This summer visitor from tropical Africa breeds locally in Portugal, with a few pairs in the hilly north of the Algarve. In southern coastal areas, and throughout Portugal, it is a common autumn migrant with birds lingering in the south until late October and even early November as they fatten up before attempting the long crossing of the Sahara.
Although soberly dressed, feeding birds perch in prominent places on the lookout for passing insects. Their frequent, twisting sallies in pursuit of a prey item, often ending in a return to the same perch, make them fairly conspicuous. They are not very vocal at this time but sometimes give a short, clicking alarm call when disturbed. Even in the breeding season the simple, quiet, high-pitched song does not carry far and can easily be missed.
The Spotted Flycatcher is noticeably larger and longer-tailed than the unrelated Pied Flycatcher, which also passes through the Algarve in large numbers in autumn. The striking black-and-white plumage of the Pied males is rarely seen then. Females and juveniles are dull grey-brown but have obvious white wing patches and white in the tail. The habit of flicking their wings whilst perched is also distinctive and they have a frequently rendered, high-pitched metallic call.
Like other migrants from south of the Sahara, birds heading for their breeding grounds in spring are in a hurry to establish territories, so most overfly the Algarve at this season. Spotted Flycatchers are one of the last insect-eaters to arrive. Any that are grounded by inclement weather are likely to be seen in late April and early May. I was monitoring spring migration on the small Greek island of Paxos (Paxoi) in May 1980 which, by pure chance, was on the southern edge of a large, static disturbance over south-eastern Europe. For a whole week, Spotted Flycatchers arriving in clear skies over the east Mediterranean were forced down at this point, resulting in the largest assemblage of the species ever recorded.
Accurate counting was impossible, but I estimated there were at least ten thousand birds. On my last evening, at the end of the week, a bright line appeared on the northern horizon and the flycatchers left en masse, like moths drawn to a candle. It was one of the most memorable sights I had ever witnessed.