A member of the Empidonax flycatcher group, the Hammond’s Flycatcher can be difficult to distinguish from its relatives, especially the Dusky and Gray Flycatchers. All Hammond’s Flycatchers are migratory, with movements taking place at night.
Pursuit flights as well as physical attacks are used to defend breeding territories. Males and females appear nearly identical, although females tend to have slightly shorter and wider bills than males. Little banding of Hammond’s Flycatchers has been done, so there is no information regarding their lifespan.
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Description of the Hammond’s Flycatcher
The Hammond’s Flycatcher has grayish-olive upperparts, a grayish throat, an olive wash across grayish-white underparts, two whitish wing bars, a white eye ring extending to a point behind the eye, and a mostly dark bill.
Seasonal change in appearance
Fall adults are yellower below.
Similar to adults.
Forages by flying out from a perch to capture flying insects.
Breeds in coniferous forests of the western U.S. and Canada and winters in Mexico.
Hammond’s Flycatchers occasionally have aggressive interactions with Cordilleran or Pacific-slope Flycatchers during the breeding season.
Hammond’s Flycatchers prefer larger stands of old-growth forest to smaller or younger forest stands.
The song consists of several hoarse, low-pitched phrases, while the call is a sharp “peek”.
- The Dusky Flycatcher has a slightly larger bill, but it and other Empidonax Flycatchers are very similar in appearance.
The nest is a cup of plant material placed on a horizontal branch far from the tree trunk.
Color: White with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 15-16 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 16-18 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Hammond’s 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 Hammond’s Flycatcher – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
EMPIDONAX HAMMONDI (Xantus)
Three western flycatchers of the genus Empidona~ form a very puzzling group. The difficulty of recognizing the three species, even in hand, has doubtless led to errors in identification, which must be taken into account in considering the value of field observations. Fortunately, habitats, nesting habits, and voices often help in field identification, as will be referred to later.
As to the characters of specimens in hand, Dr. Joseph Grinnell (19 14b) writes: “In spite of the largely increased extent of material illustrating this genus, the relative characters of Em~pidonax gri8eus, Empidoncnr wrighti, and En~idonaa~ ka~’mnwndi remain somewhat subtle. * * * The color differences are minute: kamrnondi is slatiest, griseus ashiest, wrighti intermediate; ‘wrighti is greenest dorsally and pectorally; the outer web of outer tail-feather is distinctly white nearly to its tip .~in grkeue, grayish white in wi~ighti, and but slightly paler than rest of feather in ham nwndi. The lower mandible is entirely blackish brown externally, in hamn-wndi, dull or lighter brownish in wrighti, while in griseu.s it is blackish brown at tip and abruptly straw yellow for its basal two-thirds, brightest along the rami.
In his table of measurements, it appears that, in general dimensions, hammondi is the smallest, wrighti intermediate, and griseus the largest, except that wrighti has the longest tail.
The breeding ranges of these three species are none too well defined, and many published records may prove to be subject to correction. According to the 1931 Check-list, Hammond’s flycatcher is said to breed “in Transition and Canadian zones from southeastern Alaska, southern Yukon, and southern Alberta to the Sierra Nevada, central California and Colorado.”
The breeding haunts of Hammond’s flycatcher are mainly at higher elevations than those of the other small flycatchers in the open forests of firs, spruces and pines. Harry S. Swarth (1922) found it, in northern British Columbia, “abundant on the upper Stikine, where it is largely a bird of the poplar woods.” He does not mention finding a nest there, so his birds may not have been on their breeding grounds at the time, “the last week in May.”
Samuel F. Rathbun writes to me: “Hammond’s flycatcher is a more or less common summer resident of western Washington, but it is in the section known as the Olympic Peninsula that this species reaches the height of its abundance, possibly because of the forest conditions which there prevail. It secms to be partial to the somewhat open coniferous forest, though, even here, more often near their borders than in their depths; and occasionally its note is heard in the fringes of deciduous trees which sometimes grow along the edges of the conifers.”
W. L. Dawson (1923) writes: “In its summer home, in Oregon and Washington, Hammond Flycatchers may be locally very common. I have seen twenty in the course of a morning’s walk in early June. Fir groves, the edges of clearings, bush-clad hillsides with fallen trees scattered about, the timbered banks of streams, these are favorite places of residence.”
Farther south this flycatcher breeds at much higher elevations in the mountains of California and Colorado. At one time both Dr. Grinnell and Mr. Dawson expressed some doubt as to the breeding of this species in California, but it is now a well-established fact that it breeds in the high coniferous forests of the Sierra Nevada. James B. Dixon tells me that in Mono County it seems to breed almost exclusively above 9,000 feet and that some nests were found at the topmost tree limit, very close to 11,000 feet above sea level.
In Colorado it has been recorded at elevations varying from 7,500 to 10,000 feet.
Spring: Hammond’s flycatcher is evidently one of the earlier migrants through Arizona and California, where it seems to be quite generally distributed and, at times, fairly abundant. Referring to Arizona, Mr. Swarth (1904) says: “Of the migrating birds passing through this region in the spring the Hammond Flycatcher is one of the first to put in an appearance, and about the last to leave. The earliest noted, a male, was taken on March 30; the bulk of them arrive early in April, and they remain in the greatest abundance until the middle of May, when they begin to rapidly diminish in numbers, the last being seen May 22. In the spring I found them in all parts of the mountains, but most abundantly below 6000 feet, and usually along the canyons, not far from water.”
Mr. Rathbun, in his notes from Seattle, says: “This flycatcher arrives in the latter part of April. It is one of the species found in the ‘bird waves’ that one sees at times. On these occasions, it is in the company of warbiers, kinglets, chestnut-backed chickadees, and often red-breasted nuthatches, with now and then a few others; and I have never seen a wave of our migrating woodland birds that did not have at least a few Hammond’s flycatchers.”
Nesting: Mr. Rathbun says further (MS.): “On two occasions I have found its nest. In both instances it was placed in a small fork of a limb of a fir tree of medium size, and the nests were at heights of between 50 and 60 feet. The material used in each was thin strips of fibrous bark and plant fibers; the lining was of fine dry grasses and bits of dry mosses, neatly woven together.” Mr. Dawson (1923) writes:
In the summer of 1906 Mr. Bowles and I found these flycatchers nesting on a fashionable hillside section of Spokane. In two instances the birds were building out in the open, after the fashion of the Western Wood Pewee (M~’iochanes dc1w,rd8on~): one on the bare limb of a horse-chestnut tree some ten feet from the ground; the other upon an exposed elbow of a picturesque horizontal limb of a pine tree at a height of some sIxty feet. A few miles farther north we located a nearly completed nest of this species on the 20th of May, and returned on the 1st of June to complete accounts. The nest was placed seven feet from the trunk of a tail fir tree, and at a height of forty feet. The bird was sitting, and when frightened dived headlong into the nearest thicket, where she skulked silently during our entire stay. The nest proved to be a delicate creation of the finest vegetable materials, weathered leaves, fibers, grasses, etc., carefully inwrought, and a considerable quantity of the orangecolored bracts of young fir trees. The lining was of hair, fine grass, bracts, and a single feather. In position the nest might well be that of a Wood Pewee; but, although it was deeply cupped, it was much broader, and so, relatively flatter.
Rose Carolyn Ray (1932) published the first authentic account of the nesting of Hammond’s flycatcher in the high Sierras of California.
She found the nest on June 21, 1929, “in a forest of pines and firs on the Sierran summit at an altitude of 7600 feet,” in Eldorado County. It was 6 feet from the ground in a tamarack tree and “placed where several small trees and a slanting sapling came to gether and thereby offered concealment, but it was not woven to the limb as the nests of the Wright Flycatcher are.” A few days later, her husband, Milton S. Ray, was able to identify the nest by shooting the parent bird. “The nest was rather loosely made for a flycatcher and is basically composed of dark red bark strips, to gether with light gray bark strips, rootlets, grasses, stems, feathers, string, cocoons and woolly substances, and thickly lined with feathers.
The outside measurements are, top, 3~,/4 by 4½ inches; depth, 2’A inches. The nest cavity is 2 inches in diameter by 1 inch in depth.”
Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) report an interesting nest found by them in a lodgepole pine in the Lassen Peak region of California:
The nest is of rather unexpected construction, in that three successive years’ occupation of the site Is in evidence. The lowermost of the three layers that are distinguishable is hard-packed, resistant to the touch, and fitted closely Into the supporting crotch and against the accessory side branch; upon this is a less compact but also weathered layer about 20 mm. thick as viewed on the exposed surface; above this is the new, current nest proper with free rim showing about 20 mm. still higher. The color of this new and super imposed cup Is, in sharp contrast to that of the other two layers, light brown because of Its constituent material being of unweathered but dried coarse light-brown vegetable fibers and grass stems, mixed with blackish filaments of a lichen. This latest increment is well rounded and of close texture.
Major Bendire (1895) describes several nests from different locali ties that were located in conifers and made of similar materials. He suggests, as several others have done, that the nests of Hammond’s flycatcher more nearly resemble in shape and position the nests of the wood pewee than those of the other Empidonaces. He also men tions some nests in the National Museum, collected by Roderick Mac Farlane, in British Columbia, some of which “were apparently placed in upright crotches of willows, and others on horizontal limbs close to the trunks of small conifers, at no great distance from the ground.”
Although the parent birds came with these nests, there is the possi bility that some of his collectors may have made mistakes, or the specimens become mixed. There are numerous other published ac counts of supposed nests of this species, in upright crotches and at low elevations in small trees and bushes, that apparently resemble the nests of Wright’s flycatcher. They look suspicious, in view of all ï that has been said above, and may be referable to the latter species.
Eggs: Three or four eggs make up the usual set for Hammond’s flycatcher. They are mostly ovate and have little or no gloss when fresh; some eggs are more elongated or shorter ovate in shape, and some have been reported as somewhat glossy. The ground color seems to vary from dull white to pale creamy white, or a deeper cream color; Mr. Ray describes the ground color of his set as a “peculiar, clear, rich, yellowish tint.” A majority of the eggs are unmarked, but many are marked with minute dots, or small spots, of dark liver-brown, or lighter shades of brown. A set taken by Denis Gale in Colorado is described by Bendire (1895) in Mr. Gale’s own words, as having “a decided light-yellow ground, with a slight powdering of dark specks, with larger shell markings of lavender tints.” The measurements of 50 eggs average 16.8 by 12.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 17.8 by 13.7, 17.6 by 14.0, 15.2 by 13.2, and 16.6 by 12.4 millimeters.
Young: The period of incubation is probably the same as for the other small flycatchers, about 12 days. Probably only the female incubates the eggs, but both parents feed and care for the’ young. Dr. Russell T. Congdon has sent me some photographs of the feeding process (p1. 29), and he says in his notes: “The taking of food by the young bird stimulates active peristalsis, and the parent is so alert to grasp her opportunity that not once was the nest soiled. After feeding the insect to one of the young the parent flycatcher would remain on the edge of the nest in a watching attitude, and after a brief period, the young bird just fed would elevate its rump, extend the tail feathers way back, and extrude the pellet (or bolus) of waste matter. This the parent immediately seized in her bill, before it could drop into the nest, and made off with it.”
A family of young, “obviously just out of a nest,” was watched by Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930): “They kept at a height of about ten meters above the ground, among the branches toward the center of a lodgepole pine.
“The young birds were well feathered except that their tails were not quite of full length. Both parents were in attendance. After the old female had been collected the male alone fed the family. The young ones would, in turn, fly out after the parent and there would be a melee during which feeding apparently took place. The young birds gave a faint food call, c/dip.”
Referring to the Sierra. Nevada, W. W. Price (Barlow, 1901) says: “Late in the summer the young of this flycatcher are common in the tamarack thickets along Silver Creek and on the slopes of Pyramid Peak. They are usually associated with the young of two or three warblers and Cassir~ vireo. I have noted this congregation each season previous to the migration. The large scattering flocks are often miles in extent, and probably contain thousands of birds.”
Plumages: There are two quite distinct color phases, said to be independent of age or season, in the adult Ilaimnond’s flycatcher. As described by Ridgway (1907), in the white-bellied phase the pileum and hind neck are “dull deep brownish gray (nearly mouse gray), the back, scapulars, lesser wing-coverts, rump, and upper tailcoverts similar, but decidedly more olive; * * * chest and sides of breast pale gray, gradually fading on sides and flanks; rest of under parts dull white, yellowish white, or very pale primrose yellow.” The yellow-bellied phase he describes as similar, “but more olivaceous (sometimes brownish olive) above, chest and sides of breast olive or buffy olive, and abdomen, etc., primrose or sulphur yellow.” The two extremes are rather uncommon, most of the specimens are more or less intermediate, and the color differences may be seasonal.
Mr. Ridgway (1907) says that the young are “essentially like whitish-bellied adults, but color of upper parts grayish brown, rather than olive, wing-bands light buffy, and marginal under wing-coverts huffy.”
Dickey and van Rossem (1938) write: “Hammond’s flycatcher differs materially from the other visiting species of Empidonaa~ in that it molts before leaving the north. We have many specimens from the United States showing all stages of the postjuvenal and adult fall molt which begins in August and is ordinarily complete by the latter part of September. In this species the juvenal rectrices (but not the remiges) are replaced with the body plumage at the postjuvenal molt. Another point of difference is that the spring molt ordinarily is not extensive. Good series of migrating spring specimens taken in various western states in April and May show varying amounts of new body feathers, particularly on the foreparts and back, but most of the plumage is that acquired at the molt of the previous fall.”
The postnuptial molt evidently begins very early, for an adult male, taken on June 30, by Mr. Swarth (1922) “shows the beginning of the molt”; and an adult female, taken July 27, “had renewed a large part of its plumage.” A young bird taken “August 10, shows the beginning of the molt into the first winter plumage.” On the other hand, the adult molt sometimes is much delayed, for Mr. Swarth (1929) collected an adult female in Arizona, on October 3, that was “apparently just beginning the annual molt.”
Food: Practically nothing seems to have been published on the food of this flycatcher, which probably does not differ materially from that of the other members of the genus.
Behavior: Hammond’s flycatcher generally spends most of its time among the higher branches of the trees in which it lives, at greater heights than most other members of the genus. Mr. Rathbun says in his notes: “A favorite perch is among the upper branches or on the extreme top of some tall, slender, dead tree at or near the edge of an open space in the forest. From this it will make short flights after winged insects, and invariably, after returning to its perch from such excursions, it will flirt its tail once or twice before lapsing into a quiet attitude.” He says that on days of heavy rain it “will be found low among the trees, at times only a few feet above the ground.” Bowles and Decker (1927) say of its behavior about the nest:
The female sits very closely after incubation has commenced, so that it is sometimes nece~ary to lift her off the nest in order to ascertain the contents, but she Is seldom or never found on the nest until the set is complete. After being flushed she is the tamest of the small Flycatchers, usually returning to the tree very soon and otherwise displaying her anxiety. The male Is very watchful around the nest and will promptly drive off any other bird that comes in its vicinity, in this way sometimes showing the oologist that a nest Is near at hand. We once saw a beautiful male Townsend’s Warbler attacked and driven off after quite a battle, in which the dusty colored little Hammond’s looked like a trnmp. These birds are never at all shy in the vicinity of the nest and are usually easily approached at any time elsewhere.
Voice: Harnxnond’s flycatcher is said to be a rather silent species. Mr. Rathbun says of it (MS.): “The note of this flycatcher, when heard at a distance, seems to be a single one, but, when a person is close, it appears to be broken, or there seems to be a slight hesitancy after the first part. To us, the note sounds like pee-eet, or even pee-zeet, given somewhat deliberately; the zeet with a rising inflection, lightly accented and slightly prolonged; it then ends abruptly.”
The bird also has a faint, soft call note that sounds like pit, or quip, often uttered continuously. And it has a rather distinctive song, by which it can be recognized. Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) describe this as follows: “One singing bird that was watched June 24, 1925, had as its singing perch the very topmost snag of a deadtopped white fir. The height of the perch was estimated at forty meters from the ground. The bird continually shifted its body, most frequently the head, from side to side. The head was thrown back simultaneously with the utterance of the notes. The complete ‘song,’ given over and over again with monotonous regularity, sounded to the observer as follows: se-put (uttered rapidly), tsurr-r-p (roughly burred), ts~p (rising inflection) .”
Field marks: Hammond’s, Wright’s, and the gray flycatchers can hardly be recognized by the characters that separate the species (see the first page of this chapter), except under the most favorable circumstances and at close range. The songs, which are quite different, are the best field marks. Habitats are helpful. A small flycatcher at a considerable height in a coniferous tree, especially at the higher altitudes in the mountain ranges, is quite likely to be Hammond’s. At low elevations, while migrating and in the lowlands, when the birds are mostly silent, recognition is almost hopeless.
Bowles and Decker (1927), however, observe that “in life Hammond’s shows himself a dusky backed;~ sooty breasted, short tailed little chap, while Wright’s is a gray backed, light breasted, long tailed bird, appearing decidedly the larger of the two. These characteristics may seem a trifle exaggerated here, but as seen in life they are recognizable at once. In fact, Hammond’s suggests more than anything else an undersized Western Wood Pewee.”
Fall: Mr. Rathbun tells me that this species departs from Washington during September. W. E. D. Scott (1887) took specimens in Arizona from early in October until the 25th of that month. But Mr. Swarth (1904) states that in the Huachuca Mountains, Ariz., they reappeared in August, “not in the foothills and along the canyons, as in the spring, “but up in the pines, none being seen below 9000 feet. The first was seen on August 26, and from that time on, though not at all abundant, I found them in small numbers scattered through the pines along the divide.” It would appear from this that the fall migration is leisurely and quite prolonged; this may be due to the fact that t.he fall molt is accomplished before the birds reach their winter home.
Winter: Dickey and van Rossem (1938) found this flycatcher to be a “common winter visitant to the oak-pine association of the Arid Upper Tropical Zone of the interior mountains” of El Salvador, “rarely straggling as high as 8,700 feet in the cloud forest of the Humid Upper Tropical. Extremes of elevation are 3,500 and 8,700 feet. Dates of arrival and departure are November 21 and March 12. * * * It is probable that the date of arrival is somewhat in advance of that given above, for the birds were present in numbers on November 21, the initial day of collecting on Mt. Cacaguatique.”
Range: Western North America; south in winter to El Salvador. Breeding range: Hammond’s flycatcher breeds north to Alaska (Charlie Creek) ; and central Alberta (Lesser Slave Lake). East to Alberta (Lesser Slave Lake and Jasper Park); western Montana (Fortine, Flathead Lake, and Sourdough Canyon); Wyoming (Yellowstone Park and Laramie); and Colorado (Northgate, Gold lull, and Salida). South to southern Colorado (Salida and Fort Lewis); southern Idaho (Emigration Canyon); and central California (Yosemite Valley and Grizzly Creek). West to California (Grizzly Creek, Mineral, and Mount Shasta); Oregon (Little Butte Creek and Powder River Mountains); Washington (Swamp Creek, Tacoma, and Seattle); British Columbia (Nootka Sound, Ilazelton, and WRIGHT’S FLYCATCHER 233 Atlin); southeastern Alaska (Glacier) ; western Yukon (Carcross and Selwyn River); and eastern Alaska (Charlie Creek).
Winter range: In winter the species is concentrated in Central America, north to the southern Mexican States, as Jalisco (Barranca and Tharra); Guanajuato (Rancho Enmedia); and Veracruz (Onzaba) and south to southern Guatemala (Tecpam and Volcan de Fuego) and El Salvador (Los Esesmiles and Mount Cacaguatique).
Unseasonable records are of specimens taken near Livingston, Calif., on December 20, 1918, and in Sabino Canyon, Tucson region, Ariz., on February 24, 1934. The latter specimen, with one other, was first seen on January 18 and regularly thereafter to the date of collection.
Migration: Migration data for this and some other members of the genus Empidona~r are frequently unsatisfactory for the reason that in most cases visual field identifications are practically worthless.
Spring: The following appear to be early dates of spring arrival: Colorado: Fort Lyon, May 15. Wyoming: Laramie, May 13. Montana: Hargan, May 10. Alberta: Banif, May 12. Arizona: Santa Catalina Mountains, March 31. Idaho: Priest River, May 19. California: Los Angeles, April 9. Oregon: Lake Malheur, April 17. Washington: Kiona, April21. British Columbia: Victoria, April20.
Fall: Late dates of fall departure are: Alaska: McCarthy, August 23. British Columbia: Huntington, October 5 (unusually late). Washington: Pullman, September 18. Oregon: Wallowa County, September 23. California: Los Angeles, October 30. Idaho: Coeur d’Alene, September 1. Utah: Beaver, September 22. Arizona: Santa Catalina Mountains, October 25. Alberta: Jasper Park, August 7. Montana: Fortine, August 25. Wyoming: Pacific Springs, September 4. New Mexico-Gallup, September 30.
Casual records: A specimen was taken at Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, on March 2, 1908, and one was collected at Crawford, Nebr., on September 17, 1911.
Egg dates: Bnitish Columbia: 9 records, June 4 to July 7.
California: 17 records, June 12 to July 10; 9 records, June 22 to July 2, indicating the height of the season.
Colorado: 4 records, June 24 to 30.
Washington: 8 records, June 5 to July 14.