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Catching sight: Spring’s the right time to set out in search of sneezing little bird

by Jerry Butler | April 19, 2021 at 1:55 a.m.
This Willow Flycatcher perched in a toothache tree in April 2020 in Faulkner County’s Lollie Bottoms, an area that exemplifies the habitat the “Arkansaw Flycatcher” likes best. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Michael Linz)

As Arkansas emerges from a year of covid restrictions, a winter of unprecedented snowfall and a general feeling that we need to burst our collective cocoons, I suggest an outdoor adventure to look for the "Arkansaw Flycatcher."

You might want to spend a little bit of your stimulus check at a local vendor on some good hiking boots, binoculars, a digital camera or a serviceable birding field guide before you begin, because this bird does not flit around every tree and bush.

It does not come to the feeder in your yard.

It prefers deep foliage and swampy areas. I've only seen it away from where there are a lot of people.

The world at large calls the "Arkansaw Flycatcher" the Willow Flycatcher, but it won't hurt if we use the name John James Audubon used when he first introduced the bird to science in 1822.

Audubon (1785-1851) saw his first one on the banks of the Arkansas River. The Willow Flycatcher is about 5 inches long, a bit smaller than most sparrows. It is compact, grayish-green, has two white wing bars and slight, pale rings around its eyes. With pale underparts, it perches with an erect posture as though sitting straight up.

It likes wet thickets and is most often reported in Arkansas from April to June.

[RELATED: Arkansaw Flycatcher by any other name]

To illustrate how a search for this bird might go, one of Central Arkansas' most active birders, Michael Linz, tells this story about his successful effort:

"Since we retired, Patty and I bird most every day. With covid this past year, we focused our birding in our home county of Faulkner. We would visit one of the county hotspots every day."

In April 2020, they visited the area known as Lollie Bottoms. "It is good for a lazy day of birding as you basically drive a 7-mile loop of roads at a very slow speed listening and looking for anything that moves."

They heard the flycatcher before they saw it.

"We were checking the thickets along Lollie Road, just northeast of the airport, when we heard it vocalize," Linz recalls. "We stopped and listened to hear it again, without the noise of the car. Sure enough, it gave the distinctive 'fitz-bew' call. We were quite excited to hear a Willow Flycatcher in our home county.

"While we were enjoying the song, he obliged us with great views, flying into a bush right next to us. This bird stayed in the area for several weeks, but we never could find any evidence of breeding."

'FLY IN THE OINTMENT'

There are problems with identifying the Willow Flycatcher ... Oh, let's call it the "Arkansaw Flycatcher."

The problem is that four of its close relatives look a lot like it.

These five small flycatchers are almost dead ringers for one another. The Willow, Yellow-bellied, Least, Acadian and Alder flycatchers are all species of the Empidonax genus. "Empidonax" is almost synonymous with "hard to identify."

The subtle differences in their appearance that are pointed out in field guides are difficult or impossible to detect in the field.

All five species behave in the same way and occupy similar habitats, so behavioral and habitat clues to aid in identification are unhelpful. As a fall-back technique, most list-keeping birdwatchers simply note that they have seen an Empidonax.

To truly know if the small flycatcher you are seeing is an Arkansaw Flycatcher, you need to hear its song and be able to recognize it.

If your hearing is not good, if there is ambient noise, or if the bird does not vocalize (as is frequently true in the fall) it is almost impossible to be sure which flycatcher you've seen.

The song of the Willow Flycatcher has been described as a sneezing "fitz-bew," and you can hear an audio sample on birding apps or the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology website allaboutbirds.org. Search for "Willow Flycatcher" on the home page.

If you have an eBird account, the Science section of Cornell's eBird website ebird.org will allow you to type in "Willow Flycatcher," put "Arkansas" in the region name and see a map of the state showing the 295 places where Willow Flycatchers have been spotted. You will notice that they have been spotted in every region of the Natural State. The site includes photographs of the bird taken in Arkansas, and you can get an idea of the habitat it favors.

In 15 years of avid bird watching I have seen flycatchers in the Empidonax genus about 10 times. Only three times was I convinced that what I saw was an "Arkansaw Flycatcher." Once it was perched in a willow tree in Dagmar Wildlife Management Area in Monroe County, once it was catching gnats in buck-brush in the Twin Creeks area on Lake Ouachita in Montgomery County, and the third time it was singing in a willow tree at Red Slough in southeastern Oklahoma.

Jerry Butler writes frequently about Arkansas birds and the people who enjoy them. Share your stories with him at

jerrysharon.butler@gmail.com

Print Headline: Catching sight

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