May be easier than you think
You could see a White Wagtail this weekend and not even know it – learn how to ID them easily
It’s the rarity that might be hiding right under your nose. Learning to ID White Wagtails can bring all sorts of fringe benefits…
THE SPRING PASSAGE season can turn up a whole host of birds that you wouldn’t normally see on your local patch. Many are from Europe and some, like the Hoopoe, are very obvious, but one visitor at this time of year isn’t so conspicuous, blending in with local populations and often evading detection.
The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba) is widely distributed across Europe, but in Britain and Ireland this nominate race is replaced by our very own subspecies, the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii). The Pied Wagtail is a bird that we are all familiar with, commonly seen in urban and countryside habitats across the country. One of my earliest birding memories is seeing a pair of them dashing across my primary school playground, tails wagging furiously, as I sat watching them from inside the classroom. I can’t remember what the lesson was about, but I can remember the two characterful birds chasing insects across the concrete surface!
Pied Wagtails are very distinctive birds. Even when flying, their deeply undulating flight and call tells them apart from other birds. On the ground, their sudden rushes and constantly wagging tail draws the eye. This, combined with the fact that they are a very common species, has made them one of the few birds in Britain that even a non-birdwatcher is likely to be able to identify.
The other problem is that because the Pied Wagtail is such a common bird for us, we don’t always look at it as closely as we could and should, meaning that possible White Wagtails can escape our notice.
There will be very few birdwatchers that don’t have Pied Wagtail on their local patch list, but how many have White Wagtail on it? Despite being essentially a mainland Europe subspecies, the bird does turn up regularly, but locally, in this country every year, with the spring passage season bringing the largest number of birds across the English Channel. So, how do you get to grips with it and add it to your patch list? The basic problem is that White and Pied Wagtails look similar, but Spring birds can be easily told apart with a bit of practice, and by using a good fieldguide. The other problem is that because the Pied Wagtail is such a common bird for us, we don’t always look at it as closely as we could and should, meaning that possible White Wagtails can escape our notice. Therefore, the best way to get White Wagtail on your patch list is to make sure you look at any wagtail carefully, especially if they are in groups. It's worth adding, at this point, that neither of our other wagtail species – Grey and Yellow – should pose too much of a confusion risk. The latter is a summer visitor, with a largely bright yellow plumage. It is almost invariably found on wet meadows and other damp, grassy habitats – it's far less willing to adapt itself to man-made surroundings than the others. The Grey, meanwhile, also has yellow in its plumage (even first-winter birds have a yellow vent, while adults have yellow on the breast and underside), and a very long tail, and prefers to stay close to running water, although it does venture into the sort of places you'd find Pied Wagtails in winter. But back to Pied and White Wagtails. The plumage of the two birds changes throughout the year, and birds in juvenile plumage are much harder to separate. In the spring, however, the birds are in breeding plumage, making it rather simpler to distinguish between the two.
How to tell White and Pied Wagtails apart
The basic difference between the two subspecies is that the Pied is much blacker and darker than the White. The male Pied has a black back that carries on up the neck and onto the top of the head, while the male White has the black to the top of the head and neck, but this changes abruptly to a clean grey colour on its back. The change from black to grey is very distinct, as if a line has been drawn on the bird’s plumage. The female White Wagtail also has this clean grey colour on her back, but the border between it and the black of the head is not as sharp. Instead it looks as if the grey and the black have been smudged into one another where the two meet. The female Pied Wagtail also has a grey back, but it is much darker and not as ‘clean’ looking as the female White and often looks almost dappled. By studying a fieldguide that shows both plumages, and by carefully looking at the wagtails on your patch, you should soon be able to distinguish between our own Pied and the European White Wagtail. There are benefits to this beyond merely adding another tick to your patch list. Studying the plumage details of a common and easily accessible species like the Pied Wagtail is a good way of getting your eye in for looking at all birds in more detail. Look through the rare bird reports and you will see that many of the species present, especially the smaller ones, are only distinguished from other, more common species, by very subtle differences in their plumage. Telling a Reed Warbler from a Blyth’s Reed Warbler isn’t anywhere near as easy as telling a Pied Wagtail from a White, but it is done by exactly the same method – careful study of the bird’s markings. Once you learn to look for the differences in plumage of these closely related subspecies, you'll find it easier to differentiate between other similar looking species by examining subtle differences between them. Getting a White Wagtail on your list could just be the beginning...
TAKE OFF In general, individuals with heavily marked 'dusky flanks' tend to be Pied Wagtails rather than White Wagtails, which have 'cleaner' white flanks
Pied Wagtail male and female (inset) White Wagtail male and female (inset) The Pied Wagtail can often be seen on a concrete surface chasing insects