Living Bird Magazine
Gray FlycatcherEmpidonax wrightii
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Tyrannidae
Gray Flycatcher’s unassuming pale plumage fits perfectly with the color palette of the gray-green shrublands and foothills it inhabits. This flycatcher is a member of the notoriously difficult-to-identify genus Empidonax, but it has a telltale move that gives it away. The bird habitually dips its tail downward, recalling the way a phoebe wags its tail rather than the upward tail-flicking of some of its fellow Empidonax. Gray Flycatchers forage nimbly for insects in sagebrush, pine, and juniper habitats—often very low in the vegetation and sometimes on the ground.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Gray Flycatchers can be surprisingly easy to find in habitats that at first seem vast and even monotonous. Walking through tall sagebrush, especially from late April through late May, when males sing through much of the morning, should bring luck. These delicate flycatchers usually perch on sage or the lower parts of trees to sing and forage, making them conspicuous despite their pale plumage. Their environment is often very windy, so try for them on calm mornings for best results.
- Mosquero Gris (Spanish)
- Moucherolle gris (French)
- Cool Facts
- In autumn and early winter, the decidedly western Gray Flycatcher has turned up in nine eastern states and provinces. Scientists are not sure why migratory birds end up far off course like this. Strong weather does not explain many of the records of “vagrant” birds. Instead, some individuals may have faulty navigation systems that cause them to misorient toward the northeast, rather than toward the southwest.
- The similarity of Gray and Dusky Flycatchers has caused confusion for a long time. In fact, the specimen originally described as the "type," or reference specimen, for Dusky Flycatcher turned out to be a Gray Flycatcher. Ornithologist Allan R. Phillips, a 20th century expert in Empidonax flycatchers, made this and many other important discoveries.
- The Gray Flycatcher was not recognized as breeding in the United States until the early 20th century. Before that time it was thought to breed in northern Mexico and to wander northward in the fall.