AN INORDINATE FONDNESS FOR BEETLES (OR FLYCATCHERS)
J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) was one of the founders of the field of population genetics. He is famous among non-scientists for an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, that was reported in a 1959 issue of the American Naturalist: Haldane…found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude [regarding] the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”
What the theologians thought of that sentiment is lost in history, but the basis of the statement is that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetles, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and slightly more than 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are more numerous than the species of any other insect order.
The study of beetles might be a bit arcane, even crazy—even fodder for an existential novel and movie. Has anyone else read and/or watched "The Woman in the Dunes" in which life is compared to searching for a sand-colored beetle that lives in sand dunes? If there is a birder’s equivalent, it is flycatchers—especially the genus Empidonax. Empidonax flycatchers are a small part of the large family called tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae)—a family which occurs throughout North and South America.
There are a few flycatchers that are remarkably easy to identify—such as this long-tailed tyrant from Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, most flycatchters are drab such as the aforementioned and notorious genus Empidonax (“empid,” for short). In fact, for many birders, the word “Empid” is a pejorative. As in, “it’s another ##$#$ empid!” It does sound like a slander. Once I was traveling with some Brits. They had a good laugh at my expense when I asked them to define “twit” and “blighter;” two obvious insults I had noted in British media. Maybe I should have retaliated by telling them to “stop acting like a couple of empids!” (There are no flycatchers in the UK!)
The 15 species of empid are distributed throughout the Americas. I had to laugh when I looked up empidonax in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: a genus of small olivaceous American flycatchers comprising several familiar birds (such as the least flycatcher and the Acadian flycatcher). Talk about an Eastern bias. Least and Acadians are common in sections of the Eastern US, but there are no Colorado records of an Acadian, and the Least Flycatcher is very rare at best.
With a Western geographic bias, the definition might have been: a genus of small olivaceous American flycatchers comprising several familiar birds (such as the dusky flycatcher and the gray flycatcher). Both of the latter species are relatively common in our area. If you look in the right places, you should also be able to find other empids such as Hammond’s and Cordilleran flycatchers. Willow flycatchers nest in Northern Colorado and probably pass through the Grand Valley annually.
(Dusky flycatcher-I'm certain because I heard it calling--notice it is in oak.)
How do I know those facts about empids? I read them in books. And, that is the state of things for many birders because these species can be very difficult to identify. Actually, I have personally identified 14 of the 15 species in my travels, and I learned a lot about birds and birding by doing so.
What did I learn?
1) No one can identify every bird they see. Sometimes I would examine a bird for a very long time simply insisting to myself that I could identify it. Then I went out with more experienced birders and noted that sometimes, especially during fall migration when birds seldom call and are not restricted to their common nesting habitats, they might spy an empid and simply call it an “unknown empid”—and leave it at that.
2) Learning a few calls or songs is invaluable. There are some empids that have very similar calls, but many are quite distinct, and even the difficult ones can be learned with a little time. So, for birds difficult to identify with your eyes; learn the call and you can be certain about your identification.
3) Learning a bird’s life history and habits are usually keys to identification. For empids, there isn’t a lot of nesting habitat overlap. If it is June and you find an empid in pinyon-junipers interspersed with sagebrush—it is almost undoubtedly a gray flycatcher. Higher up, where scrub oak meets aspen and/or Ponderosa pine—you can be relatively sure you have a dusky flycatcher. Something similar can be said about each species in the genus.
Those three “lessons” will help you correctly identify many more birds, not just empids!
This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!