What do spotted flycatchers look like? What do they eat and where do they spend the winter? Here is everything you need to know about the spotted flycatcher.
Spotted flycatchers (Muscicapa striata) are rather inconspicuous birds that are widespread across almost all of Europe. They are quite common throughout most of the UK during the breeding season, but a rare sight in far northern or western regions. The spotted flycatcher belongs to the Old World flycatcher family, Muscicapidae. The birds in this group have a unique hunting style: they spot their prey from high vantage points, then catch lots of insects at once in flight. To have a better chance of seeing this for yourself, we have put together this guide with everything you need to know about spotted flycatchers, including how to identify them and how to help support them in your own garden.
Spotted flycatcher: key facts
|Size||About 14 cm|
|Weight||Up to 25 g|
|Breeding season||May to July|
|Lifespan||Around 2 years|
|Habitat||Sparse forests, parks, cemeteries or gardens, but increasingly also urban landscapes|
|Food preferences||Insects like flies, beetles and bumblebees|
|Threats||Decline in insect populations, loss of natural habitat|
How to identify the spotted flycatcher
Spotted flycatchers are inconspicuous, medium-sized perching birds with brown-grey plumage. Their back, head and wing coverts are slightly darker than their light grey underside, creating a slight contrast. They are also distinguished by fine, dark stripes that run across their chest and forehead.
Spotted flycatchers are often seen very exposed on treetops or other high vantage points where they look for flying insects.
What does the spotted flycatcher’s song sound like?
Though rarely heard, the spotted flycatcher’s song is as inconspicuous as the bird itself. It consists of a succession of high-pitched but harsh notes: “cheep-cheep-cheep”. Spotted flycatcher calls are similarly inconspicuous and difficult to distinguish from those of other species.
How to recognise a young spotted flycatcher
Juvenile spotted flycatchers do not differ much from their parents. Their plumage is the same base colour as that of the adults and the stripes on their forehead and breast are already visible. The only way to distinguish them from their parents is by the pale spots covering their upperparts, and their dark mottled undersides.
How to identify a spotted flycatcher egg
Spotted flycatchers eggs are beige with brown or rust-red spots and about 2 centimetres in size. A brood usually contains 4 to 5 eggs. The female lays the eggs in a nest made of moss, straw or twigs. The inside of the nest is padded with fine feathers or hair. Sometimes spider webs are also used to strengthen the nests.
What is the perfect habitat for spotted flycatchers?
As spotted flycatchers prefer to spot their prey from high vantage points, they need a habitat with plenty of tall trees or hedges. In nature, they tend to inhabit sparse forests, but also appear in parks, cemeteries or gardens. In fact, today a large proportion of spotted flycatchers are living in close proximity to humans as settlements and cities are much more common than their natural habitat. Buildings have proven to be good alternative breeding sites.
Where do spotted flycatchers build their nests?
When it comes to choosing a nesting site, spotted flycatchers are extraordinarily creative. They prefer to use structures similar to caves or niches, such as knotholes, crevices in broken trees, cavities behind protruding tree bark or holes in facades and other niches in buildings. Occasionally, they will also build their nests on the ground or out in the open.
When is the breeding season for spotted flycatchers?
The spotted flycatcher’s breeding season lasts from May to July. During this time, many pairs can often even manage two broods. The female incubates the eggs for between 10 and 15 days. After that, both parents take care of the offspring. In the nest, the juvenile birds take about two weeks to develop. If a second brood follows, the offspring of the first clutch help to care for their little siblings.
Note: Unlike most perching birds, spotted flycatchers have learned to distinguish their eggs from those of other birds. This is particularly helpful in protecting against the sly deceptions of brood parasites such as the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in other birds’ nests so that the other birds raise its offspring on their behalf. Spotted flycatchers will therefore not hatch cuckoo eggs.
Where do spotted flycatchers spend the winter?
Spotted flycatchers are migratory birds. They arrive in the UK in late spring, around April or early May and stay here for the duration of the summer months. They leave around September or October, migrating south to escape our chilly winter. Since they feed almost exclusively on insects, they must migrate to warmer regions to ensure they have a stable food supply over the dormant season. Spotted flycatchers are long-distance migrants, embarking on huge journeys. Most of them spend the winter south of the Sahara in tropical Africa. They do not return to their breeding grounds until around May or even early June, making them one of the latest birds to arrive here.
Help the spotted flycatcher!
Precisely because spotted flycatchers are so inconspicuous, it is a truly rewarding experience when you do see one. Read on to find out how you can support these songbirds in your own garden.
What do spotted flycatchers eat?
Spotted flycatchers are what are known as aerial insectivores, meaning they feed mainly on insects that they snatch from the air mid-flight. They hunt flies, bumblebees, beetles and even butterflies. They rarely search for food on the ground, but in bad weather will also eat worms, other small creatures or berries.
Whilst you cannot support these birds with classic bird food, designing an insect-friendly garden will benefit them and other birds immensely. Flowering plants attract plenty of small visitors to your garden. These not only serve as food for garden birds, but also help pollinate your flowers and fight pests.
Which birdhouses are suitable for spotted flycatchers?
Aside from ensuring a good supply of food, you can also help out by providing suitable nesting opportunities. Spotted flycatchers are very happy to settle into artificial nest sites. If you would like to buy or make your own nest box, opt for a half-open one. These differ from the classic tit or fully enclosed nest boxes as: instead of a small entrance hole, they have a large opening at the front. A nest box specifically for spotted flycatchers should have an opening about 6 cm high. However, open-cup nests like those for swallows are also suitable for spotted flycatchers.
Tip: In theory, any type of cup-shaped nesting aid would appeal to spotted flycatchers – so feel free to get creative! You can use anything from a fruit bowl to a bowl-shaped flower pot for this or even mould your own using sawdust and cement. Just make sure to place the nesting aid at least 2 m above the ground in a cat-proof place.
What else can you do to support spotted flycatchers?
On top of a rich supply of insects, spotted flycatchers also appreciate a birdbath. This functions as both a bath and a water source for drinking and, especially on hot days, can be a welcome refreshment. You do not need to buy anything special for this – a shallow bowl will do.
Note: Especially when it is hot, birdbaths can quickly become a breeding ground for infectious aviary diseases, so it is important to clean them regularly. So, in the summer it is best to clean your bird bath on a daily basis.