above © Blake Matheson; 21 Sep 2004 at Pt. Pinos MTY
An Empid at Crespi
A photographic review of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
text © Don Roberson
photos copyrighted by photographer(s) credited
none of the principal photos have been adjusted in any way
except the banner shot (above) which has been lightened
[except as otherwise indicated at bottom of page]
On the morning of 21 Sep 2004, as I was completing my loop around Crespi Pond on Pt. Pinos, I found an interesting Empidonax flycatcher. To me it looked 'tiny,' short-tailed, short-billed, with a big round eyering, on a bird that was green above and very bright yellow below. It also had black wings with which the white wingbars and tertial edgings contrasted strongly. This nice photo (above) by Blake Matheson captures all those initial points about shape, size, and contrast.

And it gave a call I did not recognize: a sharp spweek! I could also write this skwee! or sqwee! or squee! as it varied slightly call to call (it called perhaps 8 times). It recalled the sharp spik! note of Nuttall's White-crowned Sparrow [they also have a soft seet that is not the note of which I speak] but had a squeaky or sneezy quality to it, a little like a rubber ducky. This was odd because Pacific-slope Flycatchers nest in my backyard each year, and I think I know all of their calls.

It was already late after 9 a.m. and I needed to get to work. So I tried a few digiscope pics (the bird was often cooperative in sitting on the fence surrounding the City's maintenance yard). There were numerous points that suggested Yellow-bellied Flycatcher to me but the call did not match the brief literature check I made (the Kaufmann Advanced Birding guide).  I posted this as an interesting Empid on the local BirdBox. Here are some photos that either I or Blake Matheson (who visited the site later in the day in response to the BirdBox message) took.

The first things I noted were the small size, short tail, and a complete round eyering. It also looked short-billed in profile. This photo captures the short-tailed and short-billed look well. The entire upperparts were greenish-olive from crown to rump, and contrasted with much darker, essentially blackish, wings. The olive color also included the face. The bird did have a short crest that it often raised on alighting; when the crest wasn't up the bird looked very round-headed. At close range the two white wingbars were washed with a light orangey-yellow color. This bothered me.
Although the bird looked very short-tailed (again shown here) in all views, in some views (like this one from below) the bill suddenly looked disproportionately large. It was entirely pale on the lower mandible. The eyering was circular and of even thickness except it narrowed near top front and had the tiniest 'nootch' at the rear. At some times this latter point was noticeable and at other times it was not (compare the various photos).
In sunlight the bird was bright yellow below from chin & throat through undertail coverts. It color was a rich lemon yellow (the color of the belly/vent shown here). The color also showed nicely in the shade but the camera's overexposure of shaded photos wash it out. The back (and crown through rump) was a rather rich green-olive in the shade (without brownish tones), and so was the face (as here). Note also how little the bird looks on this chain-link fence.
This shaded shot washes out the yellow underparts by overexposure. But it does show another feature: the bird has an olive breastband, broadest on the sides of the breast and narrow in the center, that separated the pure yellow throat from pure yellow belly. In some lights the sides looked faintly streaked with this olive color.
This shot shows details of the eyering shape well. It also shows the contrasting wingbars (essentially white or yellowy-white against blackish upperwing coverts), and it shows the yellowish edges to the secondaries. Both in the photos and in the field (with a scope) I could see that the outermost primaries were emarginated but either p7 or p6 was not. The primary projection looked to be medium or medium-short, but the tail was so short this was hard for me to judge.

I cannot tell here (nor in the field) whether the marginal underwing coverts were yellow (good) or mustardy-yellow (bad). They look different in different shots.

Blake Matheson's photo (right) shows the olive green color of the head/back nicely, and how it contrasted with the wings. It also contrasted with a blackish tail. This shot also shows the broad white edge to the uppermost tertial (seemingly covered half the feather); the lower tertials had crisp white edges also but about half as broad as the upper one (see the photo at top of page).

The legs were thin and dark but the tarsus looked a bit pale in strong lighting.

I returned at 5 pm to look at the bird some more, and studied it over the next 1.5 hours with Matt Brady, David Vander Pluym, Bob Tintle, and Rita Carratello (not all were present the whole time). During this period we had the bird under observation most of the time. It was very active, foraging along the chain link fence and in Myioporums and low cypresses. It often came to the ground or golfcourse grass to catch something, and during bouts of foraging would vigorously pump its tail up on landing. It did not flick its wings. At other times it went up into the canopy of the cypresses and foraged inside the canopy. It seemed to avoid bright sunshine and liked shade.

Vander Pluym had heard several calls before I arrived in the afternoon. During my 1.5 hours, it had a bout of calling 6-8 calls only once. Again they were the sharp, squeaky notes I had heard in the morning. I do not find this callnote described in Kaufman's Advanced Birding, or in the Birding series on Empids by Bret Whitney & Kenn Kaufman. Much later I found reference in Nat'l Geo and Sibley field guides to sneezy or wheezy notes that might qualify, but is my sqwee! the same as Sibley's "sharp monotone wsee"? I don't know.

[The above details and photos were posted the evening of 21 Sep 2004; those below are follow-ups
after comments were received but the various additional photos were all taken on 21 Sep 2004]
After posting the above photos and details, comments were requested from those reading various bird e-groups. A number of us also searched extensively for the flycatcher the next day, but it had gone. The skies had been clear all night and an offshore flow had developed. There were many new arrivals at Pt. Pinos on 22 Sep [including a calling Red-throated Pipit flying over the point] but no Empids. This update thus summarizes the comments received, and addresses some of them.

Most importantly, I was able to review the fine paper by Matt Heindel & Peter Pyle on the separation of Yellow-bellied and 'Western' Flycatchers (1999) Birders Journal 8: 78-87. It appears that the characters of the Crespi bird match those considered important for identifying Yellow-bellied Flycatcher as detailed in that paper [see below].

Upon reading the paper, I also realized that one part of the details above was mistaken. I stated that "the outermost primaries were emarginated but either p7 or p6 was not." This was based on my assumption that the longest primaries the wing tip itself was formed by p8 and p9. This is wrong. The wing tip is formed by p7 and p8, the longest two primaries; in specimens of both species, p8 is the longest on about 40-50% of them (Heindel & Pyle 1999). My statement should read: "the outermost primaries were emarginated but either p6 or p5 was not."  Pyle (1997) Identification Guide to North American Birds also shows this and explains that p6 is always emarginated on 'Western' Flycatchers and is often emarginated on Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. In both species, p5 is not emarginated. It thus seems probable that what I saw was an unemarginated p5, but that point is of no importance to the identification.

Several writers offered comments on the call that was heard, and directed me to on-line vocalizations. I did not personally have the software to access all the calls, but a breeding-ground song and a call commonly given by migrant Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is on the Cornell site [thank you Tony Bledsoe for this link]. I very much like the squeaky quality that I hear in elements of the song, but the rising tu-wee callnote on that recording is not the one we heard. Several commentators, however, stated that the sharp, squeaky call is a known vocalization of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Most directly, Chris Benesh wrote:
"You raised the question of whether the call note fit for this species. As someone who sees a lot of these birds in winter in Belize and Guatemala, I just wanted to add that the sharp call you describe is the one commonly (almost exclusively) given by this species on its wintering grounds.  So in my mind it looks very solid for being a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher."
Three other very experienced observers felt that the call note was fine for Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and no one has yet commented that they felt it was consistent with any 'Western' Flycatcher.
Matt Heindel (in comments) noted that the breastband streaking which I described did not show very well in the photos that were posted (above). I have looked through all the photos available, and post two more (below) that may better show this characters. I certainly had good views of olive streaking through the scope in the field, but only in some light conditions. [left © Blake Matheson this shot was lightened and contrast enhanced slightly; right © D. Roberson] Whether you can clearly see the olive streaking on the breast, or at least the sides of the breast, may depend somewhat on your monitor. It is very apparent in mine.
Heindel also wondered whether the spacing between the primary tips was examined in the field. Alas, it was not. This character, described in detail in Heindel & Pyle (1999), was not known to me at the time of observation. In short, Yellow-bellied has a more pointed wingtip than 'Western.' In Western there is an apparent gap between p5 and p6 while in Yellow-bellied p5 is longer and creates two smaller and more evenly spaced gaps between p5-p6 and between p6-p7 (Heindel & Pyle 1999). Another way to say the same thing is that the primary tips of Yellow-bellied fall more uniformly across the wingtip without an asymmetric gap. My digiscopes don't show the wingtips but photos by Blake Matheson do. Here is my best effort to look for this feature in photos:
I used this shot (below at 100% intended size) on which both wingtips are visible. Each primary is tipped white and you can get a fair idea how they fall compared to each other.

[The white-tipped primaries suggests this is a young bird (HY in banding lingo) as to many other points. The photo has been lightened and sharpened.]
I then enlarged the shot to near the capacity limits of the digital image (center) and then attempted to show how each primary tip fell as compared to each other. I think there is a white spot of sunshine just above the longest primary tips that is not on those feathers. My attempt to review the wingtip (right) shows a rather regular pattern of progressively longer primaries, until p7 and p8 which we know will be similar lengths in both species. This "regular" or symmetrical pattern favors Yellow-bellied. On 'Western' the gap between p5 and p6 should be much longer (perhaps twice as long) as the gap between p6 and p7. To my eye these two gaps are fairly similar.

Some will say that the image is not crisp enough to make this comparison, and that is a fair critique. I think this analysis is suggestive only, but it does 'suggest' the same conclusion as the other features considered.

Those commenting to date have mentioned three other items of interest or concern:
  • The "photos look so different in color that its hard to believe this was the same bird." It is the same bird the only Empid present on Pt. Pinos all day but cameras vary dramatically in how they capture images. Blake was using a Canon 10-D digital, I think, a high-end camera that captured the color well, even in the shade. I think it has about 6 megapixels in image quality. I was using a very cheap Olympus Camedia D560, with 3.2 megapixels, through a scope. The cheap camera overexposes subjects in the shade to take in-focus shots, and also 'warms' the tones. For what it is worth, I am posting at the bottom of this dialogue box two shots I took after 5pm of this same bird. It was back on the fence but the lighting in the late afternoon here was very different that in the morning. I could not hold the camera steady enough (or the bird was moving too much, or both) to take a shot in focus. But please note that the colors captured are much truer. This bird was rather bright olive-green above without any brown. It is disappointing to see that some commentators rely on color in the photos (rather than field descriptions) to evaluate this character.
  • The "color of the wingbars" were not as "should be expected for Yellow-bellied." One writer thought it weird that the wingbars were described as white, while another thought it a problem that they were buffy. In my details (above) I, too, had thought that Yellow-bellied Flycatcher should not have buffy wingbars (first-fall 'Western' Flycatchers have nice buffy wingbars). The wingbars actually looked contrastingly white against blackish wings at a distance or in the shade. At close range or in the sun, it was very apparent that the two wingbars were washed with what I called "orangey-yellow." This color is close enough to "buffy" to be called "buffy" by some observers. Yet the edgings of the tertials looked bright white and the edges to the secondaries were clearly yellow, forming a yellowish 'wing-panel.' According to Heindel & Pyle (1999), the "flight feathers on the Yellow-bellied are boldly edged, typically with yellow, but they can be edged with white or buff." 
  • The bird had "more a crest than shown by Yellow-bellied Flycatcher." Several referred to photos of Yellow-bellied that didn't show a crest. In the field in most situations, the Crespi bird looked exceedingly round-headed and was one of the first things I noticed about the bird because 'Western' almost always looks 'peak-headed' (rather pewee-like) because of its longish crest for an Empid. The round head and round eyering showed a certain symmetry that gave this bird a different 'feel' to me. But when I was close to the bird, or when it alighted on the fence after dropping to the ground to catch something, the bird raised a short crest as is shown in some of my photos (above). I don't know what to say to this except that the crest was often not raised, giving the round-headed shape, but that it definitely did have a little crest that it would raise on occasion. Is it possible this was a titmouse?

untouched digiscopes from early evening show color
better but are not in focus

both shots here © D. Roberson and left untouched
by PhotoShop (I could make them sharper but not 'sharp')
It is certainly possible to take one of the raw photos above and adjust the color balance in PhotoShop to better approximate what was actually present in the field. I have done so with the shot shown here (right). I feel this photo is less misleading than the 'raw' image shown further up this page. It is not quite clear to me why this sort of adjustment is considered 'cheating' while the automatic adjustments made by the camera to take the shot in the shadows is not. I believe it is wise to use photos in combination with field observations, and to avoid getting 'hung-up' of photographs that are misleading.
To summarize, following the points described in Heindel & Pyle (1999) to separate between Yellow-bellied and 'Western' Flycatcher:
  • Eyering 'perfect' for Yellow-bellied, according to the paper and the photos in it, and according to several commentators on these photos, right down to the narrowing at the top front and the tiny nick at the rear. Inconsistent with the almond-shaped eyering of 'Western' that usually has a gap at the top of the eye.
  • Wing coloration blackish coverts and flight feathers with well-defined crisp edges is consistent with Yellow-bellied. 'Western' has browner wings and less contrasting edges according to the paper. The yellow edges to secondaries is 'perfect' for Yellow-bellied. According to the paper and to comments by Matt Heindel (pers. com.), Yellow-bellied often has 'buff' wingbars on HY birds in autumn. So the 'orangey-yellow' wash to these wingbars is okay, contra to my initial concerns.
  • General shape Here is text from Heindel & Pyle (1999): "Yellow-bellied has a more rounded head, whereas the head of Western usually looks distinctly peaked .... The bill averages shorter in Yellow-bellied and, in combination with the rounder head, does have a different look to these two species. In addition, the tail of the Yellow-bellied is shorter."  It was the small size, round head, short bill, and short tail that first drew my attention to this Empid as an interesting bird. I am very familiar with the 'peak-headed', long-tailed, and rather 'long-billed' look of Pacific-slope Flycatcher. I see many each migration and it nests in my yard. This bird's shape was unlike any Pacific-slope (and it also seemed tiny). I note particularly that the bird looked 'short-billed' to me but, that when viewed from below and the all-orange lower mandible dominated, the bill looked much bigger. I think this is an illusion; I think the bird was 'short-billed' [see the photos showing head profile]. The erectible short crest was unexpected but the bird mostly looked 'round-headed.'
  • General coloration entirely olive-green above (without any brown tone) and rather bright yellow below is good for Yellow-bellied. 'Western' has brownish tones to olive upperparts. The olive breastband formed by blurry olive streaks is a Yellow-bellied feature. According to the paper, when 'Western' has blurry streaks to the sides, they tend to have a "rather brownish tone" instead of olive.
  • Wing morphology I failed to study the primary spacing in the field. Review of photos shows a pattern that is consistent with Yellow-bellied but the photos may not be adequate for confidence on this point. The photos do not, however, suggest a 'Western' wing morphology.
  • Vocalizations those described are consistent with Yellow-bellied and not consistent with Western. I can say the latter part of this sentence with confidence from personal experience but I rely heavily on the comments of others in saying the calls were good for Yellow-bellied. Chris Benesh has posted calls of Yellow-bellied Flycatchers from Arizona (where a vagrant) and Belize (where it winters), and allowed me to provide this link.
Based on this review, it appears this bird was Monterey County's first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. However, additional comments and review are welcome.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank David Vander Pluym, Matt Brady, Bob Tintle, and Rita Carratello for their helpful discussions of the bird in the field. I am very grateful to Blake Matheson for the use of his additional photos. My review of the important paper by Heindel & Pyle (1999) was through the courtesy of Joe Morlan and Dan Singer. I thank Chris Benesh, Tony Bledsoe, Steve Gerow, Matt Heindel, Curtis Marantz, Guy McCaskie, Joe Morlan, and Scott Terrill for their very helpful comments after reviewing the photos and details that were posted late on 21 Sep 2004.

I'd thank the bird for its presence, but it has (alas) flown away (right; © Blake Matheson).

Use these links to reach other portions of the Monterey County list:

Part 1: Waterfowl through Grebes
Part 2: Albatrosses through Frigatebirds
Part 3: Herons through Cranes
Part 4: Plovers through Sandpipers
Part 5: Jaegers through Alcids
Part 6: Doves through Woodpeckers
Part 7: Flycatchers through Larks
Part 8: Swallows through Pipits
Part 9: Waxwings through Warblers
Part 10: Tanagers through Sparrows
Part 11: Grosbeaks through Finches
or just the plain Checklist (no annotations)
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Page created 21 Sep 2004, updated 24 Sep 2004