Wagtail All …
I have spent countless hours watching wagtails: Pied Wagtail coming to roost in Cherry Trees in my local supermarkets car park, Yellows’ around cows in Somerset pastures; and my only ever Blue Headed on the concrete perimeter of Chew Valley Lake back in the mid ’60s.
They are such charismatic birds, full of character and verve; they are constantly in motion. Slender and graceful, they dance in undulating flight to hover among clouds of insects over the water, feeding and singing in light hirundine cadences as they do so, or run about the lawn, among the daisies and primroses, occasionally flirting in spring courtship dances, or sallying forth from the rooftop to catch a passing insect; tails bobbing all the time. They are never still.
Yellow Wagtails favour damp habitats, such as wet meadows, grazing marshes and river valleys, but there has been much greater use of arable habitats over recent years, with oil-seed rape, legume and root crops increasingly used for feeding.
Despite this the Yellow Wagtail has suffered a rapid decline in numbers over the last few years, probably the result of changing farming practices, and it would be a good day indeed now to see one, outside their main breeding areas ….. largely restricted to central and eastern England and the Welsh Marches. The species has also disappeared from large parts of East Anglia.
Richard Jefferies wrote of seeing Yellow Wagtail ….
“A water-wagtail comes now and then; sometimes the yellow variety, whose colour in the spring is so bright as to cause the bird to resemble the yellowhammer at the first glance. But besides these the springhead is not much frequented by birds; perhaps the clear water attracts less visible insect life, and, the shore of the stream being hard and dry, there is no moisture where grubs and worms may work their way”.
Yellow Wagtail are an interesting species with much colour variation across their range. In Britain we get the standard “yellow” which has a mostly yellow head with small amounts of pale green on the nape. They are a gem of spring: sadly no longer breeding in North Wales, we get only to appreciate their bright colours as they migrate.
As well as the yellow-headed flavissima race, we also get seasonal occurrences of Blue-Headed (flava) birds from the near Continent, and Grey-Headed (thunbergi) wagtail from Scandinavia, and even on an odd occasion a few years back, a Black-Headed (feldegg) wagtail from the Balkans.
Peter Scott was captivated by Yellow Wagtail and used a painting of them – the Blue Headed variety – as the frontispiece to the book ‘A Bird in the Bush’ by Young Hilton E. (Lord Kennet of the Dene) Peter Scotts’ Father in Law, published by Country Life Ltd. London. 1936. He enscribed the picture so – ‘they shone with a light so bright they seemed illuminated from within’.
He was able to paint from memory and I like to think he painted this from his memories of holidays as a teenager in Noirmoutier – reached from the mainland across a causeway at low tide …. ‘In both directions the road led through salt pans and marshes and low lying meadows in which there were always Yellow Wagtail ….’
The noted artist J C Harrison also wrote of seeing the Grey Headed variety which visited Hickling Broad, Norfolk in 1949 ….
‘It was not shy and I had an excellent view of it as it walked around the edge of a pool, now and again reaching up to take insects from the stumps of cut rushes. At times it would fly up to alight on an old post close by’.
He made a number of original sketches as he watched the bird, not seen in Norfolk since 1842, feeding on the marshy edge of Hickling Broad and later reproduced these in his book – Bird Portraits published in 1949 (J C Harrison 1898 – 1985)
We surprisingly have had the occasional Grey Wagtail visit the garden – they do breed locally on some of the lower stretches of fast flowing mountain streams. Along with Dipper. Although the latter is far less fussy in its choice of habitat from small rivulets to seashore.
Ravishingly pretty little birds – to call these wagtails “grey” somehow sells them short. Of their plumage, the gleaming dove-grey wings, white eye stripe, black gorget and canary waistcoat, WH Hudson, soundest of ornithological judges, wrote that “the effect is most beautiful, and pleases, perhaps, more than the colouring of any other British bird”.
Eric Ennion also wrote of the Grey Wagtail in “Bird Holidays” …
‘A Grey Wagtail bounds away along the stream to alight on a boulder under the bank, the reflection of its brilliant yellow plumage in the pool beneath more evident than the bird itself. Even in the winter, when the clear white eye strips and black throat-diamond of the male is lost,or dimmed; even the paler plumage of immature birds and females, this brilliant yellow tint is still retained on the belly and under the tail. And that ceaseless pendulum swing of the tail never fails to draw attention to it. I do not think I know a lovelier bird.’
Locally common here in North Wales they can be seen along many Country Lanes, bordered by old stone walls. We have a pair in the garden that I watch from the kitchen window as they chase after flies on the sun-warmed lichen encrusted slates of the barn roof or run about the lawn, among the daisies and primroses, occasionally flirting in spring courtship dances. They are never still.
Pied wagtails spend most of the year out in the countryside, in ones and twos. But as winter approaches, they take to roosting communally, often in our town centres. As dusk starts to fall, small groups begin to gather, their ‘chizzik’ calls barely noticeable above the urban hustle and bustle. But as the small groups become bigger groups, the first birds will head down off the roof tops and in to their roost trees. The ornamental trees planted around shopping centres or in supermarket car parks seem to be particular favourites, often near to street lights. As the daylight fades, more and more birds pour down into the favoured trees, with the biggest roosts often numbering in the hundreds, to sleep the night away amongst the twinkling Christmas lights.