The rare bird situation here in Ontario continues to boggle the mind. Yesterday evening, a birder named Janet Junker-Lafond posted photos of a bird that she could not identify. The location was alongside a public trail in Brooklin, Ontario and she had photographed the bird on Friday, November 13. I just about fell out of my chair when I first saw the photos, which clearly showed a Variegated Flycatcher. A Variegated Flycatcher!?!
Variegated Flycatcher is a South American species of tyrannid flycatcher; the only member of the genus Empidonomus. Variegated Flycatchers are fairy widespread in the lowlands of South America (especially in open areas, savannahs and secondary woodland) and the species has two subspecies. The nominate subspecies, Empidonomus varius varius, is the more southerly one, and it migrates north each austral autumn (during "our" spring) to winter as far north as Colombia, Venezuela and even Trinidad and Tobago on occasion. The other subspecies, E. v. rufinus, is non-migratory. It is highly likely that this individual is of the migratory varius subspecies. Subspecific identification is tricky with a single bird from photos, since certain characters overlap, while lighting plays a role in interpreting other characters. I am not experienced enough to chime in on this bird's subspecific identification.
A number of local birders were on site at dawn this morning, hoping and praying that the flycatcher was still in the area. And it was! The message came in around 8:30 AM and pandemonium ensued. I picked up Laura from work (she had just completed a 12 hour night shift) and we hit the road. Laura was not about to miss this one, even if she was running on fumes after a busy shift.
It is an unwritten rule of the universe that whenever a rare bird shows up, the traffic through Toronto will be brutal. Fortunately the traffic gods did not get the memo about the flycatcher, and it was smooth sailing for us through the city. We found the crowd of birders and a minute later, the flycatcher! During our visit it actively hunted, flew from perch to perch and generally kept low to the ground and out of the wind. At one point I saw it catch an unidentified arthropod that it had found under a dead leaf. The bird looked relatively healthy and alert, a surprise given the circumstances. Presumably, it flew north instead of south, finding winter in Canada as opposed to spring in Argentina. Likely, this will be a fatal miscalculation for it.
The Variegated Flycatcher has shown up at least seven previous times in North America. Remarkably, this is not even the first record for Ontario! One was discovered by David and Jaye Houle on the Toronto Islands, staying from October 7 - November 6, 1993. Many birders enjoyed that one, which at the time was considered one of the rarest birds to ever be found in Ontario.
The Variegated Flycatcher can be confused with a few other species of tropical flycatchers including Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher, Piratic Flycatcher and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Some of the features used to ID this as a Variegated Flycatcher include the bird's overall size, the relatively small bill (but not as small as a Piratic Flycatcher), the densely streaked underparts, the broad malar stripe, and the extensive rufous colouration in the tail and primaries.
As of early this afternoon the Variegated Flycatcher continues to entertain birders and photographers. The location is noted on eBird as the "Brooklin Lions Wilderness Trail"; in fact, the location of the eBird hotspot is almost exactly where we saw the bird. Parking is a short distance away at the Luther Vipond Memorial Arena in Brooklin, Durham Region. And if you go, please do your part: wear your mask, and maintain a 2 m distance between others. Good birding everyone.