Despite the brown and drab appearances of many species in the Old World flycatcher family (Muscicapidae), these birds are (surprisingly!) adored by many. Their large eyes, friendly demeanour, and exciting hunting behaviour make them great candidates for birdwatching and photography. However, the identification challenges presented by these “little brown jobs” can throw even the most experienced birders off. In this article, we will share pointers on how to identify some of the flycatchers that reach our shores.
The majority of flycatchers found in Singapore are either non-breeding visitors or migrants. In some groups, adult males have extravagant breeding plumages with prominent features that make them relatively easy to identify. However, the identification of females and immatures are not as straightforward. This article focuses on distinguishing the different groups (or genera) of flycatchers—Muscicapa, Ficedula, Cyanoptila, and Cyornis. Once you are able to tell apart the different genera, it will help narrow down the possible choices and pin down the species!
Fig 1. Three different brown flycatchers—can you figure out who is who? Photo credit: Francis Yap
List of species: Asian Brown Flycatcher, Brown-streaked Flycatcher, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Grey-streaked Flycatcher, Ferruginous Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Brown-breasted Flycatcher
For a more in-depth guide on this genus, check out our article here.
Members of this group can generally be told apart from other genera by their vertical perching posture and relatively large head with a big-eyed appearance. Both sexes are similar in appearance for the above-mentioned species within Muscicapa. One of our most common migrants in Singapore, the Asian Brown Flycatcher, falls within this group!
Fig 2. Asian Brown Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 3. Brown-streaked Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 4. Dark-sided Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 5. Grey-streaked Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Among similar-looking species, Asian Brown Flycatcher has the most prominent white lores and eyering. For its underparts, it possesses smudged pale grey streaking on its breast and flanks, compared to a) Brown-streaked Flycatcher which has warm brown streaking for younger birds and indistinct greyish-brown streaking for adults, b) Dark-sided Flycatcher which has darker, more well-defined grey streaking, c) Grey-streaked Flycatcher which has the most well-defined grey streaks of all the species here, with streaks appearing distinct and pencil-like. Another way of telling Brown-streaked Flycatchers apart from the rest is through its warmer plumage and buff edges to coverts and tertials.
** Do note that underpart streaking is variable within each species.
Additional tips: Dark-sided Flycatchers typically have bills that look shorter and slimmer than the rest, appearing almost like a stub. On the other hand, Grey-streaked Flycatchers have wings that appears much longer than those of its friends, with its wing tips usually exceeding its undertail coverts (typically does not happen for the other two species) (Leader, 2010). See if you can spot these differences in the pictures above!
Fig 6. Ferruginous Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
The Ferruginous Flycatcher looks very distinct from the rest of the Muscicapa flycatchers in terms of plumage, leading to its nickname of Iron Boy locally! Its grey head contrasts with the rest of the rich orange plumage on its body, making this the most colourful species in this genus!
Fig 7. Spotted Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
One of the newest member of the genus that has been added to Singapore’s checklist—the Spotted Flycatcher can be distinguished by its buff lores and eyering along with a streaked crown.
Fig 8. Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Dillen Ng
Another vagrant flycatcher to our shores! At first look, the Brown-breasted Flycatcher is similar in appearance to the more common Asian Brown Flycatcher with its distinct pale lores, but can be separated by its larger bill, warm brown upperparts with rufous tips to tertials and coverts, less extensive dark tip to lower mandible, and pale yellowish-pink legs. Sounds similar to something else you just read? Bill size and leg colour also helps distinguish it from the Brown-streaked Flycatcher, which has darkish legs much like the Asian Brown Flycatcher. Lastly, the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher might also be another confusion species with its brown wash and pale legs, but the Brown-breasted Flycatcher generally has more prominent pale lores and contrasting upperparts, with its mantle being a richer brown than its head. The Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher appears more concolourous overall with a consistent dull-brown wash and has a thicker bill. Lastly, the Ferruginous Flycatcher is much more vibrant orange with a smaller bill compared to the Brown-breasted Flycatcher.
List of species: Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher.
Fig 9. Male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 10. Male Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Male Mangrove Blue Flycatchers and Chinese Blue Flycatchers have a stunning blue and orange plumage and can be separated from each other by the extent of orange on their underparts. The local subspecies of the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher (ssp rufigastra) has orange underparts that extend from its throat to vent and lack brown-washed flanks. In contrast, the Chinese Blue Flycatcher has an orange throat and breast that fades to white from its belly onwards, with brownish flanks.
Fig 11. Female Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 12. Female Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Thailand. Photo credit: Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok
The female Mangrove Blue Flycatcher is very similar in plumage to the male, but with white lores. While the female Chinese Blue Flycatcher has yet to be recorded in Singapore, it’s always good to be prepared for its (eventual) appearance! It can resemble a female Mugimaki Flycatcher with its dull orange throat and breast, but it is larger in size with a stronger bill, pale buff lores, and is much warmer in colour overall (especially in rufous tail and uppertail coverts)—features which are lacking in a female Mugimaki Flycatcher. The Chinese Blue Flycatcher also lacks wingbars (compared to the Mugimaki Flycatcher which does).
Fig 13. Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 14. Asian Brown Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
The most common member of this group, the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, looks nothing similar to its close relatives in Singapore! Both sexes look similar and have a dull, warm brown plumage with a brown breast band. They have a large, hooked bill that is quite unlike the other flycatchers, and has a dark upper mandible and yellow lower mandible (dark tipped for first-winter birds), along with pinkish legs (Wells, 2007). This species likes to hang out in dense, low to mid-storey vegetation.
List of species: Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Zappey’s Flycatcher
Fig 15. Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 16. Zappey’s Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Males of these two species are popular with birdwatchers, with their brilliant blue and white plumage. The Blue-and-white Flycatcher has a blackish face and throat that contrasts strongly with the rest of its upperparts, while Zappey’s Flycatcher has a dark bluish face and throat that blends in more seamlessly with its upperparts. They generally perch upright.
Fig 17. Typical appearance of a immature male Cyanoptila flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Adrian Silas Tay
Fig 18. Female Cyanoptila flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Adrian Silas Tay
Fig 19. Asian Brown Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 20. Female Narcissus Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
While females and immature males in Cyanoptila cannot be identified to species level, immature (e.g. first winter) males typically exhibit some degree of blue in their tail, wings, and upperparts while retaining brown feathering on their head and throat, setting them apart from other birds. The trickier ones are female individuals, which can be told apart from other brown-looking flycatchers by the following features:
- Larger in size compared to the other brown flycatchers, looks bulkier and longer in shape
- Relative to overall body size, head and eyes are not as big as species such as the Asian Brown Flycatcher
- All black bill that is short and thick; not hooked like Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, which also has a yellowish lower mandible.
- Rump brownish and concolorous with upperparts, with rufous wash on uppertail coverts versus female Narcissus Flycatcher, which has bright olive rump that contrasts starkly with rest of upperparts and rufous uppertail coverts (Bakewell et al., 2021; Wells, 2007)
- No dark streaking on underparts like Dark-sided Flycatcher or Grey-streaked Flycatcher
List of species: Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Narcissus Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Green-backed Flycatcher, Taiga Flycatcher
Species in this genus also exhibit sexual dimorphism, with males being more colourful than females. Ficedula flycatchers typically perch in a more horizontal posture and have a flatter and elongated head shape compared to Muscicapa flycatchers (which perch vertically and have a more rounded head).
Fig 21. Male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 22. Male Narcissus Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 23. Male Mugimaki Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 24. Male Green-backed Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 25. Male Taiga Flycatcher, Thailand. Photo credit: Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok
While males are generally rather distinct from each other and will not be covered in detail here, there are still possible mix-ups! The male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher can be confused for the rarer Narcissus Flycatcher on first sight—but the former has a white supercilium with bright yellow throat and extensive yellow underparts, while the latter has a yellow supercilium with a dazzling orange-yellow throat and yellow underparts that are usually less extensive. In contrast, male Mugimaki Flycatchers have much deeper orange underparts and a limited white supercilium compared to the two above, which typically have more yellow underparts (with orange concentrated in the throat area). Male Green-backed Flycatchers look quite distinct from the rest of the males in this group, with an olive mantle and head plus yellow underparts and rump. The orange throat for male Taiga Flycatchers is much more limited in area compared to female Mugimaki Flycatchers.
Fig 26. Female Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 27. Female Narcissus Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 28. Female Mugimaki Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 29. Female Green-backed Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Fig 30. Female Taiga Flycatcher, Singapore. Photo credit: Francis Yap
On the other hand, females can be confusing to tell apart (again!) but fortunately, each species has their own distinct features.
- The Yellow-rumped Flycatcher is the only female with a bright yellow rump; the presence of a white edged tertial and lack of rufous tinge to uppertail coverts and tail are also useful for identification.
- The Narcissus Flycatcher is typically a lot duller in colour, with whitish underparts and browner upperparts (vs olive of Green-backed Flycatcher). Differences with female Cyanoptila flycatchers are elaborated in the previous section.
- The Mugimaki Flycatcher has an orange throat and breast that separates it from the others.
- The Green-backed Flycatcher is generally the most yellowish in appearance, with light yellow underparts, yellowish lores and eyering along with an olive mantle. In particular, its rump is more concolorous with the rest of its upperparts, with olive-brown uppertail coverts. The rump is generally not as contrasting with the mantle/uppertail coverts compared to the Narcissus Flycatcher, which has an olive rump that stands out more against its duller mantle/rufous uppertail coverts) (Bakewell at al., 2021).
- The Taiga Flycatcher is rather unique in its behaviour as it likes to continuously flick its tail up and down, with its tail often placed in a “cocked”, horizontal position (as opposed to pointing downwards like in other flycatchers). However, do note that other flycatchers can exhibit this behaviour as well (e.g. Asian Brown Flycatcher) so this is not an entirely diagnostic trait. Plumage-wise, it has prominent black uppertail coverts and tail.
And that’s it for this guide, hopefully this will aid you in identifying some of these little brown jobs that are found in Singapore!
Big thanks to Keita Sin, Raghav Narayanswamy, and Movin Nyanasengeran for helping to review the article and Francis Yap, Adrian Silas Tay, and Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok for providing their excellent photos for this guide!
All photos annotated by Dillen Ng.
Answers to Fig. 1: Asian Brown Flycatcher, Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Brown-streaked Flycatcher (from top to bottom)
Bakewell, D. N., Round, P. D., Jearwattanakanok, A., Eaton, J. A., Park, J. -G., & Shigeta, Y. (2021). Identification of the narcissus flycatcher−yellow-rumped flycatcher complex in subadult and female plumages. BirdingASIA, 36, 22–34.
Leader, P. J. (2010). Brown, Siberian and grey-streaked flycatchers: identification and ageing. British Birds, 10, 658–671.
Wells, D.R. (2009). The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula, Volume 2, Passerines. Christopher Helm.