Yes, You Can Identify Flycatchers. These New Field Guides Are Sure of It.

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In April 2023, along with the spring’s earliest-migrating birds, an unusual field guide arrived on the scene: laser-focused on just 18 species, containing no photographs, and written by a professional geologist. But an unconventional guide may be just what birders need to do the near-impossible: identify flycatchers.

With the second volume of the planned three-part series published this spring, Field Guide to North American Flycatchers invites birders to take on the complex—by getting back to basics. And there’s no bird family where the basics matter more than Tyrannidae, or tyrant flycatcher, which boasts more than 400 species, all in the Western Hemisphere. Around 40 varieties can be seen in North America, including kingbirds, phoebes, and those most baffling of birds, Empidonax flycatchers. While some tyrant flycatchers are easily identified, to many birders the vast majority are practically indistinguishable, a line-up of grayish-greenish, big-headed, bobble-tails.

But not to author Cin-Ty Lee and illustrator Andrew Birch. The pair met as students in the early 1990s at the University of California, Berkeley, and quickly bonded over birding. In particular, they shared a passion for tricky IDs. For 30 years, they’ve kept up the habit—somewhere between hobby and obsession—of detangling taxonomic knots and detecting subtle field marks, undaunted by distance or day jobs (Lee is now a geochemist at Rice University in Houston; Birch works as an artist and illustrator in Los Angeles). While they consider the work its own reward—they cherish the thrill of making a challenging identification—they also like to share what they’ve learned through talks, journal articles, and artwork. Still, it took the urgency of the COVID pandemic to jump-start their long-held dream of devising a new kind of field guide. A few more decades of collaboration no longer seemed so certain. “It’s now or never, right?” Lee recalls the pair thinking. 

Flycatchers proved perfect muses—and Lee and Birch insist that with the right technique, even beginning birders can learn to ID the enigmatic insect-eaters. (Yes, really!) One step is to break the family up: The first volume covered just Empidonax flycatchers and pewees, and the second, published this April, picked up with kingbirds and Myiarchus, or crested, flycatchers. But the method is about strategy as much as substance, and, accordingly, their books are both toolbox and instruction manual. Lee and Birch walk readers through every possible ID clue using meticulous illustrations, spectrograms and mnemonics of vocalizations, and seasonal distribution maps. Clear and accessible writing explains how to put it all together to form an overall impression of the bird, which Lee and Birch call “holistic” birding—an approach they say birders may already take without realizing it.

The duo is now at work on volume III, a hefty capstone of sorts that Lee describes as “everything you wanted to know and probably more than you wanted to know.” But he says the guides out now are the true fulfillment of their vision: small enough to carry in the field, and an invitation to see and hear all birds, not only flycatchers, in a new way. “These two are the dream that we wanted,” Lee says.

Audubon sat down this spring with Lee and Birch to talk about the books, holistic birding, and the decision to forgo photographs (for now). Below are some highlights from the conversation.  

***

The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

Audubon: What makes flycatchers so difficult to identify?

Lee: Flycatchers are a very diverse group, but unlike a lot of songbirds the differences are really subtle. Most of them, not all, have muted colors, so you can’t really rely on color identification. Really it’s about their subtle differences in behavior, which are reflected in their structures. It takes a little practice to get used to, you know, looking for a bird that has a longer tail or slightly longer wing, or the bill shape is a little bit different.

Birch: In the first guide, we focused on the Empidonax flycatchers, which are notoriously all the same. You can find many memes that show they’re virtually all identical. The second volume has kingbirds in it, which are more colorful, but of course in keeping with this family, they all basically look the same as well. So, like Cin-Ty says, you’re using a combination of features. There’s no single defining characteristic, but you’re relying on the status and distribution, the range where you are, the time of year, as well as things like structure.

Audubon: That method you’re describing, of looking at everything all together, is what you call in the guides a “holistic” or gestalt approach to birding. Can you explain in a little more detail what that means and what it looks like in the field?

Lee: These guides are not really just for flycatchers. I mean, they are for flycatchers, but if you look in the books, the first third is really about how to look and listen. What is a long tail? What is a long primary extension? What does it mean when we say that there’s a color contrast between the underparts and the upperparts? We all can see that, but how we communicate it is different among us. One person’s long tail is different to another person. So those first chapters are really just to train you how to see all these different parts and bring them together and get us onto the same page. And in some sense that’s the most important thing. We’re not expecting that everyone can identify every single flycatcher, and even Andy and I sometimes can’t identify all of them. We even debate on some species still to this day. But it’s really how to look. That’s what this book is about. If you get it, and you get into it, it will make you a better birder—not just for flycatchers, but for looking at all birds in a whole different way.


Birch: We all do it, even subconsciously. Even beginner birders do it. You get familiar with the birds in your backyard. And you can always amaze the person who comes over who’s never even thought about birds, and you can sort of just point out—that brown bird is a House Sparrow—and they’re like, how do you know that? You barely even saw it! Well, subconsciously you know: It’s a bird that’s common in my yard, it’s the right size and shape, and maybe you even heard a little House Sparrow call—you’ve holistically used status and distribution, time of year, and general proportions to identify a fleeting glimpse of something. So we all do it, and it’s just about taking it further, taking it out into the field and expanding that approach. 

Lee: It’s like a mindset.

Audubon: In the first volume, you write that 50 years ago, the prospect of identifying many flycatchers would have been even more daunting. What’s changed?

Birch: We’re living in an amazing time of technology. Some of these features, 20, 30, certainly 40 years ago, were very difficult to observe with the optics that we had at the time. Now, even the cheap binoculars are probably better than the most expensive pairs you could have bought years ago. And the cameras—a lot of people now, even beginners, have point-and-shoot zoom cameras, and you can actually see some of these details that were out of reach. So it felt like now’s the time to pull back the curtain.

Lee: It wasn’t that long ago that some of these were considered the same species, like Willow and Alder. That illustrates how similar these birds can superficially appear. But also, if you look at the old pioneering field guides from Peterson and Chapman, they were focusing on individual field marks. That was a revolution at the time—like, the cardinal has a crest, or a mockingbird has white wing flashes. But as we’ve moved forward, a whole community of birders is becoming more and more tuned into this holistic birding. As Andy said, part of that may be because we have access to a lot of equipment for photography and recording. And we know a lot more about their seasonality, their migration patterns, and all this information is at our hands. 

Audubon: Your latest field guide acknowledges that flycatchers are often thought of as “dull” and “nonmusical,” but you feel very differently about them. When and how did the two of you first get interested in flycatchers? What do you find so compelling about them?


Lee: We met at Berkeley, I think chasing some rare bird. Both of us were very interested in bird identification, and Andy came up with the idea to work on loons, which is a tough subject. That’s when we started working together, and then it just went from there. He was always illustrating, I mostly did the writing. We’ve always been interested in tough ID problems. We’ve done dowitchers. We went into pewees—we were pretty stupid to try to tackle pewees [back then]. We’ve always been interested in flycatchers.

Birch: We all go birding for different reasons, right? There are people who like to go out and, you know, it’s a break. You want to relax. You just want to be outside in nature. I certainly enjoy that part of it. I certainly am not averse to seeing a beautiful tanager or an oriole. But I do think one of the areas that I enjoy the most about birding is the mental exercise. So I tend to gravitate towards the identification challenges. I want to learn and understand why something is a certain species or subspecies versus something else and stretch my brain cells a little bit. So obviously the idea of doing something on flycatchers was highly intriguing and tempting. Flycatchers are probably one of the toughest in North America. It’s sort of one of the last uncharted territories.

Lee: It’s the Holy Grail!

Audubon: Who do you see as the audience for these guides? Do beginning birders have any hope of identifying flycatchers?

Lee: Flycatchers are really tough, even for the experts, but we actually wanted to make these two guides accessible to beginners. That’s why we have those sections in the beginning that have simplified ways to see the different field marks that we’re talking about. It’s for experts as well, because we do go into the details of, like, wing formula. If you’re a beginner you can ignore that part. Andy and I have the same way of thinking about it. Keep it simple, try not to overcomplicate. Of course with these tough birds there’s always the tendency—you want to put so much information in. But you’ll see: The plates are not cluttered with tons of birds, the maps are relatively simple, the spectrograms are simple. We’re not putting in every single detail, but the essence.

Birch: I think what’s different about them is that the average field guide has to pack in hundreds and hundreds of species into a single book, which does mean that images are small, maps are small. Otherwise it’s no longer a field guide if you make things too big. Whereas for us we had this luxury of, like, we’re just going to focus on 20 species in each guide.

Lee: Yeah, probably the first field guide with 20 species [laughs].

Birch: But it does mean that we can have large illustrations, large font, large maps, multiple pages per species, species comparisons. You wouldn’t normally, as a field guide author or illustrator, have the luxury to do that. To that end, we were hoping that it could be a little more accessible to people who would not consider themselves experts—or may not even consider themselves intermediates. It is hopefully a way to teach people how to look at multiple things at the same time when coming to an ID. We feel like this approach is useful for many of the tricky groups of birds; it could be shorebirds, raptors, et cetera.

Audubon: The two field guides out now are full of illustrations and diagrams, but there are no photographs of birds. Can you talk more about that decision?

Lee: I love photographic guides, and we are doing that—that’s volume III. But when it comes to difficult birds, you want to simplify. You want to get rid of clutter from the background. If you have four birds you want to compare, you want to compare them under the same conditions. Both of us really felt that illustrations are superior in that way. You have superior control. And then, of course, Andy is highly talented at depicting these birds.


Birch: Photographic guides are great for showing you what a bird looks like in the real world: The real world is a photograph of a bird that looks pretty scruffy, the sun is shining on it, and you can’t quite tell contrast and things like that. You see it a lot in photographic guides, if you’re looking at the mantle color of gulls or terns or whatever, you can get very easily confused—like, well, this gray looks darker than that gray. So is this bird really darker gray, or is that just the sun? As an illustrator, I’m trying to illustrate the average bird, and I’m also trying to put it in the most optimal position, so you can see all the features. Particularly for a family that is often in shade, where colors and contrasts get highly manipulated depending on leaf shade, or shadow, or direct sun, to try to do a real apples to apples comparison you do need everything in neutral light and everything in the same posture.

Lee: Size differences, too. In volume II, in a couple of the plates Andy lines up every [North American] Myiarchus flycatcher, and you can see them all side by side, all their color contrasts and size differences. You couldn’t do that with photographs—or it would be very difficult.

Audubon: As you said, photographs do have an important place in guidebooks, and unlike the first two, volume III will contain photos of flycatchers in the field. How else will the last book be different?

Lee: That one will include a few other flycatchers that we did not cover, like the Vermillion Flycatcher, which is easy to identify. It will combine everything in volumes I and II, plus a few more plates—but it will have photographs, a lot of photographs. We’ll also have the opportunity to go into more detail, like on the exact wing formula that might be useful for bird banders but not for your average birder. It won’t be something you take into the field, I suspect. It will be a reference book that you put on your shelf. It’ll be a tome.

Audubon: You’ve both studied and chased flycatchers around the country. Do any particular moments or experiences stand out to you as highlights?

Birch: I like to go up to Mammoth in the Sierras in late spring. I drag the kids for a walk, and we usually go quite deep into those mountains and don’t see many birds, but there’s always a few Dusky Flycatchers, which are sort of synonymous with the West. They make this lovely, soft, whitting noise in what seems like the middle of nowhere. As someone who comes from the UK, which is steeped in ancient history, when I come to the States, which is a younger country, I often think about the early explorers and the people who traveled west across the mountains. I’m sure these Dusky Flycatchers in this little patch of mountain habitat have been there for centuries. They’re one species that is the epitome of dull and boring to most people, but they’re very evocative for me.

Lee: Similar to Andy, being in southeast Arizona, camping out there. Two hours before sunrise, and you hear the cacophony of Cassin’s Kingbirds. And then after that the Thick-Billed Kingbirds start to sing, and then Western Kingbirds. That whole symphony, that orchestra, is something that I love. I brought my kid out there to experience that, and it’s hard to describe, but it’s beautiful.


Field Guide to North American Flycatchers: Empidonax and Pewees, by Cin-Ty Lee, illustrated by Andrew Birch, 168 pages, $19.95. Available here from Princeton University Press.

Field Guide to North American Flycatchers: Kingbirds and Myiarchus, by Cin-Ty Lee, illustrated by Andrew Birch, 192 pages, $19.95. Available here from Princeton University Press.

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