Bird Lore: Willow Flycatcher

Photo by LeRoy Van Hee
Photo by LeRoy Van Hee

Some birds are ambassadors to the human species–Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles, Roseate Spoonbills. They are big, beautiful birds that get our attention and remind us that the natural world is still with us. Then there are the flycatchers of the genus empidonax–small, drab, often not seen, and when seen, difficult to separate in the field. They can be confounding to new observers. Birders separate them by the habitats they populate and definitively by their songs. The Willow Flycatcher is one of these.

A brush-hugging flycatcher that hunts low, the Willow Flycatcher favors willow thickets and other heavy vegetation, including cattails and small trees. It is often found near streams or marshes and seen hunting in low flights over brushy fields. It is a common breeder throughout the Puget Trough in river valleys and clear-cuts.

As its name infers, the diet of the Willow Flycatcher is mostly insects snatched in flight. It watches from a perch and then flies out to catch insects. It may also eat some spiders, a few berries, and possibly some seeds.

The female Willow Flycatcher builds her nest in a deciduous shrub or tree at an average of 4 – 15 feet above the ground. It is an open cup of grass, strips of bark and plant fibers. As do hummingbirds, it will often bind the outer materials together with spider webs. The nest is lined with plant down, animal hair, and sometimes feathers. The female incubates 3 – 4 eggs for about two weeks. Both parents feed the nestlings. The young take their first flights about two weeks after hatching.

The Willow Flycatcher winters in Mexico and Central America. This Neotropic migrant arrives on its breeding grounds in late May and can start its southward journey as early as July. It is seen annually in very small numbers in and around Point Edwards, the Edmonds marsh, and the Willow Creek hatchery. It remains here long enough each summer that it might be an Edmonds breeder.

The song has been described as a low, rough, burry two-note sneeze: r’r’r’EE-yew. You can listen to it at this site:

– By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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