birderfrommaricopa.com

Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Tyrant Flycatchers of Maricopa County

 

Olive-sided Flycatcher Cantopus cooperi

The Olive-sided Flycatcher is a large pewee that favors high elevation coniferous forests, where it sits on high dead tree branches in pursuit of insects.  It's loud song, a three syllable "quick-three-beers", can be heard from far distances on it's breeding grounds.  The breeding range of this species is rather widespread over the western Lower 48, and most of Canada and Alaska.  This breeding range includes the forests in northern Arizona, with the White Mountains in Apache County being a great place to find Olive-sided Flycatchers.  They are widespread as migrants throughout most of North America, and they pass through Maricopa County in very regular but uncommon numbers.  Olive-sided Flycatchers are found in both spring and fall migrations, especially in riparian areas and the forested Transition Zones.  The month of May is a good time to look for Olive-sideds in spring migration, and in fall migration, mid-August through September are good times to look.

 

Western Wood-Pewee Cantopus sordidulus

The Western Wood-Pewee is a fun bird to watch.  It sits on a bare branch in pursuit of flying insects, and continuously returns to the same bare branch time and time again.  This behavior differs from other flycatchers.  Western Wood-Pewees are widespread in conifer forests in western North America with open woods being their preferred habitat.  Their song is commonly heard throughout the day.  They breed throughout high elevation forested areas in Arizona, with Maricopa County having some of it's preferred habitat.  The forested mountains in the Transition Zones in the Highway 87 Area (Area 1) are good places to see breeding Western Wood-Pewees in Maricopa County.  Look in the pine and oak forests at Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, and the Four Peaks Wilderness Areas in Area 1 starting in May and continuing through late summer.  As a migrant, Western Wood-Pewees are very common in Maricopa County in both spring and fall.  They are found especially in Lower Sonoran riparian forests as well as Transition Zones during migrations.  They are most easily seen in spring migration in the month of May and in fall migration starting in August and especially through September.

 

Willow Flycatcher Empidonax traillii

The "Fitz-beew" song of the Willow Flycatcher is distinctive for an empidonax flycatcher, as voice is most often the easiest clue to identifying the tricky group of "empids".  Other clues to help identify Willow Flycatchers are a lack of an eye-ring (unfortunetely this one has an eye-ring), flat forehead appearance, and larger bill with a completely orange lower mandible.  This is also one of the largest empids out of the genus.  The Willow Flycatcher is rather widespread as a breeder in North America throughout much of the Lower 48, and it favors brushy habitats in riparian areas.  A subspecies of Willow Flycatcher, the endangered "Southwestern" subspecies, breeds in Arizona in some places, including a small number in Maricopa County.  Breeding Willow Flycatchers in Maricopa County favor riparian forests, where the best place to find them is found at the Hassayampa River Preserve (Area 10), usually in the area of the Palm Lake Loop.  Other than the small breeding population, Willow Flycatchers migrate through Maricopa County in good numbers during both migrations.  Although they can be found in both migrations, fall is a great time to look as they are very common in fall migration.  They may show up at any riparian area throughout the county.

 

Hammond's Flycatcher Empidonax hammondii

The Hammond's Flycatcher is one of the smaller empidonax flycatchers.  It nests in higher elevations than the other empid flycatchers, where it prefers high mountains in coniferous forests.  Hammond's Flycatchers spend much of their day perched high in conifer trees, where their nests are placed high on horizontal branches.  This small flycatcher breeds in these forests throughout the west, but is only a migrant in Arizona.  Migrating Hammond's Flycatchers in Arizona are fairly common in both spring and fall migrations.  They are probably a lot more common in higher elevations during migration in more of their preferred habitat.  In Maricopa County, look for this bird in both spring and fall migrations, especially in riparian areas and probably the higher Transition Zones within the county limits.  The Hammond's Flycatcher is extremely similiar to the Dusky Flycatcher, which also migrates through Maricopa County at the same time as does Hammonds.  Although it takes experience to separate the two visually, they are both very different in voice and some behavorial traits.  Both give call notes during migration, as Hammond's gives a distinctive high peet (similar to a single Pygmy Nuthatch callnote) while Dusky gives a lower and more dry whit.  Hammond's is very active, constantly flicking it's tail and wings at the same time.  Dusky Flycatcher occasionally flicks it's tail and only flicks it's wings irregularly.  Visually, Hammond's Flycatcher has a smaller bill and a "cuter" look to it.  Hammond's also always has a strongly notched tail (see photo), although some Dusky's have notched tails.  In looking at primary projections (this also takes a lot of experience), Hammond's has a longer and more noticable primary projection while Dusky has a short primary projection.  When looking at a Hammond's/Dusky Flycatcher, listen for voice and watch it's pattern in behavior for the best clues on identification. 

 

Dusky Flycatcher Empidonax oberholseri

Very similar to the Hammond's Flycatcher, the slightly larger Dusky Flycatcher has similar breeding range to the Hammond's Flycatcher throughout the west (including the White Mountains in northeastern Arizona), but in different habitats.  Dusky Flycatchers favor open woods or dense low brush in riparian or chaparral habitats in this range, all in higher elevations (but never the dense and sheltered conifer forests that Hammond's prefers).  Dusky Flycatchers are told apart from Hammond's and other empid flycatchers by voice, so studying their voice by both song and call notes is very important.  This flycatcher is mainly a fairly common migrant in Maricopa County in both spring and fall migrations, although this species occasionally tends to winter in riparian areas throughout Arizona.  In Maricopa County, watch for the Dusky Flycatcher in both spring and fall migrations especially in any riparian area and perhaps the higher and forested Transition Zones.  Mount Ord (Area 1) has suitable habitat for this species in migration.  See the Hammond's Flycatcher description above for more information on behavior and visual identification clues on the identification on these two species.  Many birds will have to be entered in the birder's notebook as Hammond's/Dusky Flycatcher when observing the two species.

 

Gray Flycatcher Empidonax wrightii

Gray Flycatchers make empid identification very easy on birders.  This empidonax flycatcher has a very distinctive behavior different from all others in it's genus, as it dips it tail down gently and regularly, which is very similar in behavior to phoebes.  The Gray Flycatcher is one of the larger empidonax flycatchers, has a long and narrow bill, and a very long tail.  It is visually similar to both Dusky and Hammond's Flycatchers, but has obvious and distinctive visual features that separate it from the the other two.  Gray Flycatchers breed in western North America, mainly south of Canada (including northern Arizona).  Their breeding habitat choice differs strongly from all other empid flycatchers, which consists of dry and arid habitats that are dominated by sagebrush as well as foothills with juniper or pinyon trees.  This flycatcher is very shy on it's breeding grounds, and is often located by it's rather loud and dry whiit call.  In Maricopa County, Gray Flycatchers can be seen in both migrations and unlike other empids, it winters in the county in common numbers where it is easy to find in mesquite bosques.  Mesquite bosques are the preferred habitat of the Gray Flycatcher in winter, so anywhere in Maricopa County with nice mesquite habitats are worth checking for this unique empid flycatcher.  The best place to find them however is at many of the recreation sites along the Lower Salt River (Area 2), which has some of the best mesquite habitat in the county.  When identifying the Gray Flycather, don't forget to look for it's gentle tail-bobbing behavior, which is all you need to see!

 

Pacific-slope Flycatcher Empidonax difficilis

Formerly known as "Western Flycatcher", the Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers used to be a single species before being split into two species.  Away from breeding grounds where range is the best indentification, these two birds are very often noted as "Western type flycatchers".  They are impossible to seperate visually, where voice is the only way to separate the two, and that also doesn't differ much.  Songs are delivered differently by males between the two, which is the only clue.  The Pacific-slope Flycatcher is a very common spring and fall migrant in Maricopa County, mainly in the lowland habitats.  Riparian habitats are the best places to look.  Studies have revealed that Pacific-slope Flycatchers migrate through lower elevations, while Cordilleran Flycatchers mainly stick to the higher elevations, although there is overlap.  Numbers of "Western Flycatchers" in the lowlands are mostly Pacific-slope, and numbers in high elevations are mostly Cordilleran.  Both species breed in western North America in shady mixed-conifer forests.  Pacific-slope has a longer range and is found along the states lining the Pacific Coast, while Cordilleran is strongly found in the interior states in western North America.  Western Flycatchers are best idendified by their yellow-olive appearance overall, and their complete eyering that extends more beyond the rear of their eye, which gives the eyering a distictive "teardrop" look.

 

Cordilleran Flycatcher Empidonax occidentalis

Formerly known as "Western Flycatcher", the Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers used to be a single species before being split into two species.  Away from breeding grounds where range is the best indentification, these two birds are very often noted as "Western type flycatchers".  They are impossible to seperate visually, where voice is the only way to separate the two, and that also doesn't differ much.  Songs are delivered differently by males between the two, which is the only clue.  The Cordilleran Flycatcher is harder to detect in Maricopa County, but can be found in numbers at the right times of spring and fall migration in the higher forested elevations of Maricopa County.  Studies have revealed that Pacific-slope Flycatchers migrate through lower elevations, while Cordilleran Flycatchers mainly stick to the higher elevations, although there is overlap.  Numbers of "Western Flycatchers" in the lowlands are mostly Pacific-slope, and numbers in high elevations are mostly Cordilleran.  Both species breed in western North America in shady mixed-conifer forests.  Pacific-slope has a longer range and is found along the states lining the Pacific Coast, while Cordilleran is strongly found in the interior states in western North America (including much of Arizona).  Western Flycatchers are best idendified by their yellow-olive appearance overall, and their complete eyering that extends more beyond the rear of their eye, which gives the eyering a distictive "teardrop" look.  In Maricopa County, Western Flycatchers in numbers on Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, and the Four Peaks Wilderness Area (Area 1), are likely to be Cordilleran Flycatchers for the majority.

 

Black Phoebe Sayornis nigricans

The Black Phoebe is common throughout much of the southwestern United States.  It is almost always found near water, often in open areas and trees which border rivers, ponds, marshes, and any other wet areas.  They can even be found in pools sometimes in midst of housing developments and in midst of treatment plant ponds.  This bird is very vocal, and is heard often throughout the day.  It is always cooperative for viewers, and commonly perches out in the open.  Like other phoebes, the Black Phoebe constantly pumps it's tail.  Black Phoebes are common in Maricopa County throughout the year, especially in any riparian habitats in the county.

 

Say's Phoebe Sayornis saya

The Say's Phoebe is very widespread in open areas throughout western North America in it's breeding range.  These open areas include fields, suburban lawns, tundra, and desert in all elevation ranges.  It's rising phhiieeww call is commonly heard in these open habitats.  Say's Phoebes are found throughout Arizona in their breeding range, but they are migratory in the northern half of the state and are there for the breeding season.  They are found year round easily in the southern half of Arizona, which includes Maricopa County.  Say's Phoebes may be found in any open field or desert habitat or any dry and open country easily throughout the county.

 

Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus rubinus

This gourgeous bird is a favorite and sought after bird by many who bird in the southwest.  Male Vermilion Flycatchers are distinctive and can't be mistaken for any other bird.  These flycatchers are usually very approachable and are extra cooperative for birders who want to see them.  The male has amazing flight displays during courtship, singing when doing so.  They are early birds, often singing very early in the morning before dawn.  Vermilion Flycatchers favor riparian areas near water and enjoy having open space, especially in areas where there are a lot of mesquite trees in the mix of habitat.  These flycatchers are found only in the southwestern United States in their North American range.  They are found breeding from central to southern Arizona, with Maricopa County being a great place to observe this species.  In Maricopa County, Vermilions can be found throughout the entire year.  The species is migratory, so numbers during breeding season in spring and summer are a lot higher.  During spring and summer, Vermilions are very common and are especially easy to see and observe up close.  Some of the excellent places to view Vermilion Flycatchers in Maricopa County are:  Area 2 (Granite Reef, Coon Bluff, and Butcher Jones Recreation Sites), Area 10 (Hassayampa River Preserve, U.S. 60 Roadstop), and Area 12 (Horseshoe Lake Recreation Area).  Coon Bluff Recreation Site in Area 2 and the Hassayampa River Preserve in Area 10 are the best places to view this striking bird.

 

Ash-throated Flycatcher Myiarchus cinerascens

The Ash-throated Flycatcher is the most common and widespread flycatcher of the Myiarchus genus in Arizona as well as throughout the west in the Lower 48.  This species is found anywhere from Lower Sonoran desert habitats up to Transition Zone forested habitats.  It feeds on a variety of foods, which includes insects, fruits, and lizards and it nests in cavities (most often old woodpecker holes).  Ash-throated Flycatchers as with all Myiarchus flycatchers, are very vocal where voice is the best indication for identification to species.  The species is very common in Maricopa County starting in spring and contuing into fall.  Ash-throated Flycatchers are migratory, and the majority of the population leaves during fall, although a fair number of birds remain through winter.  In Maricopa County, look for Ash-throated Flycatchers in most natural habitats from Lower Sonoran deserts, riparian forests, chaparral hillsides, and up to the forested pine and oak mountains in the Transition Zones. 

 

Brown-crested Flycatcher Myiarchus tyrannulus

The Brown-crested Flycatcher is the other common Myiarchus flycatcher in Arizona and Maricopa County.  It is very similar to the Ash-throated Flycatcher, but is slightly larger, has a much larger bill, and a yellower belly.  Vocally, the two species are very different from each other.  Brown-crested Flycatchers favor thick riparian forests dominated by willows, sycamores, and cottonwoods, where they outnumber the Ash-throated Flycatcher.  This flycatcher is also a cavity nester, and has an interesting assortment of food sources which include insects, fruits, small lizards, and even hummingbirds on occasions.  It is a very defensive bird of it's territory, often attacking other winged intruders.  In Maricopa County, Brown-crested Flycatchers arrive in numbers for breeding starting in May, and most of them are gone before the fall, rarely lingering into September.  Although thick riparian forests are the preferred habitat, they can sometimes be found in the saguaro desert in tall cactuses where woodpeckers have provided nesting holes.  In Maricopa County, excellent places to observe Brown-crested Flycatchers include:  Area 1 (Mesquite Wash, Sunflower, Bushnell Tanks), Area 10 (Morgan City Wash, U.S. 60 Roadstop, Hassayampa River Preserve), Area 11 (Lower Camp Creek and Seven Springs), and Area 12 (Box Bar and Needle Rock Recreation Sites). 

 

Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus

The Tropical Kingbird has recently stretched it's breeding range in the United States, after being thought of as only a southeastern Arizona/south Texas species.  This kingbird may look similar to the much more common Western Kingbird at a first glance, but has a much longer bill, a yellow/green breast, and a long, notched, and brownish tail (Western and Cassin's Kingbirds have black tails).  It also differs strongly in voice than the other kingbirds.  Although common in parts of southeastern Arizona where it's primary range is, the Tropical Kingbird has been expanding it's range and has been found with small and local breeding populations in several areas.  One of these areas falls into Maricopa County in the area of the Hassayampa River (Area 10).  Like the Gray Hawk who is also expanding it's range in this area, Tropical Kingbirds are found here during the breeding season, and are usually found at the Hassayampa River Preserve (along the Mesquite Meader Trail especially) and sometimes the U.S. 60 Roadstop from May through August.  The Mesquite Meander Trail has large cottonwoods with open space and perches around them in midst of mesquite bosques, which is the preferred habitat of this bird.  Tropical Kingbirds have provided Maricopa County with a scattering of records elsewhere, but the area of the Hassayampa River is the only place to find them regularly. 

 

Cassin's Kingbird Tyrannus vociferans

The Cassin's Kingbird can be found throughout much of the southwest on a North American scale.  This kingbird differs from the Western Kingbird highly in it's habitat preferences, being found in riparian canyon habitats as well as oak and pinyon-pine forests throughout Arizona.  Cassin's Kingbirds are very noisy, and sing very loudly in the morning.  They can be extremely aggressive, often mobbing hawks and ravens in family groups.  In Maricopa County, Cassin's Kingbirds favor higher elevation riparian habitats in canyons domintated by sycamores.  It's loud "chi-Biieew" call can be heard thoughout the day in this habitat.  Cassin's Kingbirds are found most easily in the county from April through August.  In Maricopa County, some of the better locations to find Cassin's Kingbirds are:  Area 1 (Sunflower, Sycamore Creek, Bushnell Tanks), and Area 11 (Lower Camp Creek and Seven Springs). 

 

Western Kingbird Tyrannus verticalis

The Western Kingbird is very widespread in western North America, especially in the Lower 48 in a variety of open habitats and elevations.  When taking drives through open country, Western Kingbirds commonly are seen roadside on telephone pole wires or fences.  They have become used to people throughout much of their range, even building nests on man made structures.  Western Kingbirds can be found in a variety of open habitats, from open lawns, agricultural fields, open areas within riparian habitats, and often higher elevations with open areas.  Like the Cassin's Kingbird, Western Kingbirds are also very aggressive, chasing larger birds away from their nesting areas.   Western Kingbirds are very common in Arizona and throughout Maricopa County from March through September.  In Maricopa, they can be seen in many areas that have convenient areas that are open where the kingbirds can hunt from the perches they favor.  They are seen best in high numbers by driving though areas with extensive agricultural fields.

 

Also keep an eye out for...

 

Greater Pewee Cantopus pertinax

The Greater Pewee is the largest of the contopus flycatchers in North America, which are known as pewees.  Greater Pewees are found in the United States mainly in southeastern Arizona up to central Arizona, where it nests in mixed coniferous woodlands, often with ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, and oaks.  It's distinctive song is what it is most famous for, which is a high and whistled, "Jose-jose-Maria!"  Greater Pewees are scarce migrants in Maricopa County, and haven't been known to breed within the limits of Maricopa County.  Some of the higher elevations in Maricopa County, such as Mount Ord, Four Peaks, and Slate Creek Divide (Area 1), may hold good breeding habitat for this species, which is good to keep an eye and ear out for.  These higher elevations are also good to look for Greater Pewees in spring and fall migrations (May, August-September) for the more northern driven populations of this species.  Although Greater Pewees are hard to find in the county, they are probably rather annual in the county during migration in these higher elevations and can be found with luck.  Greater Pewee also winters occasionly in desert riparian areas in the county.

 

Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe

The Eastern Phoebe is the common phoebe of the east, having a widespread breeding range throughout much of eastern North America, and wintering in the southeastern states.  It constantly bobs it's tail quickly in a more circular fasion than other phoebes, who bob their tail's gently downward.  It prefers areas near water, similar to the Black Phoebe.  Eastern Phoebes are considered rare but annual in Arizona, with plenty of scattered records of this species usually on a yearly basis throughout Arizona in both migrations as well as throughout winter.  Some individuals spend the entire winter in a given area.  In Maricopa County, this bird will likely show up a few times each year, especially during the winter months.  If reported, most birds are chasable and stick in the areas they are found at for some time.

 

Dusky-capped Flycatcher Myiarchus tuberculifer

In southeastern Arizona, the song and calls of this mournful sounding flycatcher haunt the canyons it inhabits.  The Dusky-capped Flycatcher is the smallest Myiarchus flycatcher in North America.  It is similar to the Ash-throated Flycatcher, but more yellow on the belly and a lack of rufous on the tail that the other common myiarchus flycatchers have a lot of.  Dusky-capped Flycatchers favor canyons at higher elevations (usually from 5-6000') with sycamores and oaks, and also with ponderosa pine and Douglas firs in the mix of the habitat.  This bird is mainly found in southeastern Arizona, but has expanded it's range in several areas in central Arizona.  In Maricopa County, the species was thought of as extremely rare, but a small population of breeding birds between 10-15 individuals were found in Maricopa County breeding in the forested drainages of Slate Creek Divide (Area 1) in the summer of 2010.  These birds have returned to the area since 2010 anually in the forested Slate Creek drainages, that are similar to the southeastern Arizona drainages, consisting of the sycamore, oak, pine, and Douglas fir habitat that the flycatcher favors.  To see a Dusky-capped Flycatcher in Maricopa County, go to the Slate Creek Divide section under Area 1.

 

Back to What Bird Are You After?  main page.

Birding in Maricopa County

My online guide to the birds and birding locations of Maricopa County

 

The Maricopa County Big Year

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