EVERY WEEK THIS YEAR WE WILL HAVE NEW SUGGESTIONS FOR A DIFFERENT GROUP OF BIRDS TO LOOK FOR TO HELP DEVELOP YOUR #MY200BIRDYEAR LIST
This week, it is Wagtails
There are three British wagtails. Pied and Grey Wagtails are resident birds and Yellow Wagtail is a summer visitor, arriving from mid-April and leaving in autumn. Wagtail identification is not too complicated at a basic level, but the field is muddied somewhat by the fact that Pied and Yellow Wagtails are both part of species complexes containing several subspecies with distinct plumages. The subspecies we have in this country are both British Isles and near-continent versions, while other subspecies dominant the rest of he continent. Confused? Read on…
This is the classic, common black and white (or black and grey and white) wagtail that scurries around playgrounds, car parks, parks and gravel pits across the country. British birds of the subspecies yarellii have jet black backs in the male and dark grey backs in the female. Juveniles and winter birds can look less clearly black and white, with greyer tones and buff tones on the face. Conitniental rare birds, of the subspecies alba are called White Wagtails. They have pale grey backs, black caps and generally cleaner flanks. They are easiest to pick out on passage in the spring, harder in the autumn and winter, when Pieds and Whites can look more similar.
This is the wagtail which is most closely associated with fast rivers and streams and similar water bodies. It is the longest tailed wagtail and has its own particular grace. Grey wagtails are named after their grey backs, not their lemon yellow undertail coverts! Adult breeding males have neat black bibs and yellow underparts; females and winter birds are duller, but still have the bright yellow undertail coverts and lower belly. The call is a piercing, metallic version of the 'Chiswick' call of the Pied.
The summer wagtail is our only wagtail with a greenish back and yellow underparts. Males can be spectacularly bright birds. These are country birds, liking fields with plenty of insects, such as those which hold cattle (and the flies that go with them and their dung). Shorter tailed than the other wagtails, they also have a distinctive ‘shweep’ call. Males of the UK subspecies flavissima have largely yellow heads, but look out in spring for male Blue-headed Wagtails (flava) from the continent, which have blue heads with a white supercilium (eyebrow).
All photos from Alamy