Note: round head, short primary projection, and long tail.
  • Note: round head, short primary projection, and long tail.

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Dusky Flycatcher

Empidonax oberholseri
Members of this diverse group make up more than half of the bird species worldwide. Most are small. However their brains are relatively large and their learning abilities are greater than those of most other birds. Passerine birds are divided into two suborders, the suboscines and the oscines. Oscines are capable of more complex song, and are considered the true songbirds. In Washington, the tyrant flycatchers are the only suboscines; the remaining 27 families are oscines.
Unlike most passerines found in North America, flycatchers are suboscines. Suboscines have a simpler syrinx (voice box) than the oscines (songbirds), and hence have less-developed and less-elaborate songs. Their song is innate, and does not contain a learned component. The flycatchers are the only suboscine passerines found in North America north of Mexico. Nearly all suboscines (and all Tyrannidae) are native to the New World, and they are much more numerous in the tropics, where several other families occur in addition to the Tyrannidae. Flycatchers are named for their foraging style. They sit quietly on a perch and dart out to grab a flying insect from the air, and then return to their perch to wait for the next meal to fly by. Many also forage by hovering next to foliage or over the ground. Most have a distinct, upright posture and a slight crest. They have small feet as they do not typically walk or run on the ground. Most flycatchers are monogamous. The female generally builds the nest, incubates the eggs, and broods the young, although both parents feed the young. Flycatchers of the genus Empidonax pose many identification challenges for birders. Range, habitat, vocalizations, and behavior must all be taken into account to distinguish between members of this group.
Fairly common summer resident east, rare west.
  • Species of Concern
  • Sound To Sage

General Description

The Dusky Flycatcher is very similar in appearance to the Hammond's Flycatcher, with only a few subtle differences. Like other Empidonax flycatchers, the Dusky usually has two white wing-bars, a white eye-ring, olive upperparts, and yellowish-cream underparts. Dusky Flycatchers have longer tails and bills and shorter wings than the Hammond's. It is best to use range, habitat, and song, along with an advanced field guide, to identify this Empidonax group. The range of the Dusky Flycatcher overlaps with two other, closely related flycatchers (Gray and Hammond's). When the three species come into contact, they defend territories from one another and do not interbreed.


In Washington, Dusky Flycatchers are found primarily in dry, open, conifer forests with a shrubby understory, Ponderosa pine, and clear-cuts. During migration they are less restricted than during the breeding season and can be found in brushy areas, along streams, and in shady, broadleaved woodlands. Look for them in the Ponderosa pine zone east of the Cascade crest, flying out from the low to middle branches.


Dusky Flycatchers view their prey from exposed perches and fly out from the perch to catch the insects in the air. Sometimes birds hover near foliage or bark to catch flying insects. Occasionally they pounce on prey on the ground. Both Dusky and Hammond's Flycatchers flick their tails in an up-down motion, while the Gray Flycatcher flicks its tail down and then up. This behavior may help narrow down the choices when trying to distinguish between the Empidonax flycatchers.


Dusky Flycatchers catch insects in the air, perching on dead branches between foraging flights.


Dusky Flycatchers nest in Ponderosa pine areas where there is dense cover above and below the nest. The nest is placed, on average, six feet above the ground, in an upright fork in a shrub or small tree. The female builds a cup-shaped nest of grasses and other fine plant material, animal hair, and feathers. As the female incubates four eggs, the male brings her food. Once the eggs hatch, both the male and the female feed the young. Nest-building and egg-laying can be delayed by inclement weather.

Migration Status

Dusky Flycatchers migrate to the southwestern United States and Mexico. During migration they are rarely seen passing through coastal Washington. In spring, males arrive on the breeding grounds about the second week of May and females a week later. By mid- to late August they are on their way south again.

Conservation Status

Dusky Flycatchers are relatively common throughout the western United States and Canada and appear to be faring well in general, perhaps due to forestry practices that thin stands and leave small forest openings. However, according to Breeding Bird Survey data, they have experienced a small, not statistically significant decline in Washington from 1966-2002.The species is particularly vulnerable to bad weather, consequently, a spring rain or snowstorm can kill an entire local breeding population.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Breeding populations can be found in the Blue Mountains, on the East Slope of the Cascades, and in the Spokane area. Migrants can be seen in the central Columbia Basin and along the west slope of the Cascades. Non-breeding birds have been reported in several low-lying locations west of the Cascades.

Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest Coast
Puget Trough R
North Cascades RRRR
West Cascades UUUU
East Cascades RFFFFR
Okanogan RCCCCU
Canadian Rockies FFFF
Blue Mountains RCCCCU
Columbia Plateau FFFFF

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List
Early Warning

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern