Willow Flycatcher and the Trials of Year Listing

A territorial Willow Flycatcher at Ash Creek Open Space in Fairfield, CT. June 12, 2012.

I finally picked up my year Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax trailli) this morning. On July 6th. I’d spent multiple outings in the last couple weeks looking for this bird: an afternoon at all the best spots in Fairfield and a morning hitting the best locations on Cape Cod, from Eastham to Brewster to Barnstable. Thanks to a report for Tina Green, I paid the $9 entry fee and went for what has been a fairly reliable bird at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport. At first, I didn’t catch any sign of the bird at its favored wet ditch on the east side of the park. But then the bird called, and I was eventually able to catch a glimpse. Relief. Not from suffering or trauma. But from embarrassment.

Every year, there seems to be one bird or another that lingers far too long on my “NE Year Birds Needed” list. In 2014, it was Peregrine Falcon. In 2015, Marsh Wren was the bugger. And this year it was that aforementioned Empidonax.

I remember spending the last few days of 2010 furiously searching for Fox Sparrow, to no avail. All of these birds have widespread distributions and are on the scale of reliability in our region. But when there are so many to seek out annually, one or two inevitably slip through the cracks. For instance, I never made it to New York in time for the Kentucky Warblers at Doodletown (they stayed a lot later last year). Unlike the species mentioned above, this species is uncommon and rather restricted in our region, but not a species I wanted to miss (and at this point in the year, I’ve relegated it to the “Only by the grace of god” bin).

This is the stuff that fills the mind of a year lister. Year listing, for me (and many others), is mostly personal. I wasn’t worried about missing Willow Flycatcher because of what others might think. Birding always has been a very personal passion, and I was thus worried about missing the bird because I knew it would eat away at me.

Luckily, this seemingly easy species being outstanding for too long thing only seems to happen with one or two birds each year, and there are none I’m missing that currently fit that bill (at least for CT). Mostly, I find year listing to be a fun game of strategy and love competing with my previous totals. I also see it as a motivator to getting out into the field slightly more often and encouragement to visit new places.

I have kept a thorough year list since 2010, but am unfortunately thinking this will be my last year of dedicated year listing for a while. I will be heading off to college at the start of September (more on that soon), and unlike in middle and high school, I won’t have the same kind of flexibility or control on weekends. Besides, I have enough to worry about in college that doesn’t entail whether or not Glaucous Gull or Purple Sandpiper are still missing for the year.

I am fascinated to see how my interest in birds and birding will evolve as I move into the college and then the adult stage of my life. Maybe the year listing will come back at some point. Or maybe I just won’t be able to resist and will start one up for 2017. Or perhaps I’ll move on to another passion within birding (I already have several).

If anything, this whole exercise makes me appreciate that individual elusive species more. As I was driving to Sherwood, I remembered how an old birding friend and I used to love the Empid plates in the Peterson Field Guide, all illustrated for habitat coupled with song descriptions. I remember we were together the day I saw my first Willow Flycatcher. It was late June in 2008, and we were visiting a spot we visited at least weekly during that wonderful year: Larsen Sanctuary in Fairfield. It was the spot of so many firsts, from Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to Northern Pintail to Brown Creeper, so it’s not surprising to have first picked up Willow there. The bird was along the gasline cut that runs through the southern half of the sanctuary. I can still picture it in my head. Perched on one of the gas posts, eyeing us quizzically.


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