Note: pale gray overall, short primary projection, longer bill, and pale lower mandible with dark tip.
  • Note: pale gray overall, short primary projection, longer bill, and pale lower mandible with dark tip.

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Gray Flycatcher

Empidonax wrightii
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.
  • Species of Concern
  • Sound To Sage

General Description

The Gray Flycatcher is pale grayish overall, and its underparts are paler than those of the other Empidonax flycatchers. It has two white wing-bars and an uneven white eye-ring.


Across much of its range, the Gray Flycatcher prefers sagebrush and juniper. In Washington, however, it is primarily a bird of open Ponderosa pine forests with grassy understories. It does extend into sagebrush in some parts of Washington, but mostly sticks to park-like Ponderosa pine stands lacking a shrub-layer. Most of these stands have been logged or thinned, some multiple times.


One of the best ways to distinguish between Gray and other Empidonax flycatchers is through behavior. While most Empids flick their tails in a rapid up-down motion, Gray Flycatchers flick their tails much more slowly. The pattern is down, then up; the others flick the tail up, then down. When foraging, they watch from an exposed perch, flying out to catch prey in mid-air, on the ground, or in the foliage. When they overlap with Dusky Flycatchers, they will defend territories from Duskies.


Gray Flycatchers eat insects.


This monogamous species sometimes occurs in loose colonies when habitat is favorable. In Ponderosa pine habitat, nests are typically placed on a large, horizontal branch, against the trunk. The female builds the nest, although the male sometimes helps. The nest is a bulky cup of loose grass, needles, bark, and other material, lined with plant down, feathers, and hair. The female incubates three to four eggs for 14 to 15 days. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest at about 16 days. The parents continue to feed the young for another 14 days. Over much of their breeding range, they lay a second clutch after the first clutch fledges.

Migration Status

Gray Flycatchers migrate shorter distances than many of their relatives, wintering in southern Arizona, Baja California, and Mexico. They arrive in Washington at the end of April and leave in August.

Conservation Status

Gray Flycatchers were first recorded in Washington in 1970, and first found breeding here in 1972. Since then, they have expanded their range considerably, reaching southern British Columbia in 1986. This rapid expansion may have been due to forest management practices that cleared understory and thinned stands of Ponderosa pine forests, creating the park-like habitat that Gray Flycatchers prefer.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Gray Flycatchers are very rare in western Washington, and are more likely to be seen in Eastern Washington Ponderosa pine forests and shrub-steppe. They are seldom spotted in Washington during migration.

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
North Cascades
West Cascades
East Cascades UUUUR
Okanogan UFFFF
Canadian Rockies
Blue Mountains RRRR
Columbia Plateau UUUUU

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

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