Hid­den gem

May be eas­ier than you think

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: IAN PAR­SONS

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.