It was so quick, I wasn’t sure I saw it.
The next time the movement stopped at the top of a fence post in our backyard and I got a slightly better look.
A small, tiny-billed bird, faintly greenish/yellow underneath, and with a couple of light wing bars and a thin white ring around each eye, was suddenly perched on the post, upright and actively looking around.
As it twisted its head to look in each direction, once or twice I noticed a slight corner at the back of the top of its head, as if it had just gotten up from a nap on the sofa.
Because of its size and bland coloring, I thought for a moment it might’ve been a kinglet. But this little one was out in the open, not picking through the tips of tree branches with a few of its family or friends, as kinglets do. And I watched it buzz off suddenly, flying low and out, then return to the perch a moment later -- not a kinglet’s gleaning habit, but a flycatcher’s see-snatch-return.
But which flycatcher?
My field guide showed nearly a dozen tiny flycatchers of similar coloring, but my dog-eared copy of Contreras’ “Birds of Coos County, Oregon” showed four possible small flycatchers for our area.
The Pacific-slope flycatcher was reported to be the most common, but the willow, Hammond’s, and dusky flycatchers were listed as remote possibilities, too. The bird guide confirmed western Oregon to be more solidly in the range for the Hammond’s and Pacific-slope flycatchers.
Too, illustrations and photos online seemed to best match Hammond’s and Pacific-slope with the bird in my back yard -- and the online discussions supported that others found the two flycatchers easy to confuse. The calls can be distinctive, but I couldn’t hear this guy.
Certainly the birds don’t care what we call them. They’re pretty good at using details and behaviors to figure out which other birds are in their species, but the birds could not care less about the labels humans hand out.
It is helpful for humans to agree on names so we can talk about them among ourselves. But why would a lone person spend time deciphering whether a given animal is a Hammond’s flycatcher or a Pacific-slope flycatcher? …or a kinglet?
First, there’s the mystery to be solved. Clues in the sometimes fine details in a bird’s appearance and behavior and habitat entice us to study, investigate, observe, and confirm in order to solve the mystery.
Second, seeking such clues forces us to take closer observation than we might otherwise do, thereby discovering delicate beauties we might have otherwise overlooked. (Was the white eye-ring barely oval around the spherical eye, giving the appearance of slight points fore and aft? Yes!)
More important in my mind, the study and observation of those details of appearance, behavior, and habitat are perfect avenues for better understanding that animal -- no matter what we end up calling it.
What label did I end up giving this darting flycatcher?
Turns out, the Hammond’s flycatcher favors the tops of tall trees while the Pacific-slope flycatcher hunts lower in the forest, in undergrowth shaded by those tall trees. The fence this bird was using as its watching post is chest-high, under a young oak and an old Japanese maple, and flanked by a variety of shrubs, some looming high above.
While the details of appearance were helpful in solving the mystery, in the end the bird’s behavior indicated “flycatcher,” and the habitat indicated “Pacific-slope.”