Look what FLYed in….

An avian bulletin from the west!!

Avid birdwatchers here in eastern Massachusetts have been pleasantly surprised by the arrival of two flycatchers that were/are totally unexpected. We have had a very warm spell recently with lots of westerly and southwesterly winds. These sorts of weather conditions just might sweep migrants, especially, wrong-way avian migrants from the west and southwest into the eastern states. As the ocean forms a rather significant boundary after arriving in this region, many of these birds drop down onto islands and into coastal habitats instead of heading out to sea and a likely demise. Locations like Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket or Tuckernuck or the Monomoy islands are well known vagrant stops. These two flycatchers were a bit more inland but surely they were smelling the salt air of the ocean for the first time.

The first, a Vermillion Flycatcher, (VEFL) was discovered in a bit of sandy coastal scrub and stayed for several days allowing birders to visit from near and far. The other bird arrived a couple weeks later and stayed for quite a while also; it was a Hammond’s Flycatcher (HAFL). The Vermillion Flycatcher is found in the southern states of the US from east Texas west to southern California. It is not common but not unusual in a variety of arid habitats, usually near whatever water is available.

The Hammond’s Flycatcher is found normally in tall, usually coniferous, forests in the far west. In the right habitat it can also be found as far east as Wyoming and Colorado. It is one of a group of flycatchers in the Empidonax group. There are about 11 species of Empidonax species in the USA and they are all quite similar. Those birders with good ears can tell them best by sound and song. The taxonomy of the Empidonax is a history of lumping and splitting types into or out of species groupings.

I didn’t get any photos of the visiting Vermillion Flycatcher but will insert images from the western USA above and below to highlight the bird. This image is of a vermillion Vermillion Flycatcher; that makes it a male. These birds are a bit smaller than a Tufted Titmouse, and perhaps a bit slimmer. The red on the top of the head and the black patch behind the eye show this to be an adult male. The bird that was in Massachusetts last month was a young male; it didn’t have a red topknot or black patch but was smoothly reddish underneath pretty much from throat to vent. See the image, 2nd below……provided by local birder Peter Trimble.
This is a female Vermillion Flycatcher and the shaded under tail is usually red in the females. The bird that was here in Massachusetts was quite reddish underneath. As with many birds the female VEFL are often less vibrant than the males. This more drab plumage likely makes them more difficult to spot as they sit day after day on eggs at a nest. The Massachusetts visitor is shown below….
This image is of the surprise visitor to Cape Cod. The amount of red coloring and the lack of a white throat make this a young male – not a female. As an adult it will develop the red crown and post ocular black patch. It is always a melancholy moment to realize that a bird this far out of its normal migratory route has great challenges to return to the west and then south … it seems like a huge challenge; but it is also a challenge to reach the Atlantic coast in the first place. Good luck.
The Hammond’s Flycatcher is also smaller than a Tufted Titmouse. The Hammond’s is not easy to tell from its Genus (generic perhaps?) relatives. All Empidonax species are quite small and have a bold eye ring. The birds of this group tend to have an eye ring that flares a bit toward the back of the birds head. The wing bars, always two of them, are bold and obvious as well.
The bird that is/was here in Massachusetts may have started the month in California or just east of California and ridden the atypical winds to the east and northeast. This sort of wrong-way migration is not really uncommon, but usually is a dead end for the bird. This flycatcher remained in Massachusetts, in the same spot, for about two weeks. It remained in the low scrub habitat adjacent to the field shown in the top image, not coniferous nor tall.
In the spring we get quite a few southern warblers that overshoot their migratory goal and end up in the northern tier of states. But, in the spring they have time, feeding opportunities, and weather on their side and can head south again or try to make a go of it further north than their kinfolk.
During the 1800’s the US expanded greatly through treaty and conquest. The Smithsonian Museum was founded in 1846 by an act of congress and a surprise gift from an unknown source; a man named Smithson, but that is about all is known of him. A man named Spencer Fullerton Baird was the first curator of the Smithsonian and he expanded the collections from 6,000 to 2,000,000 specimens/items/things during his 35+ years at the helm. He stationed naturalists, usually doctors, at forts in the untamed west and gave them permission (urged them actually) to collect birds, mammals, plants and other natural features and send them back to the Museum. This flycatcher was discovered in California by one of these men (John Xántus) and he named it after another of these collectors (William Alexander Hammond).

Thanks again to all those who visited these birds and left them to their own activities. All the visitors I saw were respectful of the birds space and nature. It may be a bit pointless as I don’t think these two will survive to breed back in their home lands – but at least they will have the chance. It was a pleasure to have them here for a while….I wonder what’s next?

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