There is a genus of drab flycatchers called Empidonax, a word that means king of the gnats. The genus has eleven species that spend time in the United States. The Hammond’s Flycatcher, which belongs to the genus, is uncommon in Edmonds. It passes through during spring migration and can be seen or heard usually from mid-April through mid-May. A few may pass back through in southbound migration, but they tend to be silent. Yost Park is a good location for encountering this flycatcher although it could stop to rest and forage anywhere in the city, including at the other forested parks and the marsh.
The Hammond’s overwinters in the mountains from northern Mexico to northern Central America. It passes through the Intermountain West and along the West Coast as it migrates to its breeding grounds that start in the latitudes of Northern California, Utah and Colorado, and extend north into Alaska. In migration it passes through a variety of habitats and is often seen in deciduous trees in areas such as Edmonds. It breeds in cool coniferous forests at higher elevations. Before lowland Douglas Fir forests were logged, the Hammond’s Flycatcher was much more common in the Puget Trough.
An aerial forager, the Hammond’s Flycatcher grabs most of its meals on the wing. It watches from a perch and then flies out to catch flying insects. It will also glean insects from the surface of foliage or branches, and even take them from the ground. It usually perches lower to the ground for feeding but it can be found at various heights in the forest. Its diet includes beetles, moths, flies, caterpillars, small wasps, and leafhoppers.
The courtship display of the male includes a trilled call and wing fluttering as he approaches the female. The nest location is a horizontal branch of a conifer or aspen, usually 25-35 feet above ground. The female builds the nest. It is a cup of rough materials such as strips of bark, lichens, and weed stems. She lines it with finer materials such as feathers, fur, and plant down. Spider webs are often used to strengthen the cup.
The female incubates her four eggs for about two weeks. She broods the chicks when they are small but both adults bring food to the nestlings. The young take their first flight at about two and a half weeks. They will remain as a group with the adults for a week or so after fledging.
In territorial defense, early in the breeding season, males will fight so vigorously that they can become locked together in midair and will then flutter to the ground. This species was named for William Alexander Hammond, a U.S. military physician who collected the first specimens and sent them to ornithologist Spencer Fullerton Baird, the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution. The oldest bird of record was a female, at least seven years of age when captured and re-released during an Oregon banding operation. The many collective nouns for any group of flycatchers include an outfield, swatting, zapper, and zipper.
The Hammond’s Flycatcher is still widespread and common within its range. Logging may adversely affect the Hammond’s because it prefers stands of mature and old-growth conifers (90 years and older) of at least 25 acres.
The song, to use the word loosely, of the Hammond’s Flycatcher was recorded one May in Port Angeles: https://www.xeno-canto.org/414896. It is a short three-part song, scratchy and lacking melody. You can hear a pip call note in autumn at this link: https://www.xeno-canto.org/623238.
— By Carol Riddell
Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.