Bird of the Moment: Satin and Leaden Flycatchers

Satin Flycatcher (Myiagra cyanoleuca) Male ©Ian Montgomery

Bird of the Moment: Satin and Leaden Flycatchers by Ian Montgomery

One day last October, I was doing the dishes in the upstairs kitchen and checking, as one does, bird activity in the two bird baths below when this unusual one arrived. I keep my binoculars on the kitchen window sill for moments like this and I was astonished to see that it was a male Satin Flycatcher, very rare in North Queensland.

Happily it stayed around long enough for me to grab the camera and get a few photo both at the bird bath and, second photo, in a nearby shrub before it flew away. Satin Flycatchers are notoriously difficult to distinguish from their close relatives Leaden Flycatchers but in the right light and at the right angle – i.e. from above – the overall satiny blue sheen is unmistakable.

Leaden Flycatcher last featured as bird of the week/moment in 2003 with this one photo below, so now is a good opportunity to review it and the question of distinguishing the two species. Graeme Chapman wrote an article – ‘Mixed Up Myiagras’ – on identifying Monarch Flycatchers in the June 2003 issue of Wingspan, the Birds Australia magazine and I’m going to quote extensively from that.

The key field mark for distinguishing Leaden and Satin Flycatchers is the shape of the demarcation between the dark throat patch and the white breast and belly. In the male Leaden Flycatcher (above) the line curves upwards where the dark throat patch meets the wing producing a right angle or slightly acute angle in the white part. In the Satin Flycatcher, see the next two photos, the demarcation curves downward at the sides where it disappears below the wing and there is no sharp angle, rather a curve through a decidedly obtuse angle.

This is perhaps easier to see in the photo below, where the bird is obligingly lifting its wing as it preens.

To add to the problem, male Leaden Flycatchers have a bluish sheen on the throat patch and to a lesser extent on the head. Given the refractive, iridescent nature of such colours in feathers (optical structure rather than pigment) the actual colour produced depends on light conditions and angle. The Leaden Flycatcher in the photo below looks quite bluish (thought the back and wings are greyer) and could easily be mistaken for a Satin. Here the angle of the white area comes to the rescue and this bird is definitely a Leaden.

I haven’t mentioned females or juveniles yet: they’re even harder than the males. Females and juveniles of both species have reddish buff breasts but these are very variable in intensity and lack the clear demarcation with the white breast that comes to the aid of identifying males. In general, female Satins are darker overall than Leadens and have a bluish sheen on the head. But be warned, the heads of female Leadens can be slightly bluish too as in the photo below. I regret that I haven’t got a photo of a female Satin.

If all else fails, habitat, location and time of year are important. Satin Flycatchers breed in moist forests; in Tasmania (from which Leadens are absent) and Victoria this includes both inland and coastal forests but in New South Wales the Satin occurs only in damp wooded gullies in the high country along the Great Dividing Range. Given the problems of identification, there is uncertainty whether they breed in Southeast Queensland and Graeme Chapman couldn’t confirm breeding there.

John Young reported finding breeding pairs in Northern Queensland in highland rainforest (two pairs near Paluma, December 1984, and one pair at Wallaman Falls, November 1991) but it isn’t known whether this is part of its normal breeding range or even the same race as he reported the birds as being larger and darker than southern ones and the eggs being 20% larger.

Leaden Flycatchers occur in a wide variety of wooded habitats and may be found breeding in the same areas as Satin Flycatchers.

Leaden Flycatcher (Myiagra rubecula) Female in nest by Ian

Timing is important as the Satin Flycatcher is a migrant and winters mainly in New Guinea. The late Andrée Griffin lived in Paluma, about 40km from my place as the flycatcher flies, for many years and kept careful records of birds. She reported to Graeme Chapman that Satin Flycatchers arrived there each year on their way south at the beginning of October and were seen for about a fortnight. That date coincides well with my record of 12 October and Len Ezzy, a local birder, recorded one a week later at the Townsville Town Common. In 2016, I thought I saw a female Satin Flycatcher having a bathe in my pool on 22 September, but she didn’t hang around while I got the camera.

Flooded Creek by Ian – Townsville, Australia

For those of you who have heard the news about flooding in Townsville in general and Bluewater in particular on Wednesday, I’m happy to report that my house is high up enough above the creek to have been spared so far, unlike some unfortunate residents farther down the creek. Upper Bluewater has had over 900mm of rain in the last three days and it is hard to imagine it ever exceeding that. This is what Bluewater Creek looked like from just outside my house shortly after the flood peaked on Wednesday. The creek is normally invisible from here in a gorge about 200 metres away where the distant trees are.

Greetings – Ian

Ian’s Birds of the Moment come in quite unannounced. Never know when to expect something from “down under.” Yet, everytime, Ian has a very interesting bird/birds to introduce us to. Thank you, Ian for stopping by with another set of beautiful avian wonders.

The verses below remind us that the Lord provides for his critters and birds. In this case, the “hills” might have been a bit over filled.

“By them [streams] the birds of the heavens have their home; They sing among the branches. He waters the hills from His upper chambers; The earth is satisfied with the fruit of Your works.” (Psalms 104:12-13 NKJV)

Ian’s Birds of the Week [Month, Moment]

Hope for Hard Times

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Black Bittern

Black Bittern (Dupetor flavicollis) by Ian

Well, thanks to your moral and spiritual support yet again, here is the Black Bittern. This bogey bird was the North Queensland bird that I’ve spent the most time trying unsuccessfully to photograph since the Red-necked Crake. Ian Worcester (“Sauce”) of Daintree River Wild Watch, knows the wildlife of the Daintree River like the back of his hand and took us straight to an active Black Bittern nest where we disturbed this female (females have browner plumage than males) who retreated into the depths of the tree and adopted the frozen posture so typical of bitterns. You can see from the greenish blur in the bottom half of the photo that I had to take this photo through a small gap in the vegetation.

With the Black Bittern spell broken within minutes of leaving the wharf, I was free to relax and enjoy the view and whatever else the trip had to offer, while hoping for more and better Bittern photos of course. We left the wharf at about 6:30am and I took this view looking up the river at 6:42am after photographing the Bittern.

Daintree River NE QueenslandWe continued up the river and into Stewarts Creek and visited the nests of a few more bitterns and of a couple of Great-billed Herons. We saw a couple of Bitterns flying away, as usual, and it was over an hour before the male in this photo hung around long enough for a photo. The male has blackish plumage with a slight blue sheen and buff streaks below the head. Both sexes share incubation and care of the young and this one had left the nest like the first one and moved to the back of the tree where he also froze.

Black Bittern (Dupetor flavicollis) by Ian

Looking from the bright area on the river into the deep shadows of the riverine forest made the birds extraordinarily difficult to see. The photo below is a full-frame image from a 400mm telephoto lens and the bird is almost invisible. The bill and neck stripe of the bird were aligned so perfectly with the twig behind that I couldn’t help wonder whether it was deliberate. The rest of the body just looked like a limb of a tree.

Black Bittern (Dupetor flavicollis) by Ian

Here is one of the nests, an untidy collection of sticks wedged in a branch 4 or 5 metres above the surface of the river. Something white is just visible in the nest, but I can’t tell whether it’s an egg or a fluffy chick.

Black Bittern (Dupetor flavicollis) Nest by Ian

Anyway, that was it for Black Bittern photos. We went out a second time later in the morning and revisited a couple of the nests including the one near the wharf, but we didn’t see any more birds. I’ve since discovered from Handbook of Birds of the World that Black Bitterns are “crepuscular and nocturnal with peak activity at dusk and dawn” so that may be why. None of the Australian field guides mention this and maybe this is why I’ve had difficulty finding them before.


Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737
Bird Photos
Recorder Society

Lee’s Addition:

Deliver me, O LORD, from mine enemies: I flee unto thee to hide me. (Psalms 143:9 KJV)

Thanks, Ian, and, yes, I was selfishly praying that you would find “your bird” this time. Every time you succeed, we get to see another great series of avian photos.

When the Lord created these Black Bitterns, He definitely had their protection in mind. Did you all notice that 4th photo? You can hardly find the Bittern. He looks like a branch.

Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number. (Job 9:10 KJV)


Ian’s Bird of the Week

Ian’s Birdway – Ardeidae – Global Herons, Egrets, Bitterns

Black Bittern – Wikipedia

Wordless Birds