Tyrant-flycatchers are a seriously successful family. In terms of life on Earth, that means there are a lot of species in a lot of place and for this family, “a lot” means hundreds of Tyrannidae evolved to occupy habitats from the cold, windy grasslands of Patagonia on through the steamy lowland rainforests in the heart of South America north through familiar places in Virginia, and the way up north in the conifers of Alaska. Anyone who has been birding for any amount of time also knows that this family has been good at generating species that are a pain to identify. For whatever reason, apparently, that pattern of dull olive and grayish plumage, two wings bars, and not much else is perfect for survival because we can’t seem to get away from it. Lots of birds from different families wear that uniform but in the western hemisphere, flycatchers just might love it the most.
We are taking over AND MANY OF US wear the same uniform!- anonymous Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Costa Rica.
Numbers of Tyrannid species go up the closer you get to the equator and since Costa Rica is just 9 degrees north of that invisible line, yeah, we have a lot! But, before any possible seeds of anxiety are planted at the thought of identifying dozens of extremely similar flycatchers, you can sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. Identifying them in the field is pretty straightforward and easier than sorting through Empids back home, the confusion might be more of a product of trying to remember all of those names; flatbill, spadebill, flycatcher, tody-flycatcher, pygmy-tyrant, and so on! If you can learn them by genus, I actually find that to be an easier way to mentally categorize and remember them (if you feel like memorizing bird names instead of using Sudoku to devour time). That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some challenges thrown your way (especially when trying to separate Brown-crested and Nutting’s Flycatchers), but, as long as you get a good look at the head and bill, it will be easier than many flycatchers back home (or “warblers” if you hail from the Palearctic).
One of those flycatchers that looks as if it might be a problem but really isn’t that difficult is the Northern Scrub Flycatcher. While this little guy does share that wonderfully adapted pattern of grayish head, pale yellow belly, pale wing bars , and some pattern on the head, take a closer look and you will be forced to admit that you have seen a Northern Scrub Flycatcher. You may wonder why on Earth it has to have such a darn long name, especially when you are seeing it in mangroves instead of scrub but just be thankful it doesn’t have as cumbersome a name as the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Oleaginous Hemispingus, or White-cheeked Tody-Tyrant.
Like most tyrant-flycatchers in Costa Rica (and the majority of bird species), for the Northern Scrub, you need to focus in on the head, especially the bill. This bird has such a tiny bill, it may also occur to you that the species is hiding out in the mangroves because it feels woefully inadequate, even incomplete, when sharing a branch with the Great Kiskadee or pretty much any other tyrant-flycatcher in the country.
Yep, that’s it’s claim to fame, a small, dark bill.
Take a look at the wings and you might also notice that this flycatcher sort of has three wing bars. Maybe not all of the time but don’t be surprised if it looks that way.
Once you see the extra wing bar and the tiny bill, you can then relax and check out some other subtle features and impressions. You might notice that the gray head has a short crest and a bit of a dark line through some sort of broken eye rings, and that the gray also comes down onto the breast. You might also feel like the bird looks kind of like a mini Myiarchus (at least it does to me, sort of), or maybe a cross between a tyrannulet and an elaenia (if that helps). As for vocalizations, although the brief whistled note is diagnostic, it’s all too easy to over look. Or, you might just decide to look at something more colorful or eye-catching that happens to be coming in to the pygmy-owl call, and no one would blame you if you did so.
The smart looking Mangrove Yellow Warbler will probably be there.
Or, there might be a Turquoise-browed Motmot begging for attention.
In Costa Rica, look for the Northern Scrub Flycatcher in mangroves in the Gulf of Nicoya and the Gulfo Dulce. If you see one elsewhere, take a closer look at the bill, it’s probably a Greenish Elaenia or some other bird wearing that flycatcher uniform.
Like a lot of flycatchers, the Greenish Elaenia is…greenish.