Speaking of Nature: Introducing the Alder Flycatcher: After 27 years of waiting, the bird finally allowed itself to be photographed

This adult male Alder Flycatcher landed in front of me and sang his quiet little song. Finally!

This adult male Alder Flycatcher landed in front of me and sang his quiet little song. Finally! PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


For the Gazette

Published: 06-25-2024 2:21 PM

This week I have the rare pleasure of introducing you to a new species for the first time. After 27 years of reporting on my observations, I have finally acquired a photograph that I think is worthy of such an introduction. I have been exploring the meadow behind my house for 19 years and I have caught glimpses of this species here and there. I have heard this species’ song more times than I can count, but last week I just happened to finally see and hear this bird at the same time while also armed and ready with my camera. So, without further adieu, I present to you the Alder Flycatcher (Empidonaxalnorum).

Since this is the first time that I have featured this species in a full column, I have decided to go old school. With this in mind I shall start off with the scientific name of this bird, Empidonaxalnorum.

The genus name ”Empidonax,” is a compound word using the Greek, ”empis,” which means “a gnat” and the Greek, ”anax,” which means “king.” The species name, ”alnorum,” is a Latin word that means “of the alders.” Put it all together and you get something like, “the gnat king of the alders,” which I actually find quite charming.

There is a group of flycatchers known as the “Tyrant Flycatchers,” that all share a particularly big, bold and easily-perturbed temperament. Local species that would fall into this group include the Great-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchuscrinitus), which I would characterize as permanently perturbed, and the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), which is a species that I have simply fallen in love with.

Then there is a smaller taxonomic level that contains the Empidonax Flycatchers, and this is a group of birds that can make even the most seasoned birders cry in frustration. The Acadian Flycatcher (E. virescens), the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (E. flaviventris), the Willow Flycatcher (E. traillii), and the Alder Flycatcher are all members of this group. Virtually identical in size (ranging from 14-15 cm in length) and in coloration, they are basically interchangeable. Even their songs are sometimes so similar that a veteran birder will pause and start to lose self-confidence.

As it so happens, I regularly hear the Willow and the Alder flycatcher in my meadow, but when one of them lands on a perch within range of my big lens I am stymied. That all changed last week when one of these diabolical birds landed on an open branch in front of me — and then sang! Even better was the fact that some high, thin clouds had softened the light and made the photograph come out beautifully. Patience and perseverance finally paid off!

This bird is called an “Alder” Flycatcher in honor of its habitat preference. My trusty old copy of “The Birder’s Handbook” identifies this habitat as “Swamps and thickets, esp. alder and willow.” Well, it just so happens that not 12 feet from my Thinking Chair there is a nice little clump of speckled alder growing at the edge of the meadow. I guess the Alder Flycatchers approve!

In this habitat a male will set up a territory by singing and defending against intruders. A female, drawn to him by the dulcet tones of his song, will pair with him and then the two will go in search of a good nest location. This is generally in an upright fork of a deciduous tree (or bush) somewhere two-to-10 feet off the ground. Once selected, the female builds a cup-shaped nest of weed stems and coarse grasses. The lining is made of finer grasses, plant down and even feathers.

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Once the nest is complete, the female will lay three or four white eggs that are lightly speckled with variable-sized brown blotches. The female lays one egg per day and then starts the process of incubation, which ensures that the eggs will all hatch at the same time. Incubation lasts for about two weeks and once the chicks have hatched the male will help to deliver food to the nest for another two weeks. When the chicks finally fledge, then both parents will help to care for them. The female can afford to do this because she will only lay one clutch of eggs per summer.

Flycatchers cannot spend the winter in places where there are no flies to catch, so when the weather starts to turn, the birds will migrate south to southern Mexico, Cuba, all of Central America, and even northern Colombia. The total time spent in Massachusetts is only from mid May to mid September, which is about four months. These truly are tropical birds that only grace us with their presence for a short while. If you are lucky enough to find one of these birds, take the time to listen to its quiet song.

Before I end today’s column I want to thank everyone who took the time to write in with name suggestions for the leucistic red squirrel that continues to visit my feeders on a daily basis. I also have an astounding update to share with you. This peculiar little animal has a sibling that carries the same sort of mutation! The second squirrel is almost completely normal on its body, but has a white tail and white “frosting” on all of its legs and feet. So, before I unveil the best name suggestions, I wanted to keep the lines open for more name entries for these interesting little creatures. Send in your ideas!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 27 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.