Adults have olive gray upper bodies, darker coloration on the wings and tail, conspicuous white eye rings, white wing bars, small bills, and short tails. The breast of this species is distinctive, washed with a strong orange-buff color.
These birds are partial migrants, retreating from their northern breeding areas in the United States and northern Mexico for the winter.
To feed, they often wait on an open perch of a shrub or low branch of a tree and fly out to catch insects in flight. They also sometimes pick insects from foliage while hovering.
The song is an alternating versed PIdew, piDEW. The call is a loud dry pit.
Various subspecies are recognized:
- Empidonax fulvifrons pygmaeus Coues, 1865 (northern buff-breasted flycatcher or fulvous flycatcher)
- Empidonax fulvifrons fulvifrons (Giraud, 1841)
- Empidonax fulvifrons rubicundus Cabanis & Heine, 1859
- Empidonax fulvifrons brodkorbi Phillips, AR, 1966
- Empidonax fulvifrons fusciceps Nelson, 1904
- Empidonax fulvifrons inexpectatus Griscom, 1932