data proved it.

ash throated flycatcher birdCourtesy Bob Elliott
Ash-throated flycatcher

Types of Flycatcher Birds

Birds in the flycatcher group are often overlooked. Many appear so frustratingly similar to one another (various mixes of olive green, white and gray) that many casual birders simply ignore them. Even their songs—combinations of squeaky, nasal notes—lack excitement. They are suboscine songbirds, which means that, unlike thrushes, wrens and warblers, they lack the necessary anatomy for elaborate song. But there is far more to flycatchers than meets the eye (or ear).

Some are by no means dull in appearance, and even those that are plain make up for their lack of flash through staggering migrations. Like the olive-sided species that flies to Alaska, flycatcher birds are too interesting to ignore. Here are a few favorites.

Alder Flycatcher, Empidonax alnorum, perched on branchhstiver/Getty Images
Alder flycatcher

Alder Flycatcher

The alder flycatcher is a member of the genus Empidonax, which may be the most difficult group of songbirds to separate into species. Like many of its sister species, the alder is small and olive green, with a pale breast and a partial eye-ring. Its song is a lackluster, nasal two-note call. But this songbird, weighing about half an ounce, makes an astonishing yearly migration. They traverse the entire Western Hemisphere from their breeding grounds in the boreal forest of Alaska and Canada to the chilly temperate climate of the western Amazon rain forest. Few songbirds complete a migration of that scale.

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scissor-tailed flycatcherCourtesy Darrin McNiel
Scissor-tailed flycatcher in flight

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher

Flashes of pink set off the scissor-tail’s pale gray and black plumage. Its ludicrously long tail, as the name implies, scissors back and forth when the bird moves. A migrant like most flycatchers, this lovely bird spends summers in the southern Great Plains. In winter, scissortails move south into Central America. There, they occupy a similar open-fields habitat, in which they flutter from low perches to snatch insects in the air.

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vermilion flycatcherCourtesy Joseph Mandy
Male vermilion flycatcher at Saguaro National Park in Arizona

Vermilion Flycatcher

Unabashedly flashy, the male vermilion flycatcher is bright crimson with black wings and brows. Once you lay eyes on a male, you won’t forget him. My first was in Baja California—a male perched on a lower frond of a date palm over a quiet pool. Looking like a wildly out-of-place Christmas ornament, he sallied out, snatched a damselfly from the air, returned to his perch, delicately plucked the wings from the insect and swallowed the rest. In general, the vermilion is migratory only at the northern extent of its breeding range in the south-central and southwest United States. Through most of its range in Mexico and Central and South America, it’s a year-round resident.

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great crested flycatcherCourtesy Evelyn Johnson
Great-crested flycatcher in Germantown; Wisconsin

Great Crested Flycatcher

This large bird belongs to a second frustrating-for-birders genus, Myiarchus. Many of the look-alike species of this group are restricted to the tropics of Central and South America. But the great crested flycatcher makes its summer home across the eastern half of the U.S. Though not as dashing as the vermilion or scissor-tailed, this species manages a bit of flash in the form of a lemon yellow abdomen and a splash of cinnamon red in the outer wing feathers. The birds have a fondness for open forests. Their buzzy single-note calls and whistles emerge from the canopy.

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Willow flycatcherLarry Keller, Lititz Pa./Getty Images
Willow flycatcher perched on a twig in Pennsylvania

Take the Flycatcher Bird ID Challenge

I love the flycatcher bird group, perhaps because it is so often overlooked. Many of the species present an identification challenge. The unexpected flare of colors and plumages that appear on others is a nice surprise. And with their presence comes a hint of the warm tropics, where most spend their winters. Find out which flycatchers are in your area, and see if you can locate and identify them. They’re not typical feeder birds, so go on an adventure to a local park or wildlife refuge near you.

Because almost all of North America’s flycatchers are migratory—and many more live just south of the border—there’s no better place to find them than the southern tip of Texas. You can see hundreds of migrating and breeding birds, including about 20 flycatcher bird species, at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

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David Shaw
David Shaw is a science writer, conservation photographer and photo educator living in the heart of Alaska's boreal forest. He is passionate about the world's remaining wild places and creatures. David leads wilderness trips in Alaska for Arctic Wild.