Alder Flycatcher vs Willow Flycatcher (Differences Explained)

When exploring the world of birds, you might come across two strikingly similar species: the alder flycatcher and the willow flycatcher. Both belonging to the empidonax genus, these small birds are part of the family of tyrant flycatchers and can be found in various regions across North America. Although they appear almost identical to the untrained eye, subtle differences set the two species apart; including their physical characteristics, behavior, and habitat preferences.

To accurately identify each species, you’ll need to pay close attention to their unique features, calls, and nesting habits. While alder flycatchers primarily breed across Alaska and Canada, reaching the Northeastern U.S., willow flycatchers typically nest to the south of the Canadian border, where their ranges overlap with their alder counterparts in the Northeast. Observing these birds in their natural habitats and listening to their distinctive vocalizations will help reveal their true identities as alder or willow flycatchers.

Key Takeaways:

  • Alder and willow flycatchers can be differentiated by physical characteristics, behavior, and habitats.
  • While alder flycatchers breed across Alaska and Canada, willow flycatchers tend to nest south of the Canadian border.
  • Both species have their unique vocalizations, which can be crucial for accurate identification.

Alder Flycatcher vs Willow Flycatcher

Disclaimer: It’s not easy to distinguish these two species from each other.

Both species have comparable sizes, with their length, weight, and wingspan being quite similar. Generally, these small flycatchers measure around 5.5 to 6.3 inches in length, could weigh between 0.4 to 0.5 ounces, and have a wingspan of approximately 7.5 to 8.3 inches.

These flycatcher species are an olive-brown coloration on top and whitish underneath with a yellowish tinge on their bellies. With two white wingbars, eyeing, white throat, and slender bill, these unassuming birds look basically identical.

But, there are still some nuances in their appearances that can be slightly different. However, the best piece of evidence you’ll have as to which species you’re encountering is listening to the song, as these similar-looking birds sound quite different.

Let’s dig into the differences between these bird species that can help you tell them apart.

Physical Differences

alder flycatcher vs willow flycatcher eyering differences


As mentioned before, both of these birds are known to have eyerings, but the shape and intensity may vary. The Alder Flycatcher usually exhibits a more noticeable and bolder white eyering. However, this is not always the case, as some Alder Flycatchers’ eyerings are difficult to see.

On the other hand, the Willow Flycatcher’s eyering might be less conspicuous and slightly broken or faded, especially towards the rear. Or it may show no eyering at all.

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Examining their wings can also provide some helpful clues. While both small flycatchers show two wing bars, the Willow Flycatcher’s tend to be slightly more pronounced and contrasting. This difference, though subtle, might be useful in differentiating between the species when other details are not as apparent.

Songs and Calls

When distinguishing between Alder Flycatchers and Willow Flycatchers, it’s important to focus on their respective songs and calls. These birds appear nearly identical in physical appearance, but their vocalizations will clarify exactly which bird is which.

The Alder Flycatcher is known for its distinctive song, which sounds like a burry “free beer.” This call differentiates it from similar species, as Alder Flycatchers are born with an innate knowledge of their own species’ vocalizations.

In contrast, the Willow Flycatcher has a unique song that resembles the phrase “fitz-bew.” This song is also an innate part of their identity, and can be used to identify them among similar flycatchers.

Aside from their songs, there are a few calls that both species use in different contexts. For instance, the contact call is a softer, shorter version of their song, while the alarm call is a sharp, high-pitched note. By listening to these various vocalizations, you will be better equipped to differentiate between Alder and Willow Flycatchers.

Unique Behavioral Differences

As you explore the fascinating world of Alder and Willow Flycatchers, you may notice some key differences in their behavior. Let’s dive into some of those characteristics that set these birds apart.

When comparing their voices, Alder Flycatchers typically have a rougher call compared to the slightly softer, more mellow call of Willow Flycatchers. While their songs might seem similar, paying attention to these subtle differences can help you distinguish one from the other.

In terms of feeding behavior, both species forage by perching and observing their surroundings, ready to catch insects in the air or on nearby plants. Alder Flycatchers are often found in brushy wet areas, while Willow Flycatchers tend to settle in shrubby, often wet spaces.

While observing the courtship behavior of these birds, you may notice distinct characteristics in their displays. Though there is limited information on their precise courtship rituals, it’s likely that their unique voices come into play during this crucial time.

Habitat Differences

When it comes to the habitats of Alder and Willow Flycatchers, you may find some differences. Alder Flycatchers prefer areas filled with alders, willows, and deciduous trees, often nesting near streams or woodland edges. On the other hand, Willow Flycatchers are more likely to reside in low elevation bottomlands, such as the Champlain and Connecticut River valleys, and New Hampshire’s lakes region and coastal plain [^1^].

Alder Flycatchers are fond of shrubby, second-growth habitats, with an abundance of tall shrubs and low trees. They also prefer moist environments, which enables them to find food sources easily. Willow Flycatchers can be found in habitats with open spaces, like grassy patches and fields, surrounded by small trees and shrubs. This provides them with ample perching options for catching insects.

While both species can be found in North America, their habitat preferences showcase a marked separation. If you visit the tropics, you are unlikely to encounter either of these species, as their range is generally confined within the temperate regions of North America. By understanding these habitat differences, you can have an easier time identifying and appreciating the unique characteristics of each flycatcher species in their respective environments.

Diet and Feeding Differences

Both Alder and Willow Flycatchers primarily feed on a variety of insects. Willow Flycatchers are known to consume wasps, bees, winged ants, beetles, flies, caterpillars, moths, true bugs, and other insects. Additionally, they eat spiders and occasionally consume small quantities of berries and seeds^1^. The diet of Alder Flycatchers has not been studied as extensively, but it is believed to be similar to that of the Willow Flycatcher^2^.

Flycatchers are experts at hunting, using their keen eyesight and swift reflexes to capture prey mid-flight. They often sit on a perch, waiting for the right moment to dart out and capture their target. After seizing their prey, they quickly return to the perch to consume it^3^.

It’s important to note that the diet of both species may vary depending on seasonal availability of insects. Nestlings are known to be fed primarily insects, as this provides the necessary nutrition for their growth and development.

To sum it up, while there may be some variation in the diet and feeding habits of Alder and Willow Flycatchers, both species thrive on a diet mainly composed of insects. They effortlessly showcase their impressive hunting skills by capturing prey in mid-air and feeding on it while perched.

Nesting and Breeding Differences

When comparing the Alder Flycatcher and the Willow Flycatcher, look at their nesting and breeding habits. Both species have some similarities in nesting, but there are also some key differences.

In terms of nest location, Alder Flycatchers tend to choose sites near water, while Willow Flycatchers may have more flexibility in their nesting sites. Alder Flycatchers build their cup-like nests low in a fork of a woody shrub, usually near water, and with nesting material hanging off the sides. On the other hand, Willow Flycatchers have their nests hidden within deciduous shrubs.

The structure of the nests has subtle differences as well. While both species build open cup nests, the materials they use can vary. Alder Flycatchers construct their nests with grass, weeds, small twigs, rootlets, and strips of bark, lined with soft materials such as plant down. Interestingly, they may leave strips of grass or bark dangling from the bottom of the nest. In comparison, Willow Flycatchers don’t have these dangling materials in their nesting.

During breeding season, both Alder and Willow Flycatchers lay eggs in their nests. However, it’s worth noting that differences in the incubation period and the number of eggs laid between these two species are not well documented.

In terms of identification, knowing the differences in their nesting habits can help distinguish the two species, especially during migration periods. They tend to overlap in their ranges across much of the Northeast, with Alder Flycatchers breeding across Alaska and Canada to the Northeastern U.S. and Willow Flycatchers nesting mostly south of the Canadian border. So if you observe their nesting and breeding behaviors during spring and fall migrations, you can determine which species you’re encountering.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I distinguish between Alder and Willow Flycatcher songs?

To differentiate Alder and Willow Flycatchers based on their songs, listen carefully to their calls. Alder Flycatchers produce a sharp “fee-bee-oh” or “ree-bee-oh” sound, whereas Willow Flycatchers have a simple “fitz-bew” or “fitz-bey” call.

What are the habitat differences between Alder and Willow Flycatchers?

Alder Flycatchers prefer habitats made up of wet, shrubby areas near water, such as marshes and bogs. On the other hand, Willow Flycatchers inhabit low elevation bottomlands, like the Champlain and Connecticut River valleys, as well as lakes region and coastal plain areas found in the northern limit of their range.

How do I identify Alder Flycatcher vs Willow Flycatcher by their physical appearance?

Identifying Alder and Willow Flycatchers by their physical features can be challenging, as both species are very similar. Eastern Wood-Pewees, though, can be useful for comparison. Eastern Wood-Pewees have longer wings and tails, along with stronger peaked heads. Willow Flycatchers are typically found flitting around shrubs, while Eastern Wood-Pewees frequently return to the same perch high in the canopy.

Are there differences in the nesting habits of Alder and Willow Flycatchers?

Both species of flycatchers are known to build their nests in bushes or low trees, often near or over water. Alder Flycatchers usually place their nests on horizontal branches while Willow Flycatchers opt for forks in the vegetation.

What are the geographic ranges of Alder and Willow Flycatchers?

Alder Flycatchers are commonly found in Canada and Alaska during summer months. Meanwhile, Willow Flycatchers spend their summers mostly south of the Canadian border. Although both species are more likely to be found in different geographical ranges, their habitats can sometimes overlap.

How do Alder and Willow Flycatchers differ from other similar species?

Alder and Willow Flycatchers are often confused with Eastern Wood-Pewees. Eastern Wood-Pewees have a stronger peaked head, longer wings, and a longer tail than both flycatchers. They also have distinct feeding habits, with Wood-Pewees often returning to the same perch in the canopy while Alder and Willow Flycatchers are more likely to flit about in shrubs.

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