Previously classed as a member of the family Turdidae (predominantly thrushes) the red-flanked bluetail is now generally acknowledged to belong to the family of old world flycatchers, Muscicapidae. This monotypic passerine resembles the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) in size, shape and behaviour.
The adult male is a gloss dark blue across the upperparts with areas at the base of the tail, rump, shoulders and side of the crown, a brighter steel blue. The supercilium, which is an area of feathers extending from the base of the bill rearwards over the eye, towards the ear covert, is white, as is the chin, throat, belly and vent. The upper chest area is an off white tinged buff. Flanks are a pale orange in colour and under wings are a greyish brown. Upper wings are blue with darker shading to the primary and secondary flight feathers. The bill, legs and feet are a dark grey to black. Adult females are an olive brown colour to the upperparts with a blue tail and rump. The face and upper breast area are a light brown and the flanks a pale orange, similar to the male. Lacking the male’s prominent supercilium the female has a faint white eye ring. The throat, lower breast, belly and vent are an off white. Juvenile birds are similar to the adult female although generally the brown upper parts have a spotted buff patternation.
Red-flanked Bluetail perched on a branch
Female Red-flanked Bluetail
The adult male tends to vocalise more frequently than the female and can often be seen and heard singing from the branches of trees or the top of bushes, particularly during the breeding season, using a short repeated melodious chirping whistle. Calls vary from a high pitched, short single note whistle, to a more guttural ‘tock -tock’ sound.
Red-flanked Bluetail call
Sunny Tseng, XC656859. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/656859.
Red-flanked Bluetail in flight
Mainly a ground forager, the red-flanked blue tail survives mainly on a diet of fruits and seeds during the winter and insects, insect larvae and spiders during the summer. It will also feed from the branches of trees and catch insects on the wing.
Female Red-flanked Bluetail
A migratory bird with its breeding grounds in northern Asia, it moved westwards into northern Europe during the latter part of the last century where it can be found in relatively large numbers breeding in Finland with far fewer numbers journeying into Scandinavia and even lesser numbers into western continental Europe. Whilst still a rarity it has become a more frequent visitor to the UK. Very rare appearances have been recorded in North America, mainly in the state of Alaska. Choosing a habitat of mature coniferous forests, it can be found throughout Mongolia and Siberia to the Kamchatka Peninsula on Russia’s Pacific coast and south into Japan and Korea. During the winter months most populations travel south into Indochina, Taiwan and the Indian sub-continent.
Front capture of a Red-flanked Bluetail
In summer plumage the red-flanked bluetail, particularly the male, is easily recognisable. Prior to migration in the autumn the male changes colour slightly with its head, back and wings taking on a brown shade much closer in appearance to the female. Both sexes retain the prominent white wedged throat patch. Whilst foraging on the ground both sexes can frequently be seen flicking their wings and tail as they move about. Although rather shy birds, their preference for mature coniferous forests frequently finds them flitting around amongst the forest undergrowth and low bushes.
Red-flanked Bluetail from the side
Red-flanked Bluetail from behind
Dependent upon region the breeding season lasts from May through to August. Cup shaped nests are constructed from twigs, grasses and moss on the ground in small depressions, holes or under logs and lined with feathers and pine needles. Normally one brood, occasionally two, consisting of between 4 – 7 white, speckled brown eggs, are produced annually and incubated for up to fifteen days by the female alone. Chicks fledge approximately two weeks after hatching.
Juvenile Red-flanked Bluetail
Although relevant data is scarce it is believed that the average lifespan of a red-flanked bluetail is between two to three years.