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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Alder Flycatcher - Empidonax alnorum

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3B

Agency Status


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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
Although large in the Empidonax genus, the Alder Flycatcher is a small species within the flycatcher family. Thirteen to seventeen centimeters in length, with a wingspan of approximately 21 cm, the Alder Flycatcher has dull greenish-olive upperparts with a similarly colored, but darker, crown. The eye-ring is narrow, whitish, and sometimes indistinct but rarely lacking, while the throat is clearly white and contrasts with a gray breast band. The bill is black on the upper mandible and dull yellow-orange or pinkish on the lower. The wings are darker than the back, have white-edged tertials (innermost secondaries) and wing-bars that are whitish and boldly marked (Lowther 1999).

The vocalization of the Alder Flycatcher is a harsh and burry, three syllable "rreeBEEa" or "fee-BEE-o" (Lowther 1999, Sibley 2000). For a more complete description, see below on distinguishing between the vocalizations of the Alder and Willow (E. trailii) flycatchers.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Other flycatchers found in Montana with which the Alder may be confused are the Least (E. minimus) and Willow Flycatchers. In comparison, the Least Flycatcher has a shorter, narrower bill, a bold, complete eye-ring, thinner tail, and different song (Lowther 1999, Sibley 2000). The general appearance of the Alder Flycatcher is so similar to that of the Willow Flycatcher that separating these two species visually can be extremely difficult (Lowther 1999).

The Alder Flycatcher is best separated from the Willow Flycatcher by voice. The song of the Alder Flycatcher (a 3-syllable "fee-BEE-o") is described as being harsh and burry in nature with a strongly accented second syllable, making it sound like a 2 syllable "rrree- BEEP" (Lowther 1999). The song of the Willow Flycatcher is accented on the first syllable, more of a "FITZ-bew," but may occasionally sound as though it has a subtle third syllable, "FRITZ-be-yew" (Lowther 1999). The call of the Alder is described more as an emphatic "pip" or "pit" (reminiscent of an Olive-sided Flycatcher) in contrast to the liquid "whit" of the Willow (Gorski 1969a, 1971, Lowther 1999, Sibley 2000). Lowther (1999) indicates that, generally, the Alder has a darker overall appearance, "slightly greener crown, more pointed wings, slightly shorter bill, and slightly longer tail."

Species Range
Montana Range

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Western Hemisphere Range


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 92

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Observations in May indicate the earliest presence of the species in the state. Alder Flycatcher records continue generally only through July, with one rarity; an individual at Pine Butte that was observed in September of 1991 (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012).

Habitat use is similar to that of the Willow Flycatcher and includes willow (Salix) thickets, red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), or birch (Betula sp.) along the edges of wetlands, streams, lakes, and forests (Johnsgard 1992).
Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
The Alder Flycatcher's diet is comprised mainly of insects obtained primarily by flycatching (Bent 1942), although gleaning prey from tree and shrub foliage is also a known foraging behavior (Lowther 1999). Berries supplement their winter diet (Stiles and Skutch 2003).

In areas where breeding ranges overlap, Alder Flycatchers show less aggression toward Willow Flycatchers near nesting sites than any other species; Willow Flycatcher are the more dominant of the two species (Gorski 1969b).

Reproductive Characteristics
No direct evidence to support breeding in the state has been documented, although the species is suspected of breeding at Pine Butte Preserve, Teton County (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Other locations where the species has exhibited behavior to suggest breeding include Smith Lake (Flathead County), Cougar Creek (Gallatin County), and Fisher River (Lincoln County).

In areas where this species breeds, the nest is described as somewhat bulky and loosely constructed of soft dead grasses, leaves and other plant fibers, moss, and bark, sometimes with feathers, and lined with finer grasses, plant fibers, and hair (Baicich and Harrison 2005, Lowther 1999). It may also have an untidy appearance, with hanging tails or streamers (Baicich and Harrison 2005). Nests are located in damp thickets of alder and various shrubs, in bogs, along marshy borders of lakes, and in brush along stream banks, and are usually placed less than 2 meters above ground (Harrison 1979). The average clutch size of subelliptical to short-elliptical eggs is 3 to 4, sometimes 2. The eggs are 18x13 mm in size and are smooth, non-glossy, white or creamy-white, possibly tinted buff or pink, and unmarked or lightly marked with light red, or reddish-brown, primarily on the larger end (Baicich and Harrison 2005). Incubation, by the female, lasts 13 to 15 days, and the young, tended by both parents, fledge at 12 to 15 days.

No information is available on management activities in Montana specific to Alder Flycatcher, although the suspected breeding location for this species is protected within Pine Butte Preserve.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Baicich, P.J. and C.J.O. Harrison. 2005. A guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Second edition. Academic Press, New York.
    • Bent, A.C. 1942. Life histories of North American flycatchers, larks, swallows, and their allies. U.S. National Museum Bulletin 179. Washington, DC.
    • Gorski, L. G. 1969. Systematics and ecology of sibling species of Traill's flycatcher. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut. 81 pp.
    • Gorski, L. J. 1969. Traill's flycatcher of the "fitz-bew" songform wintering in Panama. Auk 86:745-747.
    • Gorski, L.G. 1971. Traill's flycatchers of the "fee-bee-o" songform wintering in Peru. Auk 88:429-431.
    • Harrison, H.H. 1979. A field guide to western birds nests. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA. 279 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Lowther, P.E. 1999. Alder flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum). In: A. Poole and F. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Number 446. The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA. 20 pp.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 544 pp.
    • Stiles, F.G. and A.F. Skutch. 2003. A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, Ithaca. 511 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists' Union. 1983. Check-list of North American birds. Sixth Edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
    • American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American birds. 7th edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. 829 pp.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Godfrey, W. Earl. 1966. The birds of Canada. National Museums of Canada, Ottawa. 428 pp.
    • Harris, J. H., S. D. Sanders, and M. A. Flett. 1987. Willow flycatcher surveys in the Sierra Nevada. Western Birds 18:27-36
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1986. Birds of the Rocky Mountains: with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Colorado Associated University Press, Boulder, CO.
    • Keast, A., and E.S. Morton. 1980. Migrant birds in the neotropics: ecology, distribution, and conservation. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.
    • Lenard, S.J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana Bird Distribution, 6th Edition. Montana Audubon: Helena, MT, 144 pp.
    • Lowther, Peter E. 1999. Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum). Species Account Number 446. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Montana Bird Distribution Online Database. 2001. Helena, Montana, USA. April-September 2003.
    • Sedgwick, J. A. 2000. Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii). In The Birds of North America. No. 533 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1109 pp.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Wright, P.L. 1996. Status of rare birds in Montana, with comments on known hybrids. Northwestern Naturalist 77(3):57-85.
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Citation for data on this website:
Alder Flycatcher — Empidonax alnorum.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on May 25, 2016, from