More on the Mystery Empid Call

A few months ago I wrote about a mysterious new “whit-beert” call that I had discovered in the bowels of the Macaulay Library’s online collection, and which I took to be a previously undescribed sound of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  Noticing a certain resemblance to the “dew-hic” call of Dusky Flycatcher and the “peer-pewit” call of Hammond’s Flycatcher, I concluded that the new call was likely homologous with those sounds — that is, that the “dew-hic,” the “peer-pewit”, and the “whit-beert” are all evolutionarily derived from a similar call given by the species’ common ancestor.

Now, new information has come to light that calls my earlier conclusions into question.  First of all, Empid guru Arch McCallum told me he wasn’t convinced that the “whit-beert” was equivalent to “dew-hic” and “peer-pewit”, due to the different spectrographic shape of the “whit” and the fact that it was never repeated.  Instead, he pointed out the similarity of “whit-beert” to certain calls of Willow and Alder Flycatchers.

He may have hit the nail on the head.  I recently discovered a second recording of the mysterious “whit-beert,” from western Maine, labeled as an Alder Flycatcher.

“Whit-beert” call, labeled as Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
Woodhull Lake, New York, 5/30/1998. ML catalog #106901
“Whit-beert” call, labeled as Alder Flycatcher.
Upton, Maine, 6/2/1962. ML catalog #7546

The new recording was taken in 1962, before “Traill’s” Flycatcher was split into Willow and Alder. The recordist was Dr. Robert C. Stein, who had already realized that “Traill’s” sorted into two vocal groups, and was in the process of collecting data for his classic 1963 publication that provided the first strong evidence for the eventual species split.  The notes on the recording indicate that the recording was made during a “hostile response to playback,” but it doesn’t say what sound was used for playback, nor does it explain how the recording was identified as an Alder Flycatcher.

So: which species is it that gives the “whit-beert” call?  Personally, I agree with Arch that Yellow-bellied is probably the least likely culprit.  Alder is the leading contender at the moment, followed by Willow.  But to answer the question definitively, I think we’ll need some more recordings.

If you’re interested in helping to solve the mystery, you might try some playback experiments in northeastern North America this spring.  Does playing “whit-beerts” to an Empid elicit more “whit-beerts”?  What species says “whit-beert,” and what is the behavioral context of the sound?

I don’t think anybody knows the answer to the questions I just asked.  I don’t think anybody has ever known.  But they could be easily answered by anyone with an audio recorder and a couple of spare hours in New England this summer.

This is what I love most about bird sounds — the tantalizingly short distance to the frontier of knowledge.

4 comments to More on the Mystery Empid Call

  • Randolph S. Little

    Hi Nathan,
    Matt Medlar called my attention to this thread. After re-listening to both recordings and discussing my thoughts with Bob Stein, I am of the opinion that both are E. flaviventris. Neither of us can really recall the Maine situation (I was there, too), but agree to the possibility that an E. flaviventris reacted to our playback when we were pre-disposed to have an E. alnorum respond. The immediate habitat of my Adirondack recording was much more suited to E. flaviventris, and the vocalizations did not sound at all like E. alnorum to me, having worked on “Traill’s” Flycatchers as Bob Stein’s assistant for many years.
    Good recording,

  • Nacho Areta

    Hi Nathan, I am visiting the US and got interested in the Empid game. Later on, I saw your post. A few days ago I recorded E. minimus (song) and today I recorded the whit call. While listening to the Master Set with Matt Medler, a series of notes attributed to minimus (cut 5, MLNS100852) caught my attention. Subsequent spectrographic comparison suggests that it is indeed the same vocalization type represented in MLNS7546 and in cut 3 of E. flaviventris in the Master Set (MLNS106901). The good thing, is that the cut 5 attributed to E. minimus in the Master Set has several whit calls. However, these whit calls resemble more those of cut 8 E. trailli (eastern) (MLNS8101) in the Master Set, than they do to the shorter notes in cut 4 of E. minimus (which by the way are like those I recorded from the same birds that were singing later on; is cut 8 trailli?). Sooooooooooooooooooooooo… 1) this mystery sound has been attributed to 3 different species: minimus, flaviventris and alnorum, 2) there is quite a lot of variation in note shape (in all notes, perhaps more striking in the first one, but perhaps just because it is the first and it is easy to find an equivalent note in all cuts) between the different individuals, but also within the presumably same notes in the same individual, 3) the full-song seems to be multi-noted, and not just two-noted (MLNS7546 showing this quite well, though never reaching the rhythmic pattern of MLNS106901 [cut 3-flaviventris] and MLNS100852 [cut 5-minimus]), 4) I think that the clue to identify the owner of the vocalizations lies in getting deeper into the whit calls (and of course doing more fieldwork), but it is 1:40AM and I am awake since 4:30AM; plus I am not familiar with these birds, and 5)why isn’t the bird making these sounds be E. minimus?

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Nacho, you’ve solved the mystery! It’s a call of Least Flycatcher! I’ll put up a new post with the details.

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Here’s the new post.