Introducing the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied flycatchers are elusive little birds and commonly confused with others in the flycatcher family. I’ve only seen one once and it was purely by accident and pure joy! Thankfully, it is not because they are endangered, they are just shy and like to stay hidden in evergreen trees foraging on insects.

Let me tell you a little bit about this bird and share some resources that will increase your chances of seeing them in your area and how you can help them continue to thrive.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris) 87% by Kristin M Roach, limited edition prints available

I painted this sweet little bird that sings a rising whistled tu-wee in 2013. It wasn’t until 8 years LATER I finally had a glimpse in person and heard its song with my own ears. I was hiking in the woods with a friend, glanced up and on the edge of the prairie, flitting in the some evergreen & berry trees was a flash of yellow-green. (Peggy’s Trail, Ames, Iowa; September 2020). As it turns out, in Iowa, you are most likely to see them in May and September.

“Yellow-bellied Flycatcher singing on territory in northern Maine in June.”

One of the most challenging parts of this series is the difficulty in finding what birds will be flying through my area. I’ve found a few general ideas via local Audubon Society Chapters and here in Iowa we also have the Iowa Ornithology Union. eBird has extensive sighting data, but it’s stripped of it’s dates and locations to keep the birds safe from poaching.

When I originally envisioned this series, I imagined I’d give you all the secrets to finding and seeing these birds. The more I looked into it though, the more I realized that they should stay protected and the data should stay hidden.

The story I read in the early days of discovering the yellow-bellied flycatcher is a sadly common one and why the Migratory Bird Treaty Act exists. Here, I’ll read you an excerpt: “Charles Johnson Maynard reported shooting one on May 31, 1869, and then eight more the next day (Studer 1876), and from then on the species became known as a rare to uncommon migrant in the state (MassAudubon).” That single sentence speaks so much to the plight of migratory song birds. I mean seriously. You shoot 9 and then, well yeah. They become less common.

Where and When to see Yellow-bellied Flycatchers

I agree that specific bird habitats should remain elusive. So instead of sharing secrets, I will help you determine if you are likely to find it in your area; and if you are, how to identify it.

First, look at the migration map above, does its general range include your locale?

Second, visit ebird and you can narrow sightings down to your county.

Third, do a little networking and connect with your local Audubon society and see if they have a watch list like the Iowa City group does. It’s a general breakdown of what kind of bird types you are likely to see which months.

How to identify Birds in General

A few things I’ve found helpful as a very beginning birder is to try and remember:

  • Size (bigger or larger than a bird you do know like a cardinal, sparrow or red-tail hawk)
  • Bill shape
  • Markings around the eye
  • Crest or other distinguishing features like it has a purple breast.
  • Tail shape

Cornell is a proponent of citizen science, so they offer many course.

While names are not important for enjoyment of birding, there is a certain thill in putting a name to a bird. For me, naming helps to solidify the memory and experience of seeing and hearing it. Of course photographing, drawing, and painting help too.

How the Junk Mail Migration Series helps the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher Thrive

When you add Yellow-bellied Flycatcher to your home and you are helping to support song bird conservation in the Boreal Forest. Whenever I sell work from the Junk Mail Migration Series, 10% will be donated to the Boreal Songbird Initiative. Limited Edition Prints are now available. The original has found a good home and is no longer in my care.

What is the Boreal Songbird Initiative? Their work is the spark that inspired this ongoing series of paintings (Read about how and why I started painting migratory birds on junk mail). In their own words, “As the voice for boreal birds, the Boreal Songbird Initiative (BSI) is committed to protecting the Canadian Boreal Forest—the largest intact forest on Earth—on behalf of the billions of migratory birds that rely on it.” — Boreal Songbird Initiative

Art Vacancy COVID Edition

Last summer, in the midst of the shut down I received the Iowa Arts Council Individual Artist Project Grant and was able to distribute $4800 directly to twelve local artist through a curated series of shop front window exhibits in Downtown Ames, Iowa. The project brought a spark of hope and cultural interest during a dark, isolating time. Here’s the back story that inspired my grant application.


While I set out in 2020 with this grand idea/personal challenge of applying for a grant, I never thought it would be to host a series of exhibits during a pandemic. Really, in my mind, it was going to fund the next phase of my migratory bird series which involves traveling around Iowa for a year. Guess who isn’t traveling? Art practice goal achievement unlocked — just not in the way I originally intended.

Special thanks to this stellar organization that directly supports artists making art in Iowa.
Support provided by the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

Last Spring changed everything. And we realized this “pandemic thing” was going to be here for an unknown time. As a business owner, every day was different. “Uncertainty” did not even come close to describing how I was feeling. And as I made the choice to close my shop, others were doing the same. Closed. Closed. Closed. Closed due to Covid. Closed due to exposure. Closed for unknown duration. Closed. And the worst. For Rent.

And each day coming to work I saw people walking by. With no where to land, our community was out for a stroll finally embracing its walkability. And I wanted to create an experience for them. Something to look forward to instead of just closed signs. 

As an artist, I had mapped out my year — art walk, exhibits, public speaking, grants, new work, studio tour, collaborative projects, maybe even a residency — evaporated over night. I knew it was a hard road ahead for all of us. The lack of a festival season, or exhibits and residencies, damages an artist’s ability to make an income. And unlike my tea business (I applied for and received a PPP loan to pay my employees and the Iowa Economic Disaster Relief Grant to stabilize our supply chain), there was no assistance for my art business.

As a business community we had to cancel or pushback our summer schedule of events for the safety of our community. And many of our businesses were closed for 2-4 months. Little Woods was closed to walk in traffic from mid March to mid July. On Mainstreet, during the summer, we are used to the students being gone, but tourism is high. Not so much this year.

Alicia Wilkinson‘s work placed at Nook & Nest from July – September, 309 Main Street

As we reopened for business, in the forefront of all our minds was how can we safely bring people downtown? As we stayed closed, how can we show our support for our community and not just be a vacant space, another shuttered window? Without museums, art centers, galleries, and festivals how could create a sustainable art practice?

I had already set up an artist for Art Walk, so when it was cancelled I asked him if he would want to do an exhibit in my shop window. When I told my neighboring business owners, they said they wanted to do the same if I could find artists for them. When I told my art friends, they said they would help me put it out to the community and apply for a grant so artist would be supported even if the community couldn’t purchase work directly (though many did).

We had work that ranged all media, methods, and artists of all types and backgrounds. It brought hundreds of people downtown in a nice slow summer long trickle.

Material Studies, Junk Mail Migration, and En. at ZW Mercantile July – October

We heard all kinds of feedback, the best of which was that this was the first artwork they had seen in person in months and the simple act of viewing had a profound effect on them. There may have been tears of joy.

Special thanks to the Iowa Arts Council who made this exhibit series possible. To the stores who hosted work. And to the artists who shared their work with our community.

Visit Ames project page to see an overview of the project, artists’ work installed and donation links for each artist.

Alicia Wilkinson at Nook & Nest
Anahy Corujo Ramirez at We the Dreamerz
Catherine Reinhart at Thread It
Caroline Freese at Morning Bell Coffee Roaster
Tiberiu Chelcea at Cooks’ Emporium
Mia Buch at Little Woods Herbal
Carmen Cerra at Little Woods Herbal
Jamie Malone at Thread It
Kristin M Roach at ZW Mercantile
Rami Mannan at the London Underground
Jazmine Dirks at We the Dreamerz
Naomi Friend at Thai Spice Restaurant

A final thought before I close this project out for the time being. As we enter our second year of COVID related closures, diminished capacity and tourism, how can we continue to support local artists and each other?

As a Business Owner/Purchaser/Designer

  • Find local artist that resonated with your brand to sell on consignment.
  • Host an exhibit for them in your store front.
  • Buy artists work wholesale – think the cards you sell by the cash register, there are many artists who could supply those for you. Etsy is a great place to find talent if you don’t know where to start.
  • Buy prints and originals from artists to decorate/enhance your space.

As an Individual

  • Like, Follow, and Share them on Social Media
  • Use their contact form to send them an email saying what you like about their work – a virtual high five.
  • Send a text message to a bestie sharing an artist’s work who you know they will love.
  • Take it a step further and buy work from artists as a way to let your friends/family know you care for them – getting art work as a gift if the ultimate “I love you” from afar. A perfect mail art gift is a zine! (Just saying!)
  • Be indulgent and spruce up your own place with a beautiful print or original – you can get these from artists in a vast price range from $ to $$$$$. You have been spending a lot of time at home and not vacationing. Just get that print or original from that artist you’ve been loving on.

As we stay distanced, studio work, which is by its nature isolating; can feel all the more so during this time. A kind note really can make all the difference to someone who is feeling alone with their canvas.

Until next time,

Kristin M Roach

junk mail migration

Many years ago I became a little obsessed with junk mail.

Where did it come from?

Why was it in my mail box?

How can I use it to make art so I don’t have to spend so much money on new paper for art class?

Seriously. After an intense semester at Northern Illinois University I hit break and looked at the wreck that was my apartment for the first time in over a month. During the clean up and clean out I realized that in a month of not throwing away mail I had a literal garbage bag full of junk mail. And at the same time I was struggling to afford the art supplies needed to complete assignments for school.

It felt maddening. I couldn’t afford paper and yet… here was a rich untapped resource. So I started with what, where, why, how and became lovingly entranced with it’s path from trees to my door.

Over the next semester I conducted junk mail experiments. It’s a tricky substance to work with. I never did really puzzle it out while in school. But it set the foundations for works to come.

Several years later I decided to go all in. I collected my junk mail for a year (pictured above). Which lead to more experiments and the final forms of the work – a series of paintings about migratory birds in Iowa whose habitat is being made into junk mail.

my first junk mail migration painting

The series focuses on 37 migratory birds and each bird, in addition to the studies of the physical birds, I also collect data on migration patterns, sightings, history, and even bird calls. I’ve always wanted to share that side of the work, so here on this blog I’ll do just that.

Until Next Time

Kristin M Roach