Flycatcher Identification Tips: How to Identify Flycatchers

Acadian Flycatcher

Ed Schneider/Flickr/Used With Permission

Flycatchers can be astonishingly distinctive or frustratingly plain, and many species are so similar that even experienced birders can be perplexed by their identifications. The right flycatcher identification tips, however, can help birders feel more confident about properly identifying every flycatcher they see.

Equipment to Identify Flycatchers

It is essential to have the proper tools to assist with flycatcher identification. The best equipped birders will have:

  • Optics: High quality birding binoculars are a critical tool, especially when species can be as confusing as flycatchers. A wide lens will admit the most light so details and colors can be seen more accurately. High magnification is also essential, since many details on these birds can be tiny and subtle. A spotting scope can be useful since many flycatchers return to favorite perches as they forage, providing birders with good opportunities for repeated views and easier identification.
  • Camera: Photography-savvy birders can easily capture multiple images of these birds that can be compared for identification details. The camera should have a high optical zoom to capture close images of birds with adequate detail, and burst photo modes can quickly take multiple photos even if the bird is in motion. Fast shutter speeds will also keep images sharp so critical details are not blurred.
  • Field Guides: To identify flycatchers, it is best to have multiple field guides to study. Different guides allow birders to cross-reference multiple experts against their own observations to reach a conclusion about a bird's identity. Having both photography-based and illustration-based field guides can be useful, and guides should also discuss juvenile plumages, range maps, and other helpful information.
  • Recordings: Because many flycatchers have similar plumage but distinctive voices, it is useful for birders to study recordings of flycatcher songs and calls. Studying the sounds these birds make in different locations can help birders get more familiar with all the different tones, tempos, and qualities of their voices for easier birding by ear.
  • Patience: While simply being patient won't help make flycatcher identifications easier, birders need to be patient while waiting for the best views that can help them feel confident about which bird is which. There may be many sightings that go unconfirmed, but a patient birder will persevere in sharpening their skills and will eventually identify these birds with ease.

Identifying Flycatchers by Sight

While some flycatchers, such as the boldly-colored vermilion flycatcher or the elegant scissor-tailed flycatcher, are amazingly distinct and instantly recognizable, many others, such as the eastern phoebe, are far less obvious. Careful observation can help distinguish these birds, however, if birders know what field marks to look for. When watching flycatchers, check:

  • Size: How large is the bird? How does its size compare to its surroundings or other, more familiar birds? What are the proportions of the tail, head, and wingspan?
  • Color: What overall color is the plumage? Olive, brown, gray, green, yellow, or some other shade? Are there distinct color patches? How do the upperparts and underparts compare?
  • Contrast: Do markings sharply contrast with surrounding color, or are edges blurred? Are color changes sharp or just a subtle wash?
  • Facial Markings: Are the lores or auriculars a different color than the rest of the face? Is there an eye line or eye ring? How thick are markings, and are they sharp or blurry?
  • Bill: How long is the bill? How thick is it? Is it the same color all over or are the upper and lower mandibles different colors?
  • Breast: What color is the bird's breast? Does it show a bib or vest-like color change? Is there any streaking?
  • Wings: Are there any clear bars or color patches on the wings? How long are the wings? How long are the primary feathers compared to the secondary feathers or compared to the tail length?
  • Tail: How long is the tail? Does it show a notch or fork? Are there any colored edges on the tail? Is there a band or patch of color at the tip?

Because these birds can be so confusing, it is important to note as many visual identification clues as possible. Taking photos, making sketches, or writing detailed, descriptive notes can help birders better remember small, subtle clues that could be the keys for proper identification.

Other Ways to Identify Flycatchers

Even with good, clear views, it can be hard to tell some flycatchers apart, such as the Empidonax genus or different kingbirds or wood-peewees. In many cases, however, a few extra clues can help identify one species from another.

  • Range and Habitat: While there is a good deal of overlap with the preferred habitats and general ranges of many flycatchers, noting sighting locations is a good start to being sure about which bird is which. Also note where in trees the birds are seen, such as whether they prefer to stay higher in the canopy or are on lower branches.
  • Songs and Calls: These birds often have distinct voices even if they look similar. Careful observation of singing birds and taking note of their individual voices can be helpful for proper identification.
  • Tail Action: Many flycatchers wave, wag, bob, pump, or sway their tails when perched, or may spread their tail feathers repeatedly. Studying that behavior can help birders tell different species apart.
  • Migration Timing: Different flycatchers often migrate at different times, particularly in spring when these birds are arriving on their breeding grounds and claiming territories. Comparing timing can help narrow down the identification options.

Even expert birders cannot identify every flycatcher every time. With the best equipment, noting subtle field marks, using non-visual clues, and being patient, however, every birder can sharpen their flycatcher identification skills and feel reasonably confident with most sightings.