Yellow Wagtail

Confusing, rasping Yellow Wagtail calls

On ‘Citrine Wagtail day’ last Sunday, my field notes on the citreola read:

“very raspy call in flight, not really confusable with vague suggestion of raspy call sometimes heard in variant flight calls of flava

So I thought I had that sorted!

With an increase in southward moving flava wagtails it was not surprising that Tuesday’s  long walk to the point (below) produced about 20 birds. In the point dunes a grounded group of c12. One juvenile here gave me cause for concern. Every so often it gave what sounded to me a Citrine or Black-headed Wagtail-like raspy call. It also gave normal clear ‘Yellow’ Wagtail calls. I recalled a couple of things.

I wasn’t sure how to identify a juvenile Citrine Wagtail – but I did know they looked much more similar to juvenile Yellow Wagtails than first winter Citrine’s. Maybe  I could easily overlook one? Sundays bird had moulted most of its juvenile body plumage and was a first winter bird. Juvenile plumaged Citrine though has occurred, in August, in the UK.

Scroll down for photo of  juvenile Citrine:

I also knew that as well as Black-headed Wagtails (feldegg), ‘southern Yellow Watail’ taxa (Ashy-headed, Spanish etc) and have raspy calls too. AND that Grey-headed Wagtails have a reputation for giving buzzier call notes.

I got several reasonable looks at the bird – no photos due to ‘naked birding’ and it looked like – a moulting juvenile Yellow Wagtail. Nothing untoward and no Citrine signals like bigger, whiter wingbars and pale ear covert surround. I did manage to record the call but my trusty ‘Remembird’ (see here: has frozen up and I can’t download the recording – same week as my tripod leg broke too!

Back at home, and follow-up literature check I learnt something new. See below:

juvenile Yellow Wagtail (this one called ‘normally’) at Spurn Point stay frustratingly hard to see in cover of dune vegetation, 17th August 2010. Many in various plumage types from juvenile to first winter.

Yellow Wagtail alarm call

First book stop: Pipits and Wagtails … by Per Alstrom, Krister Mild, and Bill Zetterstrom. In the calls section I found mention of the ‘alarm call’.

“The alarm call is a single harsh tshrrep; schrep; or similar (similar to single song notes and especially to the ‘feldegg-type’ call)… When only slightly anxious, at least the north-western subspecies flava, flavissima, beema and western thunbergi often give both ordinary calls and alternative alarm calls which sound similar to the usual calls, e.g. tshrrep, psweoo, tshrrep, tshrep, tsweep etc.”

I know the song  of Yellow Wagtails – one of the shortest and least inspiring passerine songs. It’s very raspy and  recalls Citrine/ feldegg. Similar calls can even be uttered in flight when on territory. I have a recording from last summer which I will try to add here.

So is that it? I was hearing a variant harsh raspy alarm call, part of the normal repertoire of Yellow Wagtail – presumably flavissima, but possibly, given other recent Scandinavian migrants, thunbergi ?

Turkish Wagtails

Meanwhile this time last year I was in Turkey. So here’s a few pics of Black-headed Wagatils (feldegg). The first 2 of a first winter –  with a bit more of Citrine-like ear covert surround. Plus 2 adult males in fresh plumage. I call them ‘green-headed’ as the black is often largely obscured by olive-green feathers tips. In a flock most called the expected raspy feldegg call but every so often could be heard clearer notes as in West European birds. Whether these notes came from the Black-headed Wagtails, or the odd Blue-headed (flava), which may have been mixed in, I don’t know.

Lots to learn!

First winter Black-headed Wagtail. (2 photos above). SW Turkey. 17th August 2009

Adult male ‘Black-headed Wagtail’. An intergrade type (with lutea or flava/ beema) with yellow rear supercilium- usually referred to as ‘xanthophrys’ = yellow pigmented! SW Turkey. 21st August 2009

Adult male Black-headed Wagtail. Purists might want to comment on the white in the malar stripe and small white nick behind the eye. SW Turkey. 19th August 2009

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