Alder Flycatcher: response to Scott Atkinson

Wayne C. Weber contopus at
Tue Jun 11 08:37:40 PDT 2002


I was responsible for the Alder Flycatcher report on the Similkameen
River north of Palmer Lake. The date was June 1, 1991, not "early 80s"
as reported by Scott Atkinson. Also, the record was not rejected by
the Washington Bird Records Committee. I never submitted it because,
lacking a tape recording, I was certain that the record would be
rejected, and I saw no point in submitting it. Scott is correct that
there are no accepted Alder Flycatcher records for Washington.

I am attaching a message that I sent to TWEETERS in June 1999,
discussing songs of Alder and Willow Flycatchers and some of the
identification problems.

>From what I have read so far on TWEETERS, I am not convinced that the

Crab Creek bird is an Alder Flycatcher. Alder Flycatchers have a
distinctly 3-noted song, which I phoneticize as "re-beee-wip", with
the second note loudest and highest-pitched. The Crab Creek bird is
described as having a 2-noted song, which does not sound right. As
described below, Willow Flycatchers have a 2-noted call (or
abbreviated form of the song) that sounds to me like "fwee-beeer!"
(first note louder and higher-pitched). This call has been mistaken by
birders on many occasions for an Alder Flycatcher song.

Scott Downes indicates that the Crab Creek bird was tape-recorded. If
so, this is the only thing that might allow conclusive identification
of the bird. If the flycatcher is still present, other observers
should try to tape the song, and submit the tapes to the Washington
Bird Records Committee. I'm sure that Alder Flycatcher has occurred in
Washington, but in view of variability of observer descriptions of
songs (not of the songs themselves-- I have been able to detect no
geographic variation in songs of either Willow or Alder Flycatcher),
and of the impossibility of identification based on appearance, only
records documented by tape recordings should be accepted in

Wayne C. Weber
Kamloops, BC
contopus at

----- Original Message -----
To: TWEETERS <tweeters at>; BCINTBIRD
<bcintbird at>; INLAND NW BIRDERS
<inland-nw-birders at>
<hunnhome at>
Sent: Sunday, June 27, 1999 12:29 PM
Subject: Re: Alder Flycatchers

> Dear Tweeters, Gene Hunn and Ruth Sullivan,


> Gene was quite proper to question the Alder Flycatchers reported

> recently. There are no accepted records for Washington, and as Gene

> says, any reports need to be documented by a tape recording of songs

> and calls.

> For the record, I am the person who was responsible for the


> Flycatcher report from Okanogan County in 1991, which I discovered

> while doing field work for the Breeding Bird Atlas. The bird in

> question WAS an Alder Flycatcher. It was singing persistently, as if

> on territory, from a flooded willow thicket along the Similkameen

> River northwest of Palmer Lake (near the Canadian border) on June 1,

> 1991. I immediately realized the importance of tape-recording this

> bird's songs, but although I had a tape recorder, I did not have any

> blank tape. By the time I returned the next day with some blank


> the bird was nowhere to be found. I reported the sighting to the

> Seattle RBA (that was in pre-Bird Box days), but no one else could

> rediscover or confirm the bird. Given that Alder and Willow

> Flycatchers were officially "split" only in 1973, and that many


> have difficulty separating their songs and calls, I chose not to

> submit an official report to the Washington Records Committee of a

> bird that was certain to be rejected anyway. I feel quite strongly

> that it is important to document a first state record by a photo

> (useless for Alder Flycatcher) or tape recording, especially for

> hard-to-identify species, although written field notes may be


> for an easily-identified species seen by numerous observers.

> Gene's comments may be misleading in one sense, when he stated

> that "Willow Flycatchers...sing rather variable songs". Having heard

> hundreds or thousands of Alder, Willow, and other Empidonax

> flycatchers over the years, I can detect little or no individual

> variation in songs of Alder or Willow Flycatchers. The ordinary

> territorial songs of both species (and of most other flycatchers)


> remarkably stereotyped, and Willow and Alder songs are as distinct

> from each other as are the songs of any other 2 Empidonax species.

> (This lack of individual variation is in contrast with birds like


> Song Sparrow or Bewick's Wren, in which each individual has several

> different song patterns, and no two individuals have the same

> repertoire of song patterns.) However, Willow Flycatchers do have a

> vocalization which is either a call-note or an abbreviated song-- it

> could be described as an emphatic "fwee-beer!"-- which can confuse

> birders sometimes.

> Attempts to phoneticize bird songs are crude at best, but next

> time you hear a Willow Flycatcher sing, listen carefully to it.

> Although the song is described by Peterson and others as "fitz-bew",

> there are actually two different phrases, each with the first note

> highest-pitched, which are given alternately. I phoneticize the song

> as "fwitch-be-heer! fweep-a-deer! fwitch-be-heer! fweep-a-deer".


> of the 2 different phrases is distinctly 3-noted, not 2-noted. The

> alternation of 2 different phrases is common in flycatchers; other

> examples are Western Wood-Pewee, Eastern Phoebe and Black Phoebe.

> Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers, by comparison, each have 3


> phrases in the song, which are given in a somewhat variable order.

> The Alder Flycatcher, on the other hand (like the Least


> and some other Empids) has a single phrase in the song. It can be

> described as a burry "ree-bee-wip!", with the second note

> highest-pitched. To me, that sounds closer than "fee-bee-o". (Oh,


> a sonagram or two!)


> Birders should be alert for the possibility of Alder Flycatcher


> Washington. It is one of the most likely species to be added to the

> state list. The normal breeding range of Alder Flycatcher in B.C.

> extends south at least to Revelstoke on the Columbia River, and the

> southern edge of the Cariboo Plateau north of Kamloops and Clinton.

> (It should be noted that the research of Robert Stein, which


> in Willow and Alder Flycatchers being "split", was done mostly near

> Williams Lake, B.C.) There is a record of an Alder Flycatcher on

> territory near Vernon, B.C. from June 8 to 28, 1984 (Cannings et al,

> Birds of the Okanagan Valley, 1987); its song was tape-recorded. I

> have had records of Alder Flycatchers singing on territory in the

> Nicola Valley of B.C. on two occasions. One was along the Nicola


> west of Merritt in June 1980 (present for at least 10 days), and the

> second was in a brush thicket near Brookmere, SW of Merritt,


> in the 1980s (date not handy at the moment). Brookmere is only 91 km

> (57 miles) north of the Washington border. There is also a fairly

> well-documented record of a singing Alder Flycatcher at North

> Vancouver, B.C. (multiple observers), although that bird was not

> tape-recorded.

> Alder Flycatchers probably reach B.C. by migrating east of the

> Rockies and crossing the Rockies north of the U.S border, as do some

> other birds like many Bobolinks and many "Myrtle" Warblers and other

> "eastern" warblers. This, plus the fact that Empids generally do not

> sing while migrating, may explain why there are no confirmed

> Washington Alder Flycatchers to date.

> I am still chagrined over my failure to tape-record the 1991


> Flycatcher, and I always keep several blank cassette tapes in my car

> now. (Closing the barn door after the horse is gone???) You don't


> too many chances to add a species to a state list, and I muffed my

> chance. However, one of these days, someone will find a singing


> Flycatcher in Washington-- most likely in the northern part of

> Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, or Pend Oreille County. As with my bird,


> should not really expect anyone to be convinced unless you can

> tape-record the song (or unless the bird sticks around for a few

> days). So, Washington birders-- take up the Alder Flycatcher

> challenge!!


> Wayne Weber

> 114-525 Dalgleish Drive

> Kamloops, B.C. V2C 6E4

> Phone: (250) 377-8865

> wayne_weber at


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