Wacky Pied Wagtails

Helgoland  Day 2

Bird race day. Before I wax lyrical about the Helgoland bird race, just thought I had better draw a line under this curious bird. Into the afternoon (22nd October) and we were once again enjoying the amazing variety of passerines feeding on Kelp Flies on North beach, when we came across this alba wagtail. Amoung a small group of White Wagtails, it had a strong, unusually marked face pattern. Original post here. I was a little dismissive to start with, mumbling something about immature face patterns, but interest grew and soon we were asking more questions than we had answers for. Others were alerted of ‘interesting alba‘ and soon a crowd had gathered. It DID have smoky rather more yarrellii-like flanks and having watched it for a while it was clear much of the rump was blackish. Nevertheless Felix Jachmann and I persevered in getting some sound recordings– just in case. Magnus Robb analysised these and came back with:

“Hi Martin, that is certainly one weird looking wagtail! I’ve done some measurements on the recording with 7 clear calls and came up with average values of 83.9ms for the time from the start of the first not to the start of the second, and 122.3ms for the total call length. These values are typical for alba and yarrellii, even a bit on the quick side, and make it unlikely that subpersonata is involved here. the latter has equivalent averages of 106ms and 172ms respectively, at least in the 27 calls of around 4 individuals that I measured for the article in Dutch Birding.”

Sure it’s ‘just’ a Pied Wagtail. These are the kinds of bird I learn from– and I personally hadn’t come across one like this before. Thankfully other sharp eyes had, and I got some great correspondence from Gary W, Mark L. Martin C and Peter A.

Thanks very much indeed! See below.

Here’s the bird:
Pied Wagtail, North Beach, Helgoland, October 2011 © Jochen Dierschke

Pied Wagtail, North Beach, Helgoland, October 2011 © Thomas Langenberg (3 photos above)

Very helpful correspondents

Hi Martin
I just read your latest post and thought you might like to see these pics of a Pied Wagtail I took on the patch in Sept 2009, I was struck by the subpersonata -like head pattern, but everything else seemed quite yarrellii, so it went down as an odd pied wag, quite similar looking to your Helgoland bird

Gary Woodburn

 Hi Martin,
Although not directly relevant since it was in Spring, but in April 2010 a Moroccan White Wagtail was reported to me, as island recorder, here in Guernsey. It did look unusual but I decided that it was probably just an odd-plumaged immature Pied Wagtail. Here are a couple of links to my blog with some pictures of the bird.


Cheers Mark Lawlor

Hi Martin,
Far be it from me, as a continental birder, to tell a knowledgeable British birder what yarrellii may look like, but have you seen this little paragraph from the wagtail paper (http://www.digimages.info/bergri/Wagtails_MotacillaAlba&Yarrellii_DB32-4_2010.pdf) ?
It is crammed in somewhere towards the bottom of page 15.

Another feature may occasionally be seen
on the ear-coverts: a few autumn yarrellii show a
solid, extensively blackish patch here, joining the
blackish nape with the black gorget (plate 322).
Such a dark and extensive pattern, which may
even recall Moroccan Wagtail M subpersonata, is
only rarely matched by alba. Very occasionally,
yarrellii may show blackish lores in autumn, which
is not normally shown by alba.

 I include photos of two different birds, both yarrellii from England I also remember that Mike O’Keeffe photographed a similar bird in Ireland back in 2008. Photos of it are on Surfbirds: here 
 The Helgoland bird seems to be the most extreme so far though.
Best wishes, Peter

Peter Adriaens

Hello Martin
Had noticed the Helgoland wagtail photos and then your comments on it. I don’t think it’s too unusual to see peculiar head patterns like this; I spent a bit of time a few autumns ago (mainly trying to sort out Pied vs White) photographing albas and attached are three photos of somewhat similar Pieds where the black bleeds across the ear-coverts between the bib to the nape (all at Portland Bill; dates on the photos)

Martin Cade

Pied Wagtail, Portland, Dorset, 4th October 2006 © Martin Cade

Pied Wagtail, Portland, Dorset, 12th October 2006 © Martin Cade

Pied Wagtail, N.E. England, September 2009 © Gary Woodburn (above 2 photos)

Pied Wagtail twitch ; )  North Beach, Helgoland, October 2011 © Jochen Dierschke

Of all folk there it was probably me that should have known better coming as I do from an island full of Pied Wagtails! White Wagtail is the commoner taxon on Helgoland, though there was at least one adult male Pied Wagtail on the island at the same time (heavily twitched!). There are also (increasing) records of Pied/ White hybrids.

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