Some birds you just know, bird watcher or not. Familiar birds, easily recognizable sizes, shapes, plumages, or song. Think robins, magpies, great blue herons, bald eagles, mountain bluebirds. Or you may not know, or care to know just which swallow or sparrow species you have happened upon, but you do recognize the family.
But some birds are difficult to identify even by experienced bird watchers. Gulls, for example, shorebirds, vireos - and flycatchers. Oh, those flycatchers.
Well, not all flycatchers. No great problem in separating a vermilion flycatcher from a scissor-tailed flycatcher. It gets tougher to distinguish a great crested flycatcher from an ash-throated flycatcher or between a western wood pewee and an eastern wood pewee. ... unless the bird sings. That helps. It sure does help when an olive-sided flycatcher lets go with its "Toots! Three beers!"
Then there's this group of 10 closely related flycatchers known as the Empidonax Complex. My man, Roger Tory Peterson, in his bird field guides, cautions the bird watcher thusly: "Several small, drab flycatchers share the characters of light eye-ring and two pale wing bars. When breeding, these birds may be separated by voice, habitat and manner of nesting. ... In migration these birds seldom sing or even call, so we are forced to let most of them go simply as 'empids.'"
I invite you to look at the pages of flycatchers in the field guides. Then refer to the 13 flycatchers that have been recorded in Jackson Hole, five of which are noted as being rare or accidental here. Five of the 13 are empids or as most bird watchers do tend to say, "empies."
Usually a challenge. Empies are small and relatively drab, and active. They will perch in a conspicuous place but not for long; off they go to snag a flying insect. Sometimes they'll return to the same perch, if the watcher's lucky. If the bird should call - not usually musical - and should the watcher have an ear for calls or for that matter, functioning ears, that's helpful. As I recall.
I can still hear the olive-sided flycatcher, the western wood pewee, and, sometimes, the willow fl ycatcher. I can identify eastern kingbird from western kingbird. Say's Phoebe too. Just about any other species and I need a field guide and luck. There was a flycatcher in a local aspen tree the other day, really close at hand. Small, drab, capable of hiding behind a single leaf most of the time. Flycatching but not ever returning to a given perch. I assume in migration. Content enough simply to note: empie.
An equivalent satisfaction with the status quo did not sweep over me upon reading headlines like "Plan in works for the Parks" and "Interior secretary proposes plan to ready National Parks for centennial, 100 more years." Think back to a "plan" put forth for the parks just months ago by an administrative official in the Interior that would have been harmful in the extreme to the real purpose of our wonderful national treasures.
The National Park Service Organic Act, which established the park service within Interior 90 years ago, defined the fundamental purpose of the parks: to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
"Leave them unimpaired." "Conserve." "Preserve." "Maintain."
One wishes for an administration identified by those words and concepts.
Field Notes: Labor Day. Cloudless days. Mostly clear skies at night. Thus, warm days, cool nights. Good times for sky watchers. A bit tougher times for bird watchers as steady conditions like these tend to encourage birds to spread out all over the landscape. (One exception: waterfowl). The next weather change will likely accelerate the Fall Shuffle - of birds, and of folks deserting the parks.
Steve Bock was pleased to come on a blue grouse brood of five young with their mother. After all the preamble in the first portion of this column, I'm pleased to note that Bill Doyle was confident of a dusky flycatcher foraging in the wetlands adjacent to the Visitor Center in north Jackson.
Susan Patla racked up a first for the Jackson Hole bird checklist: a Cassin's vireo, seen in Grand Teton National Park on Aug. 30. Good show!
Bison are rutting. Elk are bugling. Haying almost done. Signs
The Jackson Hole Bird Club will meet at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10 in Jackson Teton Hall. Observations of summer and current birding and of other natural history events. Arrangements for a talk are incomplete at this hour. Come and find out. Everyone welcome.
© Bert Raynes 2006
Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.