They enthrall with their nightly performance in the branches of urban trees – chattering pied wagtails, harbingers of winter and the festive season
Pied wagtails perform under urban streetlights
The Christmas lights are yet to be switched on in Bury St Edmunds, but most of them are already up, strung across walkways, looped in shop windows and dangling from trees. In a single Norwegian maple that stands between the Corn Exchange and the Nutshell, a pub which is already full-to-overflowing, a series of circular glass bands twist and turn in the breeze. Even without electricity they sparkle and glitter as they move, reflecting the yellow lights from windows and streetlamps.
But this tree is about to be decorated again. Half an hour after the winter-weak sun finally sinks, the first bird arrives, shooting into upper branches that still cling to most of their leaves. Another, then another. All perching on the same slim twig, nudging each other along, calling greetings and contact calls of ‘chizzick’ and ‘swi-woo’.
I watch them, bobbing and swishing their tails up and down in a nervous, saucy fluttering. A handful of loveliness. The pied wagtail really is a bird that lives up to its name. Its cheeks and belly moon-white, the rest of its body is coloured in coal blacks and twilight greys. They fidget and twitch. Little movers. Tiny dancers.
I can see from around the base of the tree that the birds have not yet arrived in full force. By late November or early December up to 500 wagtails will be roosting here. Their presence obvious, not only from the cheery, chattery caroling and constant movement, but from their generous leavings. The litter bins, brick work and road will all be haloed in guano, a white ring that carves out a space in the centre of town for nature. It is a marker that shows there are other ways than shopping to track the seasons and to sense the tilt of the earth towards winter.
This tree is by no means unique. In the car park at Tesco just a mile away, there is another wagtail roost that has the power to stop shoppers in their tracks. Fieldfare, redwing and thrushes also seem to gravitate to these urban spaces. They are drawn to the brightness of the berries, benefitting from safety in numbers and the retained heat that radiates from pavements and washes from shops, and light. Perhaps, the wagtails choose this maple for its decorations, each bulb a three-bar feather-warming fire.
I can see now that there are about 15 wagtails in the tree. Maybe later more will come. Two years ago, I was at this very spot during the town’s annual Christmas Fayre. Then the twilight roost was at its peak. The tree was a ball of feather, a living, fidgeting bauble, the clamour greater than the noise of footsteps or the band playing down by Abbey Gardens.
A whole crowd of people stood to watch, gazing up into the branches and wondering what they were. Sparrows? Long-tailed tit? And why they were here. The answer was in front of them all along. It had risen with the steam of mulled wine and chestnuts, it had been sung from band stands and shop speakers.
It’s because it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas
A pied wagtail, a bird that lives upto its name
Pied wagtails at roost