Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 2 May 2012, by Craig Brelsford.

ID Workshop: Paradise Flycatchers

Editor’s note: The featured image above shows the stunning male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and serves to introduce this week’s theme: How can birders tell apart the two species of the remarkable genus Terpsiphone that migrate through Shanghai?

Each spring and autumn, two species of paradise flycatcher pass through Earth’s greatest city: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei. The two species can seem confusingly similar, especially in the poor light of a wood. With a little practice you can tell the males apart, and with a lot of practice you should be able to separate the females. Here is what you need to know:

If in Shanghai you see a white-morph paradise flycatcher, then by definition you are not looking at Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, and you are almost certainly looking at Amur Paradise Flycatcher.

L: Amur Paradise Flycatcher, white morph, Nanhui. By Kai Pflug. R: same, Dongzhai, by Craig Brelsford.
Two images of Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei, white morph. L: Nanhui, Shanghai, 30 May 2016 (Kai Pflug). R: Dongzhai National Nature Reserve, Henan, 5 June 2010 (Craig Brelsford). Most Amur males are rufous, but a certain percentage are white. Japanese Paradise Flycatcher T. atrocaudata has no white morph.

No white morph exists in Japanese (Mark Brazil, Birds of East Asia). Regarding Amur, among my sources only Brazil expresses doubt about the existence of a white morph. shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon (A Field Guide to the Birds of China) and C.W. Moeliker (Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 11) assure us that Amur white morph does exist. MacKinnon says that Amur white morph accounts for less than half of adult males.

We know that Amur white morph exists because we have seen it ourselves. On 30 May 2016, Kai Pflug photographed an Amur white morph at Nanhui, the coastal birding site in Shanghai. In May 2010 at Dongzhai, Henan, 680 km inland from Shanghai, I found an Amur white morph.

Could a white morph from a third species occur in Shanghai? Although the movements of paradise flycatchers are “complex and not fully understood” (Moeliker), I think we can presume that it is unlikely. The nearest third species is Oriental Paradise Flycatcher T. affinis saturatior, which according to MacKinnon winters no closer to Shanghai than Guangdong.

The mantle, wings, rump, and tail of rufous-morph male Amur are rufous-brown; in Japanese, the mantle, wings, and rump are purplish-brown, and the tail is black.

Top: Amur (Kai Pflug). Bottom: Japanese (Craig Brelsford).
In Amur male (top), the mantle, wings, rump and tail are rufous-brown. Japanese male has purplish-brown mantle, wings, and rump and a contrasting black tail. Amur: Nanhui, June 2016 (Kai Pflug). Japanese: Yangkou, Jiangsu, 2 May 2012 (Craig Brelsford).

The pictures speak for themselves. In good light you should have little trouble telling the two apart. The cinnamon tones of Amur are often what Shanghai birders notice first.

Male Japanese has a black head and a black breast, forming a large hood. Amur rufous morph has black head and grey breast, forming a two-tone hood.

Comparison of hoods of Japanaese Paradise Flycatcher and Amur Paradise Flycatcher. Top 2: Craig Brelsford. Bottom 2: Kai Pflug.
In Japanese (top two photos), the black head and throat seamlessly meet the black breast, forming an oversized hood. (Note however some grey feathers in the worn spring Japanese male top left.) By comparison, the black head of Amur (bottom photos) contrasts with its grey breast. Japanese: Yangkou, 2 May 2012 (top left) and Nanhui, 17 Sept. 2016 (top right); both by Craig Brelsford. Amur: both Nanhui, June 2016 (Kai Pflug).

The hood of Amur has in addition more of a bluish tint than that of Japanese. Note the blue tint in the hood of Amur bottom left. Note also that the cobalt-blue eye ring of Japanese (top left) tends to be larger than the eye ring of Amur.

The females require more care to separate. Be persistent, get a good view, and try to get a photo. Note the following:

Compared to Amur female, Japanese female has darker, duller, and less rufous mantle, wings, rump, and tail. Japanese has much darker (nearly all-black) flight feathers and sooty primary coverts.

Top: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (Craig Brelsford). Bottom: Amur Paradise Flycatcher (Kai Pflug).
As with the males, female Japanese (top) is darker and less rufous than female Amur (bottom). Japanese: Yangkou, 30 Sept. 2013 (Craig Brelsford). Amur: Nanhui, May 2016 (Kai Pflug).

For the bit about the sooty primary coverts, I am indebted to David Gandy of Bangkok City Birding.

In their head and breast coloring, female Japanese and Amur show a pattern similar to that of the males. Whereas Japanese is more concolorous (panels 3 and 4), Amur shows more of a contrast between head and breast (1a, 1b, 2). Both Japanese and Amur female have whitish bellies, but the darker breast of Japanese contrasts more with the whitish belly than is the case with Amur. The head is glossier in Amur than in Japanese, whose crown is dull (inset, Panel 3). Japanese has faint rufous flanks, unlike Amur.

1a, 1b: Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Dongzhai, Henan, June 2010 (Craig Brelsford). 2: Amur, Nanhui, May 2016 (Kai Pflug). 3, 4 and inset on 3: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 30 Sept. 2013 (Craig Brelsford).
1a, 1b: Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Dongzhai, Henan, 5 June 2010 (Craig Brelsford). This female is the mate of the Amur white-morph shown above. 2: Amur, Nanhui, May 2016 (Kai Pflug). 3, 4 and inset on 3: Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Yangkou, Jiangsu, 30 Sept. 2013 (Craig Brelsford).


In Shanghai, you will almost never hear a paradise flycatcher utter a sound. I have a single recording:

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, call, Nanhui, 24 May 2016 (00:01; 848 KB)


Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata and Amur Paradise Flycatcher T. incei breed farther north than any other species in their mainly tropical genus. T. atrocaudata atrocaudata breeds in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and is highly migratory, wintering as far south as Sumatra. (Birds in Taiwan, however, are largely resident.) T. incei, a monotypic species, is also highly migratory, with a breeding range extending into the Russian Far East and wintering grounds as far south as Java (Moeliker). Japanese is listed by the IUCN as Near Threatened, mainly because of habitat loss on its wintering grounds.

UPDATE: 18 OCT 2016

Amur Paradise Flycatcher, Laoshan, Jiangsu, 4 July 2009. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Amur Paradise Flycatcher, female on the breeding grounds, Laoshan, Jiangsu, 4 July 2009. (Craig Brelsford)

While researching drongos, on 18 Oct. 2016 I discovered two more photos of female Amur Paradise Flycatcher. The photos above were taken 4 July 2009 at Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699), a site in Nanjing, Jiangsu 290 km inland from Shanghai. Note again in this Amur the contrast between bluish-black head and bluish-grey breast, the poorly defined border between the bluish-grey breast and the whitish belly, the lack of rufous coloration on the flanks, and the rufous-brown upperparts and tail, obviously brighter than in Japanese Paradise Flycatcher.


Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug

Special thanks to Kai Pflug, who collaborated with me on this post, and without whose photos this post would not have been possible. Kai’s images of Amur Paradise Flycatcher, some of which are displayed above, are a valuable record of this poorly known species. I have published dozens of Kai’s photographs on shanghaibirding.com, and in September 2016 I wrote about his work cleaning up the litter at Nanhui. Kai is from Germany and lives in Shanghai. He is an active member of the Shanghai Birding WeChat group.


Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Studied entries on Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, p. 302.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 11, “Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers.” Species accounts for Asian Paradise Flycatcher (p. 289) and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher (p. 290) written by C.W. Moeliker.

Gandy, David. Bangkok City Birding (http://bangkokcitybirding.blogspot.com/). Used article “Hell in Paradise,” published 28 May 2016.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, pp. 284-5.

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press. Helpful insights on Terpsiphone atrocaudata, T. incei, and T. affinis saturatior on p. 180.

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Craig Brelsford

Craig Brelsford lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. When he departed China, Craig was the top-ranked eBirder in the country, having noted 932 species, as well as the top-ranked eBirder in Shanghai (323 species). A 1993 graduate of the University of Florida, Craig was an award-winning newspaper editor in the United States for 10 years. In 2002, Craig earned a master's in business administration from the University of Liege in Belgium. Craig lives in Debary, Florida with his wife, Elaine, and their son, Tiny.

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