A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Chiefly an autumn migrant in Sonoma County. Earliest arrivals usually show up in mid-August. Most are gone by early October. Seems most common in mid- to late September, but never abundant. Many probably go unreported, however, because of common confusion with Western Wood-Pewee (Cantopus sordidulus). Spring records are rare (Parmeter and Wight list only one, May 1, 2009, at Campbell Cove), but has been noted in surrounding counties during spring migration. More common along the coast than inland. Likes lightly wooded and brushy areas near water, especially willows, but may turn up near wet fields, at pond edges, or any appropriate habitat during migration. Winters in Mexico and Central America. Known to be a common cowbird host. Western populations apparently declining, mostly because of habitat loss (favors willows for nesting), according to Fix and Bezener. Older sources will list this bird as Traill's Flycatcher. Split into Willow Flycatcher and Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum), which has a normal range to the east of the Rockies, in 1973, based on research stemming from call differences (Alder says fee-bee-o, Willow says fitz-bew!.

A comparatively large Empidonax flycatcher. Brownish olive above. Less green than many other Empids., but generally not as brown as Western Wood-Pewee. Weak to no eye-ring. flattish head with slight crest. Comparatively broad, heavy bill. Dark upper mandible. Lower mandible usually dark at tip, showing some color (orange-ish) at the base, but this is variable and often difficult to see. Photographs are very unreliable in this respect. Bill can look all dark in one light and show color at the base of the bill with a small turn of the bird's head. Pale at the throat. Paler belly and vent, but with some diffuse drab color at the upper breast (less pronounced than in Western Wood-Pewee). Moderately long wingtips, but the primary extension should be markedly shorter than in Western Wood-Pewee (see link below). Drab wing bars. Comparatively long tail. Apparent length of tail accentuated by short primary extension.     

Often seen flycatching from a perch, but appears fidgety. Tends to change perches frequently. Flicks its tail while perched. This behavior is one of the best for separating Willow Flycatcher from Western Wood-Pewee, which tends to sit still, looking around for insects before flitting out to catch food, often returning to the same perch. Pewees generally do not flick their tails like Empidonax flycatchers.

Voice: Say's fitz-bew. Often described as having a "sneezy" quality. Sibley describes it as a "burry rrrEEP-yew." Call note is "whit." Western Wood-Pewee gives a nasal peeyeee, or peeeer. See links below to compare.    

What is primary extension?

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 81

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 311

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 296

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 330

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. XX398-399

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 388

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 242

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 284

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 244

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, p. 206, but also 183, 184-211, 212

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 89, 347-387 (notes on Empidonax flycatcher ID generally)

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 178, 270

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 48

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 226

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 244

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 238

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 281

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 461

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 249

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Willow Flycatcher

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Western Wood Pewee



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Willow Flycatcher, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, September 18, 2012

For comparison: Western Wood Pewee, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, September 18, 2012

Note lack of eyering, brownish color, long primary extension

Willow Flycatcher

Empidonax traillii

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 23, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County