1st winter White Wagtail Identification

On the East Coast (and inland near you!)

Found this bird on 31st August and it renewed my interest in Pied and White Wagtail ID in autumn. So here’s a bit of waffle on the subject for anyone interested. It’s done in a simple style, so apologies to those who know the subject much better. Corrections also welcome, I am still learning. Also see very good  Dutch Birding paper on Pied and White Wagtail identification (and intermediate birds).

1st winter White Wagtail. Spurn 31st August 2011. These are well worth looking for! Words from The Migration Atlas, in regard to White Wagtails, say it well:

“Observations suggest, that autumn passage occurs on both east and particularly , west coasts and widely inland until at least October. It is likely that the whole population from Greenland, Iceland and the Faeroes passes through Britain and Ireland, although many birds will go unrecognized.”

31st August 2011 at Spurn.

I was a little late up and missed an early Common Rosefinch trapped at the Warren. The wind had swung NE quicker than expected and there were clearly a few migrants around. The most interesting bird of the morning for me was an ‘alba’ Wagtail (Pied or White) feeding in the Crown and Anchor car park. It immediately looked good for a White Wagtail, but I have found these to be a thorny ID subject in the autumn. Most White Wagtails in Britain are from the ‘Icelandic population’ (+ East Greenland and Faeroes) and as such have a west coast bias. Much of the Scandinavian population of White Wagtails heads southeast not southwest. So they are at least scarce if not overlooked on the east coast. I think lots of people ignore the subject (partly ‘cos it’s tricky) and consequently overlook ‘good birds’. So here’s my little bit of learning on early autumn alba wagtail ID aided by some photos taken in August 2005.

fresh juvenile Pied Wagtail. Fanad, Donegal, August 2005. Still with juvenile head and breast pattern and all the wing feathers: median and greater coverts and tertials look like unmoulted juvenile feathers. Notice especially the brownish-grey fringes to the greater coverts with brighter white tips. The median coverts looked ‘washed out’ and the tertials have pointed tips. The (just visible) flight feathers still look fresh. Identified as Pied as  it seemed to be with its Mummy, Daddy and siblings.

Following added with grateful thanks to Peter Adriaens:

“I believe juveniles (alba versus yarrellii) are often impossible to tell apart, though I would need to check my photographs from Tring again. If I remember well, rump colour in juv. yarrellii ranges from dull grey to blackish – rarely (or never?) pale grey. In juv. alba, rump is usually dull grey, sometimes pale grey – so helpful in a few cases perhaps. Some juv. yarrellii show already characters that separate them from alba, such as broad white tips to juvenile greater coverts, extensive dark grey flanks or belly, and/or blackish crown.”

same juvenile Pied Wagtailas above.

following added with grateful thanks to Peter Adriaens:

Some alba do migrate in full juvenile plumage. 
“Some wagtails retain all or most of their juvenile feathers well into October and even migrate in this plumage. This may indicate a northern origin, but may also be a strategy for avoiding aggressiveness from adult birds, which are more tolerant towards juvenile individuals (López et al 2005).”
López, G, Figuerola, J, Varo, N & Soriguer, N 2005. White Wagtails Motacilla alba showing extensive post-juvenile moult are more stressed. Ardea 93: 237-244.
Because juveniles can look extremely similar to some 1st-winter birds, it may be worth adding the following.
This is something I still need to check further, but it seems to me that in juvenile plumage, at least when it is still fresh, the grey forehead blends down into the supercilium, creating an entirely grey/dusky area in front of the eye. In other words, the pale supercilium is limited to behind the eye, while in first-winter birds, it is usually well developed in front of the eye too. This character also helps to distinguish between juv. alba/yarrellii and 1st-winter Citrine!”

Compare the feather tones and fringing patterns of the median and greater coverts with photo below:

So here’s a grey crowned ‘alba’ Wagtail. It could be a 1st winter  Pied or 1st winter/ adult female White. In this shot it can be aged, I think, as a first winter. It’s  already moulted a bunch of wing coverts. The White Wagtails that pass through Britain are northerly breeders most in fact probably come from Iceland/ Greenland/ Faeroes. As they have to expend energy on a longer migration than Pieds undertake, many probably don’t moult much in the way of wing coverts until they reach wintering grounds. Meanwhile the little ‘nurseries’ of Piedsyou can see about in Britain at the moment tend to look a scruffy mix of moulting birds.

n.b. note the extensive dark grey streaking on belly, never shown by alba to this extent, making this a straightforward yarrellii even when the rump is not visible (thanks to Peter Adriaens).

Here’s the same bird with the best clue as to its identity:


1) grey crown = 1st winter Pied or ad female/ 1st winter White.

2) Moult contrast in greater coverts = first winter.

3) Black on lower rump= Pied.

Answer: first winter Pied Wagtail. Fanad, Donegal, August 2005.

So to a scarier bird in the next 2 photos:

When I first saw this I thought I had found a young White Wagtail amoung the Pied Wagtails. It has a uniform grey crown and nape and seems to have moulted out most/ all of its juvenile head and breast pattern. It also looks to have all juvenile greater coverts. However with patient watching I could see that the rump area was extensively blackish. A 1st winter Pied Wagtail, most probably a female. Fanad, Donegal, August 2005.

Here’s what I think is another first winter Pied Wagtail in obvious moult.

1st winter Pied Wagtail, Fanad, Donegal, August 2005.  I was a bit more cautious with this one as not all 1st winter/ ad female Pied are easy to age. There is plenty of information if not always easy to interpret. I find the difference between juvenile and 2nd generation tertials really tricky. The blackish rump patch is clearly there. Lots of young Pied Wagtails have this scruffy/ moulting appearance at this time of year. Young White Wagtails in contrast tend to look much cleaner and neater.

So compare all that juvenile/ 1st winter Pied Wagtail stuff against the bird at Spurn on 31st August:

On first views this bird looked ‘longer’/ sleeker and much neater, slightly more pallid plumage than young Pieds (2 broods feeding outside my caravan). The entire crown was grey, lacking a white forehead or obvious black patches. A good start of jizz and overall plumage patterns pointing towards ‘White’. Then the wing looks like its mostly retained juvenile feathers, lacking the scruffy moult or moult contrast of many Pieds. Finally the pale grey lower rump (of similar tone to rest of upperparts) nails the identification as White.

Then it flew and called, as I have heard before sounding slightly different to Pied, I haven’t entirely worked out why I think that yet! More pics of the same bird:

1st winter White Wagtail Spurn, East Yorkshire, 31st August 2011

and lastly adult Pied Wagtails in autumn:

I think this is an adult female Pied Wagtail but I am not 100% sure. Some 1st winter and ad female (winter) Pied Wagtails can be very hard to tell apart in the field. The black on the crown and breast looked more well defined than obvious young birds around. There is no obvious moult contrast/ retained juvenile feather in the wing (though it’s partly obscured).  It looks (just about visible), as if the outer primaries are missing/ regrowing and it would therefore be in primary moult, which a first winter wouldn’t be. Any one disagree?

Adult male Pied Wagtail, Fanad, Donegal, August 2005. (photos above and below). Reading some modern literature you might think there was too much grey here for a male. I think though this is actually normal for adult male Pieds in autumn to look like this. Grey tips that wear off to be mostly blackish in spring. The huge area of white in the wing coverts is a very male feature.

Still one of the most accessible accounts on Pied and White Wagtail ID- in Witherby’s ‘Handbook‘. Now more than half a century old. Plate from Witherby:

6 thoughts on “1st winter White Wagtail Identification

  1. Pingback: A flock of Pied Wagtails - Page 3 - Wild About Britain

  2. Pingback: First-winter White Wagtails | Birding Frontiers

  3. Jarmo Pirhonen

    Dear Martin,
    I wonder pattern of lesser secondary coverts in juvenile Pied Wagtail photographed in Fanad, Donegal. It has almost blackish lesser coverts, not very typical for White Wagtail. In White, they seem to be dark grey in photographs. I checked also photographs of White from book by Jenni and Winkler, and there, colour is dark grey in White Wagtail. I also checked book by Alström and Mild Pipits and Wagtails, and Dutch Birding paper, without any mention about colour of lesser coverts in juvenile Pied. May be worthy to study more?
    Best wishes

    Jarmo Pirhonen


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