Willow Flycatchers

aka: Empidonax traillii

The willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii) is the only bird species that has been discovered in the geographic area that is now the state of Arkansas. The noted naturalist and painter John James Audubon found the bird in 1822 while he was traveling near the community of Arkansas Post (Arkansas County), in what was then Arkansas Territory.

When Audubon described the species in print for science in 1828, he named it Traill’s flycatcher for his friend Dr. Thomas Traill of Edinburgh, Scotland. Ornithologists have since determined that “Traill’s flycatcher” is really two different species, willow and alder flycatchers, which have almost identical appearances but distinctive vocalizations. The form Audubon discovered is of the species that was renamed willow flycatcher in 1973.

A grayish bird about the size of a sparrow, the willow flycatcher once nested fairly commonly in the Grand Prairie region of southeastern Arkansas. Habitat loss, mostly resulting from agricultural development, caused the species to disappear as a breeder in the area by the 1980s. Willow flycatchers were later discovered nesting in prairie areas of northwestern Arkansas, but most of them have since been displaced by development. The species still breeds in very small numbers at Baker Prairie Natural Area in Harrison (Boone County). It is common in other parts of eastern North America, though, and individual birds pass through Arkansas annually during spring and fall migration.

Species in the genus Empidonax, to which the willow flycatcher is assigned, are notorious for being difficult to distinguish from each other. The willow flycatcher is best identified by its call, often described as a sharp, sneeze-like “FITZ-bew.” In Arkansas, migrants are most common in mid-May.

For additional information:
Butler, Jerry. “Catching Sight.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 19, 2021, pp. 1D, 6D.

James, Douglas A., and Joseph C. Neal. Arkansas Birds: Their Distribution and Abundance. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Mel White
Little Rock, Arkansas


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