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. Captivating birds - their colour and engaging behaviour has inspired many an artist through the years - I can’t think of a single Wildlife artist who hasn’t at one time painted them.
Yellow Wagtail 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 -
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.
Printed pictures of the Grey Wagtail first occurred in Francis Willughby's Ornithology (1678), the first organised ornithological work in England distinguished by its pre-Linnaean attempts at systematic classification and recognition of bird species. This work is considered to be the beginning of scientific ornithology in Europe.
Willughby died from pleurisy before its publication but his good friend, fellow naturalist and teacher John Ray, completed the engravings and published the original edition Ornithologiae libri tres in 1676 and the English version two years later.
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.
One of the best descriptions of a Pied Wagtail roost I have read is about the once famous roost in Dublin: known to almost every Dubliner. On winter nights, Pied Wagtail would converge on O’Connell Street to roost in the plane trees, sadly now gone , which adorned the central aisle.
They were first discovered in 1929 - the roost amounting to about a hundred birds. The roost peaked in 1950 with over 3000 birds but has dwindled to only a few hundred now since redevelopment of the area in 2005.
In these meditative dusks, with their indigo skies and early stars above the mountain, I am likely to be visited by incongruous memories of O'Connell Street, mercifully muted of its worst Christmas rush-hour sounds and smells. Standing still as a rock in the human flood, in a canyon of light and noise, I attend one of the strangest phenomena in Irish wildlife.
As I watched it for the first time, a couple of decades ago, the arrival of the pied wagtails began about 20 minutes after sunset - about half-past-four. The birds dropped down from every point of the deepening blue sky like honey bees returning to a hive. They alighted in the twigs of the plane trees, above the Christmas fairy lights, and moved restlessly among the dark, round bobbles of the tree's fruits. Their twittering evensong was vigorous enough to carry above the traffic, but within an hour they were still and silent in the branches.
It was in the autumn of 1929 that one of the plane trees, in what some still called Sackville Street, became the nightly roost of about 100 pied wagtails. They slept there each night through the winter, indifferent to the clanging of the electric trams that ground up and down at each side of them, almost touching the trees, at the rate of more than two to the minute, until midnight.
When the birds returned the following autumn, their numbers built up to close on 600, and nightly crowds began to gather around the tree covered with silver leaves. There was much popular argument as to whether the birds were swallows or long-tailed tits. As they assembled each night, they broke into a twittering so loud that, as one observer noted, a big crowd of men tramping home from a Saturday football match was held up by the unexpected clamour.
In the winter of 1931-32, the roost numbered well over 1,000 birds, some of which stayed on until July, even through the crowds, bands and flag-waving of the Eucharistic Congress. By 1934, when the roost amounted to 2,000 birds and had spread into a second tree, the wagtails were, as the naturalist C.B. Moffat wrote, "recognised as a distinct asset to the city [and] they never receive the slightest molestation".
Since then, successive generations of the birds have roosted in the street, changing their trees from time to time and varying in their mid-winter numbers from about 500 to more than 3,500 (in 1950). The roost dwindled, to fewer than 1,000 birds, and now only a few hundred roost in the area.