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Willow Flycatcher

Empidonax traillii ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Willow Flycatchers are drab brownish-olive birds that are best known for their voice—a sneezy fitz-bew that emanates from wet willow thickets across North America. They’re one of the infamous Empidonax flycatchers, a name virtually synonymous with difficult ID. Look for them singing their distinctive song on top of willows and other shrubs in early summer just after they arrive from Central and South America where they spend the winter. Although they’re common across the United States, the Southwestern subspecies is federally endangered.

Keys to identification Help

Flycatchers
Flycatchers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Willow Flycatchers are small, slender flycatchers, but they are one of the larger members of the Empidonax genus. They have a fairly long, thin tail and wings. The bill is broad. Like other flycatchers, they tend to perch upright.

  • Color Pattern

    Willow Flycatchers are brownish olive overall with a slight yellow wash to the belly. They have 2 whitish wingbars and a white throat that contrasts with the brownish olive breast. The white eyering seen on most Empidonax flycatchers is very thin and nearly absent on Willow Flycatchers.

  • Behavior

    Willow Flycatchers flit between willows and other shrubs in the understory while calling with a soft, dry whit. They stick close to willows perching on the edge or up on top of the shrub. From these perches they fly out to catch insects or sing a sneezy fitz-bew.

  • Habitat

    Willow Flycatchers breed in shrubby areas with standing water or along streams. In some parts of their range, they also nest in woodland edges and dry, brushy thickets. In winter they use tropical shrubby clearings, pastures, and woodland edges, often near water.

Range Map Help

Willow Flycatcher Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Similar Species

Species in the genus Empidonax look very similar—voice, range, and habitat can be more useful than appearance when separating them. Individuals that don’t call may need to be left unidentified, even by experts. The Alder Flycatcher looks nearly identical to the Willow Flycatcher and can only be separated by voice. The Alder Flycatcher sings a burry free beer while the Willow Flycatcher sings a fitz-bew.

Acadian Flycatchers are brighter green above with a pale yellowish eyering that Willow Flycatchers lack. Acadian Flycatchers nest in Eastern forests while Willow Flycatchers nest in shrubby, often wet areas.

Dusky Flycatchers of western North America show a much stronger white eyering than Willow Flycatchers and have a narrower bill.

Some non-Empidonax flycatchers are a bit easier to separate from Willow Flycatchers. For instance, Western and Eastern Wood-Pewees have longer wings and tails than Willow Flycatchers and they have peaked heads. Wood-pewees tend to repeatedly return to the same perch high in the canopy, whereas Willow Flycatchers flit around among lower perches in shrubs. Eastern Phoebes have darker heads and much less distinct wingbars than Willow Flycatchers. Eastern Phoebes also habitually bob their tails when perched.

Backyard Tips

Willow Flycatchers aren't your typical backyard bird, but they may stop by your yard during migration. Learn how to provide migration habitat for these and other migrants by visiting Habitat Network.

Find This Bird

The best time to go looking for a Willow Flycatcher is late May through June, shortly after they arrive on the breeding grounds and when singing is at its peak. Look for them in wet meadows, perching on top of or low at the edges of willows and other shrubs. Males tend to sit and sing from the same spot, so you'll have time to zero in on their location. It is possible to see them outside of the breeding season, but they can be much harder to identify if they are not singing. If you see a silent flycatcher during migration, the timing of your sighting can help narrow down your choices—Willow Flycatchers tend to arrive later in the spring than other Empidonax flycatchers.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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