Thursday, December 29, 2011

Flycatcher Fun

During my Christmas vacation I took my fiance on a 300 mile drive to the Lake Havasu area.  I convinced her to go with me by saying, "When else are you going to get to see the London Bridge?"  Ha!  Of course the real reason I wanted to go was to see a very rare Nutting's Flycatcher.

It was discovered by David Vander Pluym and Lauren Harter on December 18, 2011 in a riparian area of the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge.  At first, they heard the bird giving it's "wheep" call but were unable to find it.  They suspected Nutting's Flycatcher but wanted to make sure.  So they returned the following day with a recording of Nutting's Flycatcher.  The bird responded and some sound recordings and photos were obtained.  There are only four previous records of this code 5 bird in the ABA area, three in Arizona and one in California.  The most recent Arizona record was from this same location in 2008.  In 1998, Sandy Komito began his epic Big Year with a Nutting's Flycatcher at Patagonia Lake State Park.  This year John Vanderpoel will try to end his Big Year with the Arizona Nutting's Flycatcher.

Lauren tells me that a lot of bird research is done here including annual surveys for Southwestern Willow Flycatchers and Yellow-billed Cuckoos.  This area is also a big focal point for the Bureau of Reclamation's Multi-Species Conservation Plan.  They have been contracting the Great Basin Bird Observatory for projects that involve quantifying the density of breeding bird species in various habitats along the Lower Colorado River.  The Bill Williams NWR is very important for all this research because it is the healthiest and most extensive remaining cottonwood-willow habitat on the Lower Colorado River.  

The flycatcher was discovered in a riparian area 2.5 miles east of the south end of Lake Havasu.  We arrived here in the afternoon.  I ran into Clive Green who had seen the bird earlier and he pointed us in the right direction.
riparian area of the Bill Williams NWR
The directions said to look for saguaros growing out of a palo verde tree and head toward the riparian area.

This is where it got interesting.  We were supposed to look for pink and black flagging tied to a bush to find the trail through the tamarisk trees.  We couldn't see any path through the thick trees, but we finally found the marker.  So we made our way down the steep slope and into the brush.  The path was very narrow in some places and we had to duck down under branches four feet off the ground.  It's a good thing there were other markers in place because we took the wrong turn several times.  We finally made it through the brush and into the wash where the flycatcher was supposed to be.  After a few minutes we heard the "wheep" call but were unable to locate the bird.  After lots of searching, I decided to try again in the morning when most sightings had occurred.  So I took Gaby to see the London Bridge.  It was pretty cool, but it wasn't a Nutting's Flycatcher!

We arrived the next morning shortly after sunrise.  There were already two cars parked along the road.  This time Gaby decided to stay in the car and read.  When I got to the wash I was surprised to find it without any birders.  Where were they?  After a few minutes I heard the "wheep" call coming from the south side of the wash.  Yes!  I searched the cottonwoods and there it was flying to a new perch!

I knew I had to be careful when identifying this bird because there were a couple of Ash-throated Flycatchers in the area.  It called again and I confirmed it on my iBird Explorer phone app.  Amazing!  My next goal was to photograph the bird.  The wash was lined with bushes on both sides that made it difficult to get a clear shot.  In the next half hour I managed this distant not-as-crisp-as-I-would-like photo:

The bird flew across the wash and out of sight.  It turns out this wash is actually the county line that divides La Paz and Mohave County.  For the next half hour I didn't hear or see the bird.  Actually, I heard the sound of it's bill snapping quickly shut while flycatching, so I knew it was back there somewhere.

Just as I was thinking of heading back to the car, I heard someone making there way through the brush.  It turned out to be Gaby bringing another birder named Pat to the wash.  She had come all the way from Maine and had been looking for the area all morning.  I told them I had seen the bird earlier but hadn't seen it in the last thirty minutes.  I decided to play the recording to see if it would respond.  It called.  "Yes!" said Pat with an emphatic fist pump.  I spotted it land in a nearby cottonwood and got Pat on it right away.  We enjoyed obscured looks at it moved around the top of the tree.  Then Joan and Malcolm joined us just in time to get good looks of the bird and hear it call.  They had come all the way from Calgary!  We were all very excited.  Then Chuck joined us and was able to see the bird too.  He was from San Mateo, CA.  All of a sudden, the bird flew towards us and darted into some bushes fifteen feet next to us.  Wow!  I grabbed my camera and rattled off and few shots and Malcolm did the same.

We all had amazing looks at it until it disappeared to the south.  We all talked about what an incredible find this was considering it's similarities to Ash-throated Flycatcher and the hard-to-get-to location.  It turns out that David Vander Pluym saw the Irvine, CA Nutting's Flycatcher and has seen them in Costa Rica.  He and Lauren Harter have also both seen them in Sinaloa, Mexico.  David is no stranger to finding rare birds.  He co-found South America's first Eurasian Curlew in Argentina and discovered Chile's first Brown Pelican!  In September of this year David and Lauren found Arizona's second record of Little Gull at Lake Havasu.  Thanks David and Lauren!  Here we are enjoying our sighting:

from left to right: Chuck Prochaska, me, Joan and Malcolm McDonald, Pat Moynahan
UPDATE 12/28/11- While doing a Christmas Bird Count in the Bill Williams NWR, three birders claim to have seen, heard, and photographed a Nutting's Flycatcher about 0.75 miles from the original location.  After speaking with another birder who saw the Nutting's Flycatcher at the original location, it was determined that they were looking at the birds at the same time.  So it is possible that there are now two Nutting's Flycatchers in the area!  To follow this incredible new development, see the AZ/NM rare bird listserv

 Nutting's Flycatcher Range:
InfoNatura: Animals and Ecosystems of Latin America [web application]. 2007. Version 5.0 . Arlington, Virginia (USA): NatureServe. Available: (Accessed: December 28, 2011 )

-AZ Birdbrain


  1. Now that is some exciting birding! Thanks for taking us along for the chase.

  2. Glad to hear you got the bird and didnt have to settle on only seeing the bridge. Nice image of that bird in flight too!

  3. Nice photos! That was great fun, thanks for sharing.

  4. I so enjoyed reading this wonderful post! I felt like I was on the chase with you. What a glorious sighting. Terrific images of the beautiful Nutting's Flycatcher! Very exciting!

  5. Great storytelling and even better ending! Wonderful photos- congrats!!

  6. Sounds like a fun time and super photos!


  7. Wow, that is quite a find. It does look a lot like the Ash-throated. How do you tell it apart? I will have to look this species up!

  8. Kathie,
    The best way to distinguish them from Ash-throated is their "wheep" call. Also, on the secondaries they have cinnamon edging that turns to yellow . And the dark on the outer webs of the outer tail feathers does not extend across the tip like an Ash-throated. It also has a brighter yellow belly.

  9. This is fabulous, Jeremy! Thanks for taking us along to share the excitement of the chase!