Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Most new or casual birders find the identification of flycatchers frustrating. Some are distinct enough in appearance to be easily identified, such as the black and white Eastern Kingbird and the Great Crested Flycatcher with its yellow belly and rich, rusty upperparts. The Eastern Phoebe pumps its tail, which is a great clue to its identity. I have the most difficulty with Eastern Wood-pewees (mostly when found in open areas – they breed in the woods) and Empidonax flycatchers, as they are confusingly similar in appearance. Empidonax flycatchers, or Empids for short, are brownish-gray above and white below, with white eye rings of varying sizes and two whitish wing bars. The only surefire way for me to identify them is to wait until they open their beak and sing – each flycatcher has a unique song, which makes things even easier as you don’t even need to get a great look at the bird.

Unfortunately, this method only works in the spring when the birds are on their breeding grounds – flycatchers in the fall tend to be silent or only give similar-sounding chip notes. This means I leave a lot of Empids unidentified when they pass through in late August or early September. While chip notes can help identify these birds, I don’t hear them enough to really be able to distinguish them. Still, I look at every one that I see, as the one Empid I really want to see is the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a bird that breeds just north of Ottawa and only passes through in the spring and fall. It has a yellow enough belly to be able to separate it from the other Empids, and a distinctive call that resembles the fall and rise of a Black-bellied Plover. The last two weeks of August are the best time to look for them in Ottawa, especially in places like Mud Lake.

On Sunday my plan was to go to Mud Lake to look for birds like the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and another uncommon migrant, the Olive-sided Flycatcher. First, however, I decided to stop in at the Rideau Trail on Old Richmond Road to check out the hydro cut for warblers. This can be a fantastic spot for migrating songbirds, and I usually give it a quick check on my way to other birding spots. I wasn’t disappointed, for I ended up with 29 species in an hour.

There were lots of colourful songbirds, including Gray Catbird, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Purple Finch, and White-throated Sparrow; I saw a few Red-eyed Vireos and heard the thin, wiry song of a Blue-headed Vireo! Several Northern Flickers were around, including a group of five in the hydro cut. One of the best moments of the day occurred when I started pishing and one of the flickers flew into the tree right next to me to check me out! I’ve never had any type of woodpecker respond to pishing before.

A few warblers were around, and I was able to identify a pair of Black-and-white Warblers, a Magnolia Warbler, an Ovenbird, three Common Yellowthroats, and two Chestnut-sided Warblers. One of the latter was also responsive to pishing:

Chestnut-sided Warbler

In the alvar I saw a yellowish bird fly in and land at the top of a huge cedar tree along the edge. I thought it was a warbler at first, but it sat in the open long enough for me to get a good look at it, and I realized it was an Empidonax flycatcher. Flycatchers, unlike warblers, vireos and other small migrating birds that like to dart behind leaves, often sit still on a particular branch long enough to be photographed, and I was lucky enough to get some great views and some great photos.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

At first I thought I would have to leave this flycatcher as unidentified. However, it turned around to face me and I was instantly struck by the bright yellow of its belly and chest. I took as many pictures as I could, hoping that they would show enough field marks to identify it. The strong yellow belly made me suspect Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and this was confirmed for me by a fellow birder. The eye-ring is too large and too bold for the Alder and Willow Flycatchers, though not for a Least Flycatcher. However, the back of the Least Flycatcher is a colder, grayer olive colour compared to the greenish colour of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

I was excited, for I hardly ever see these small flycatchers. They are more common in late August as they pass through Ottawa, but many are probably overlooked as this species resembles the more common Least Flycatcher, a resident breeder here in Ottawa. Yellow-bellied Flycatchers breed in Boreal coniferous forests, bogs, swamps, and peatlands further north and west. Wet Boreal forests and deciduous patches near streams are also favoured haunts of this species, and as a result it has been nicknamed the “Moss Tyrant”. Algonquin Park in early summer is a good spot to find them in Ontario, though they are heard more often than they are seen.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher may also go undetected by casual birders because it has the one of the shortest times on its breeding grounds compared to other neotropical migrants. Most Yellow-bellied Flycatchers spend only about 66 days on their breeding territories in Ontario, arriving in late May and heading south again in August.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Even though I wasn’t completely certain of the bird’s identity when I left, my spirits were high, for this was the first time I’d seen a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Stony Swamp.

Then, just as I was getting into my car something large and dark buzzed past me and landed on the bottom of the parking lot gate. It looked familiar, and some Googling at home helped me to identify it as a Black Horse Fly (Tabanus atratus).

Black Horse Fly (Tabanus atratus)

I was surprised to learn that it was a Horse Fly, for I’ve always associated them with lakes and cottages. However, adults live in a wide variety of habitats, and are known to bite cattle and other livestock. They do need habitats with water nearby, as they lay their eggs on damp grass in moist environments. Once they emerge, the larvae tend to live along the edges of ponds and ditches. Like mosquitoes, it is only the female Horse Flies that feed on mammalian blood, while males feed on nectar and plant fluids. Bites are painful and may transmit bacterial, viral, and other diseases. Fortunately, this Horse Fly was a male; like other members of the genus Tabanus, the eyes of the males meet in the middle, while the eyes of the females are separated. The species name, atratus, means ‘clothed in black’ in Latin.

So far it was turning out to be a good morning, and I still wanted to check out Mud Lake!

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