Bent Life History of the Alder Flycatcher
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Alder Flycatcher - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
EMPIDONAX TRAILLI TRAILLI (Audubon)
This is the Traill's flycatcher of the older Check-lists and the bird that Audubon named for his friend Dr. Thomas S. Traill, of Edinburgh, and which he supposed represented a single species with a distribution extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Since the species has been subdivided, so much confusion has existed in the use of both scientific and common names for the two forms, as well as differences of opinion as to their distribution, that it seems best to abandon the common name Traill's flycatcher, revert to the old name little flycatcher for the western form, and use the above name for the eastern race; so, now we have a combination of Audubon's scientific name for the species and Brewster's (1895) proposed common name for the eastern subspecies. Some idea of the confusion that existed at the time that Brewster proposed the name alder flycatcher for the eastern race can be gained by reading his paper (1895). Both he and Ridgway (1907) regarded the birds of the Mississippi Valley region, or at least the southern part of it, as referable to the western race; and the 1910 A. 0. U. Check-list concurred in this view; but the 1931 Check-list refers these birds to the eastern race. I do not feel competent to argue the case, but I have noticed that the nests and nesting sites of the birds breeding in the Mississippi Valley and adjacent States are quite different from those found east of the Allegheny Mountains and farther north and are much like those found west of the Rocky Mountains. Dr. Oberholser tells me that before he applied the name brewsteri to the western race he had studied a large series of these flycatchers from all over their range in North America and that there cannot be the slightest doubt that the Mississippi Valley birds belong to the eastern race.
The haunts of the alder flycatcher are not very different from those of its western relative. In the eastern and northern portions of its range, it makes its summer home in dense, low, and usually damp thickets of alders, willows, elderberries, sumacs, red osier dogwood, and viburnums, along the banks of some small stream, around the shores of a pond, or on the borders of a marsh or bog; but sometimes in the Middle West it is found breeding under suitable conditions at some distance from any water. John A. Farley (1901a), who has made a special study of this flycatcher, writes:
The Alder Flycatcher arrives In eastern Massachusetts about May 20. By the thirtieth of the month It has always reappeared on Its breeding grounds.
These are bushy meadows grown (or growing) up more or less thickly with alders. The lower growth In some places consists of wild roses (Ro8a), sweet gale (Myriea gale L.), and other swamp shrubbery, together with the usual mixed meadow herbage. Mingled with the alders will be young swamp maples and birches and oftentimes scattering white cedars. The whole forms a thick, at times almost choked, expanse of meadow growth. The wild roses in which the Flycatcher is so fond of nesting seem to be almost as much an essential in its summer home as the alders themselves.
Maurice Brooks writes to me: "As a breeding species in West Virginia, this bird has a rather peculiar distribution. For many years we believed it to be restricted to a few high mountain swamps and accepted this as normal behavior for a northern species. Recently Dr. George Miksch Sutton has found the birds breeding in a swamp at low elevation along the Ohio River in Brooke County. From this it would appear that lack of suitable swamps, rather than elevation, may be the restricting factor."
In Lucas County, Ohio, Louis W. Campbell (1936) found that a group of six or eight pairs had "selected a dry pasture, thickly overgrown with shrubs and small trees, as a nesting ground." The nearest water was a winding creek about half a mile to the southeast. "What grass there is is kept very low by grazing cattle but much of the ground is covered by shrubs and small trees; cock's spur hawthorne (Crataegws Cru,s-Galli L.), wild crabapple (Malus coronaria (L.) Mill.), black haw (Vi6urnum prunifolium L.), hazel nut (Corylue americana Walt.), and prickly ash (Zanthoxylum. amencan.um Mill.) ." A few taller trees were growing in the vicinity, and the herbaceous plants in the area were all indicative of dry soil.
Furthermore, Charles J. Spiker (1937) says: "All observations I have made on this species 'in the State of Iowa have taken place in dry, upland pastures, especially where there were rank growths of hazel bushes, wild crab, and hawthorn". And he suggests that such surroundings "may be fairly typical of its haunts farther west."
Spring: On its spring migration the alder flycatcher may be seen almost anywhere, in open country, in deciduous woods, or even pine woods, as well as in the swampy thickets. It is one of the later Inigrants, coming when summer is near at hand, when most of the other birds have come, and when the trees and shrubs are in fresh green leafage. It passes through Massachusetts between the middle of May and the first two weeks of June, depending on the weather. Edward H. Forbush (1927) writes: "On some warm still morning in the waning of the Maytime the bird watcher notes here and there in the edge of the woods, on a pasture fence, in a small tree by the bog or even in the orchard, a small flycatcher usually on a rather low perch, sitting quite erect, silent and watchful, occasionally dashing out in pursuit of a flying insect or flitting from one point of vantage to another. This is the Alder Flycatcher in migration: quiet, watchful and discreet."
Nesting: Mr. Farley (1901a) gives a very goad account of the nesting habits of the alder flycatcher in eastern Massachusetts, as follows:
So far as I have observed, it nests invariably in a hush, selecting most often a wild rose, or clump of rose shoots or sprays: usually Rosa carollina Ii.
[Footnote: I recall finding a nest once in a small shrub of meadow sweet (Spiraea salicifofla L.)]. The nest is often overshsdowed by the alders which are scattered here and there in clumps in the bushy meadow. But it is as likely to be placed in unshaded shrubbery in the full glare of the sun. When in the open, it is more or less hid, however, by the mingled mass of wild roses, sweet gale, and other bushes rising breast-high all about it. It is often in the thickest jungle of such growth where tall, waving ferns vie in height with the predominating tangle of rose hushes that the Alder Flycatcher hides away its nest.
The height of the nest from the ground is from two to four feet It is placed rather loosely, at times even flimsily, in an upright crotch or rather fork, or else between independent twigs that furnish a similar support. In either case the nest is suspended in a characteristic and peculiar way. I have never seen it set snugly down into a crotch after the manner of the Least Flycatcher. It is, instead, supported between twigs or prongs. It gets its chief support, as a rule, from two main shoots which often grow from the ground independently of each other, but which will be sometimes members of one bush, forming in this case a long crotch or fork. * * A beautiful nest that I found in 1595 in Essex County merits description because, in addition to being the handsomest structure of the Alder Flycatcher that I have seen, it is typical (although in a somewhat exaggerated way) of the general architecture of the species. The nest was three and one-half feet from the ground in a clump of the swamp rose (Rosa carolina U, being one foot below the top of the bush. The nest is large, representing the extreme in size. Its inside depth is two and one-eighth inches; outside depth, three Inches; outside diameter, three and three-eIghths inches; inside diameter, one-half inch less. It to composed of fine grasses and strips of Asclepias, the latter woven into the body of the structure as well as wound about the outside and over the rim. It is deeply-cupped and thickly-walled, with rim slightly curving over and in on one side. The lining is composed of the finest of hair-like, dried, yellow grasses. A pretty effect is obtained by the use of a very delicate grass which, projecting above the rim, shows the finest of tassels. * * * This nest has in common with all others that I have seen the usual, characteristic, loose, unfinished, even ragged, appearance outside and below. But the long grasses and especially the fibrous strips of Asclepias hang or string down in the present case in unusual quantity and length. Much of this reaches down six inches below the nest. Some of it extends down for one foot. A studied air of disarrangement, of negligence, of elegant confusion, is thus secured. The decorative effect is heightened by the silvery Aaclepiao, which, in addition to entering so largely into the body of the nest, causing it to shine flax-like, streams down and out therefrom in what might be termed a fibrous cascade. In greatest possible contrast to the disarranged, silvery-gray exterior is the round, deeply-hollowed interior with its exquisite yellow lining of finest grass. The excessive use of Asclcpias in this nest Is exceptional.
The above description is fairly typical, although somewhat extreme as to the amount of loose material in the lower exterior, of all the nests that I have seen or read about in northern New England and eastern Canada. In addition to the shrubs mentioned above, nests have been found in alders, willows, swamp azaleas, elders, dogwoods, hazels, a birch sapling, spicewood, wild raspberry, gooseberry, and wild currant bushes. Probably any small tree, bush, or bit of rank herbage in a suitable locality might be used. F. H. Kennard mentions in his notes a nest that he found in northern New Hampshire that was only one foot from the ground in a clump of royal fern (O8mu~u1a regalis). The heights from the ground range from this extremely low level up to six feet, but three or four feet are the commonest heights. F. A. E. Starr tells me of a nest he found near Toronto, Ontario, that was in a clump of wild raspberry bushes by a roadside.
Nests fomid in the mountain regions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia seem to be similarly located and made of similar materials. An extra Large nest, found by Dr. Samuel S. Dickey in Warren County, Pa., measured 41/2 inches in outside diameter and 5 inches in height, the inner cavity being 2 inches wide and 1'/2 inches deep. Those that I have measured have varied from 31/2 to 4 inches in outside diameter, and the body of the nest, exclusive of the loose ends, was not much more than 2 inches in height. Dr. Dickey (MS.) says of his nest: "The foundation consisted of a loose weave of stems of yellow marsh grass (Cal am~zgroet is canaden8is), fine panicles of grass, fine weed stems, bark strips of weeds, and gray mats of spider ~ocoons. It was lined with fine, dusky-colored weed stems, fine yellow grass panicles and several brown needles of the white pine (Pinu~ 8tTObUS) ."
P. M. Subway (1923) says that in the western Adirondack forest the alder flycatcher "commonly finds a site in an upright crotch of a bush or sapling, but in some instances it saddles its nest on a horizontal branch from twenty to thirty feet from the ground." Harold M. Holland writes to me from Illinois that "whereas willow and like growths may offer suitable nesting places along watercourses, on the 'prairie' it almost invariably nests in the osage-orange hedgerows. Years ago these hedges lined country roads and formed farm boundaries very extensively, and flycatchers were correspondingly plentiful." But the hedges are gradually disappearing. A. Dawes DuBois tells me that he once found a nest, in Jersey County, Ill., that was 8 feet from the ground "in a small ash tree in an orchard." He sends me the description of another nest, found on waste land north of Springfield, Ill., that was "composed chiefly of soft plant fibers and thin shreds from the outside of weed stalks, with several soft feathers matted into the walls, lined with very fine stiff plant stems and one large, soft feather, and slightly contracted at the rim. In exterior appearance, it resembles a yellow warbler's nest."
Several other observers have called attention to the resemblance of western nests of the alder flycatcher to the nests of this warbler or those of the goldfinch, whereas eastern nests have often been referred to as resembling nests of the indigo bunting or bush nests of the song sparrow; thus two very different types of nests are indicated. Three nests, found by Mr. Campbell (1936) in the upland colony in Lucas County, Ohio, were all placed on nearly horizontal branches of cockspur hawthorns, 31/2 to 41/2 feet from the ground; another nest was on a slanting branch of a small elm tree, 7 feet from the ground. The photographs shown in his paper indicate that these nests are quite unlike eastern nests. Many years ago Otto Widmann sent to Dr. Elliott Coues (1880) three Missouri nests of this flycatcher which he considered "identical with those of E. minimus." One was taken "from an oak-tree, at an elevation of 10 feet; another, with three eggs, June 21, from an elm, at a height of 18 feet; the third, with a single egg, June 17, from an ailanthus, only 6 feet from the ground." The above data seem to indicate that the nests and the nesting sites of the alder flycatchers (or perhaps more properly Traill's flycatchers) breeding west of the Alleghenies are both quite different from those of the species breeding east of that range and in Canada.
Eggs: The three or four eggs laid by the alder flycatcher are practically indistinguishable from those of its western relative. Mr. Farley (1901a) gives some detailed descriptions of individual eggs, one of which, he says, is "of a creamy ground color and is beautifully marked after the typical style with a fairly complete ring of pale brown blotches having darker centres, and with dark brown (almost black) round dots interspersed among the blotches, a rich effect being thus secured." The measurements of 50 eggs average 18.5 by 13.5 millimeters; the eggs, showing the four extremes measure 19.8 by 14.0, 19.3 by 14.5, 17.0 by 12.7, and 19.8 by 12.6 millimeters.
Plumages: Dr. Dwight (1900) says that the natal down is "pale olive-brown." Subsequent plumages and molts follow the same sequence as in the western race, the changes taking place while the birds are in the their winter home, though some young birds begin the postjuvenal molt before they leave in September. Young birds in juvenal plumage are somewhat yellower on the under parts than are adults.
Food: Professor Beal (1912) examined the stomach contents of 135 specimens of the two races of Empidonax trailli, taken in various parts of the country. Animal food made up 96.05 percent and vegetable food 3.95 percent.
Beetles of 65 species, all harmful species, except for a few ladybird beetles that eat plant lice and scale, amount to 17.89 percent. tHymenoptera are the largest item of animal food, not only in the aggregate but in every month." They are mostly in the form of wasps and bees, but there are a few of the parasitic species and some ants. They amount to 41.37 percent of the food, a record exceeded by but two other flycatchers. Hymenoptera of all kinds were found in 93 stomachs and were the sole contents of one.
"Diptera, such as crane flies, robber ifies, house flies, and dung flies, were found in 47 stomachs and were the entire contents of 4. They amount to 14.20 per cent of the food." Hemiptera were found in 44 stomachs and amount to 7.24 per cent. In one individual 12 chinch bugs were identified and the fragments of many more were found in the same stomach. "Lepidoptera, that is moths and caterpillars, were found in 41 stomachs, of which 18 contained moths and 25 held caterpillars, 2 containing both. The aggregate of both is 7.73 per cent." Orthoptera, made up mostly of small grasshoppers, amount to 3.91 percent and were contained in 16 stomachs. "A few odd insects, such as dragon flies and some ephemerids, were occasionally taken, and altogether amount to 2.77 per cent of the diet. A cattle tick was found in one stomach and a snail in another, both identifiable. Spiders and millepeds were eaten to the extent of 0.94 per cent and complete the animal food."
Of the vegetable food, he says: "Elderberries were found in 6 stomachs, blackberries or raspberries in 2, dogwood berries in 1, juniper berries in 1, fruit not further identified in 3, seeds unknown in 2, and rubbish in 1."
Behavior: The alder flycatcher does not differ materially in its behavior from the western subspecies. It has been said to be a very shy bird, but it is really no more so than many of our small birds; it is more retiring than shy. During the nesting season, it spends most of its time in the dense thickets, where it nests and where it secures most of its food; in such places it keeps out of sight and is not easy to approach, as it hears the necessarily noisy movements of the observer and retires ahead of him by short flights from one low perch to another, hidden among the leafage. It comes out oceasionally in pursuit of some passing insect or perches for a moment on some topmost twig to give its emphatic little song. On its arrival in spring it is much more in evidence, flying about from treetop to treetop in the open, prior to the selection of a nesting site and a mate. About its nest it is shier, or more nervous, than at other times; it is not a close sitter and can seldom be surprised on its nest, for it slips quietly away when it hears the observer coming; and it will not readily return to its nest, even to feed its young, if it knows that anyone is watching; but it will flit about in the bushes, just beyond vision, uttering its exasperating pip-pip scolding notes.
Audubon (1840) says: "When leaving the top branches of a low tree, this bird takes long flights, skimming in zigzag lines, passing close over the tops of the tall grasses, snapping at and seizing different species of winged insects, and returning to the same tree to alight. Its notes, I observed, were uttered when on the point of leaving the branch."
Voice: When I first heard the distinctive and striking note of the alder flycatcher, many years ago, I recorded it at raiz-w4e or rais-wk4o, the first part harsh and rasping, and the last syllable a clear, loud whistle that was rather musical. Francis H. Allen has sent me the following very good description of the notes: "Heard near at hand the song sounds to me like wee-zet~-up, with the up very faint. This is a slight modification of Dwight's rendering in Chapman's Handbook. A good rendering of the song is vee-fedl (the German wie 'dcl), as somebody else has suggested. One of the notes is an explosive queeoo, the co at the end very short, the whole hailing a rasping quality. The head is thrown back and the bill pointed up for this note, as well as for the song. The ordinary call note is a liquid pip, which is sometimes, or perhaps often, heard at dusk."
Mr. Farley (lOOla) says: "The minor notes of the Alder Flycatcher, like its harsh cry, are perfectly characteristic and unlike the notes of any other bird. They are of two sorts, the common low pip or pep, which to some ears may resemble peep, and the softly whistled whisper (or whispered whistle), pip-wAco or pip-w king. There is an interval between the two syllables of this soft song, and the last is accented. * * * It is a faint little cry that rarely rises above the gentle rustle of the alder and maple leaves as they are stirred by the June zephyrs."
Many other renderings of the various notes have been published, but they all seem to be different interpretations of the above notes. And, of course, some of these are similar to those of the western subspecies.
Fall: When the young are strong on the wing, during the latter part of August, the families start on their southward migration; and before the middle of September they have all departed from their summer homes. They seem to follow a southwestward course, west of the Alleghenies and through Texas into Mexico and Central America, where they join the western race in its winter home.
Dickey and van Rossem (1938) say that the alder flycatcher is a fairly common fall migrant and less common midwinter visitant to the lowlands of El Salvador. "Extremes of altitude are 200 and 1,000 feet. Dates of arrival and departure are August 25 and February 10."
Range: North America, south in winter to northwestern South America.
Breeding range: The species breeds north to Alaska (Nulato, Fort Yukon, and Circle); Mackenzie (Fort McPherson, Fort Goodhope, Fort Providence, and probably Fort Resolution); northern Manitoba (Brochet Lake, Cochrane River, and Norway House); northern Ontario (Moose Factory); northern Quebec (Richmond Gulf) ; and east-central Labrador (Esquimaux Island). The eastern boundary of the range extends southward along the coast from this point to northern New Jersey (Plainfield). South to northern New Jersey (Plainfield); probably western Maryland (Thayerville); central Ohio (Columbus and Lewistown Reservoir); central Indiana (Indianapolis) ; southern Illinois (Mount Carmel and Olney) ; northeastern Oklahoma (Tulsa); central Texas (probably Cameron and San Angelo); central Veracruz (Orizaba); southwestern Tamaulipas (Jaumave); Durango (Rio Nasas); probably northern Sonora (Nogales); and northern Baja California (Cerro Prieto, Las Cabras, and Los Coronados Islands). The western limits of the breeding range extend northward from northern Baja California (Los Coronados Islands) along the Pacific coast, chiefly in the mountainous regions, to Alaska (Chickamin River, probably Cordova Bay, and Nulato).
Winter range: In winter the species is found north to southern Guerrero (Coyuca) ; Guatemala (Los Ainates) ; Honduras (Lancetilla and Ceiba); Nicaragua (San Carlos); Panama (Gatun); northern Colombia (Mamatoca, Bonda, and Buritaca) ; and northwestern Venezuela (Encontrados). East to western Venezuela (Encontrados); east-central Colombia (Puerto Berrio, Honda, and Rio Frio); and northeastern Ecuador (Rio Suno). South to Ecuador (Rio Suno, Gualaquiza, Zamora, and Zaruma). West to southwestern Ecuador (Zaruma); Costa Rica (Bolson); El Salvador (Colima); southwestern Guatemala (San Jose and Mazatenango); and Guerrero (Coyuca).
The range as outlined is for the entire species, which has been separated into two subspecies or geographic races. The typical race, known as the alder flycatcher (Empidonax trailli trailli), occupies the northern part of the breeding range south to southern British Columbia, Colorado, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, and New Jersey. The little flycatcher (E. t. brewsteri), occupies the balance of the range but in the northern portions of its range it apparently overlaps that of E. t. trailli. The two races appear to occupy a common winter range, except that ln~ewsteri extends somewhat farther south.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival are: North Carolina: Raleigh, May 14. District of Columbia: Washington, May 8. New Jersey: Militown, May 12. Massachusetts: Stockbridge, May 10. Vermont: Randolph, May 17. New Hampshire: Monadnock, May 20. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, May 23. Quebec: Quebec City, May 25. Missouri: St. Louis, April 29. Illinois: Odin, May 3. Ohio: Oberlin, May 7. Michigan, Plymouth, May 11. Ontario-Ottawa, May 14. Minnesota: Minneapolis, May 1. Manitoba: Shoal Lake, May 9; Winnipeg, May 11. New Mexico: Carlisle, April 16. Colorado: Fort Lyon, May 9. Montana: Fortine, May 18. Alberta: Glenevis, May 22. California: Los Angeles, May 4. Oregon: Mercer, May 10. Washington: Spokane, May 15. British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, May 16. Alaska: near Lynn Canal, May 24.
Fall migration: L ate dates of fall departure are: Alaska: Fort Yukon, August 31; Sergief Island, September 3. British Columhia: Atlin, August 31; Vancouver, September 14. Washington-Spokane, September 30. California: Pasadena, September 26; Yosemite Valley, October 1. Alberta: Glenevis, August 31. Montana: Fortine, September 8. Wyoming: Laramie, September 7. Colorado: Yuma, September 10. Manitoba: Winnipeg, August 31. Minnesota: Minneapolis, September 24. lowa: Elkader, September 20. Ontario: Ottawa, September 4. Michigan: Ann Arbor, September 13. Ohio-Hillsboro, September 23. Illinois: Chicago, September 20. Missouri: St. Louis, October 4. Mississippi: Bay St. Louis, October 18. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, September 20. Maine: Dover-Foxcroft, September 3. Massachusetts: Dennis, September 5. Pennsylvania: Beaver, September 7. District of Columbi a: Washington, September 17. North Carolina: Raleigh, September 21. South Carolina: Mount Pleasant, September 30.
Casual records: There are numerous records of-the collection of one race cr the other outside the normal range but space is not available for their citation. Chapman refers without date to specimens from Embarcacion, Argentina, and a specimen was taken at Vista Alegre, Peru, on October 11, 1922. According to Reid a specimen was taken at Stocks Point, Bermuda, and preserved in the Bartram collection.
Egg dates: California: 94 records, April 19 to July 21; 48 records, June 6 to 28, indicating the height of the season. Colorado: 9 records, June 25 to July 80.
Illinois: 32 records, June 8 to July 9; 16 records, June 20 to 28.
Maine: 20 records, May 15 to July 1; 10 records, June 16 to 22.
New York: 19 records, June 9 to 28; 10 records, June 15 to 21.
Oregon: June 8 to July 18; 15 records, June 25 to July 2.