Category Archives: b) Wagtails

First-winter White Wagtails

Details of wing and rump and tail

Sometimes a single image just does it!

Justin Carr, our keen pioneering digiscoper  – Mr. ‘in-fight’ shot – has taken a cracker (and it’s not in flight!).  Two first-winter White Wagtails on a recent trip to Turkey.


In the next couple of weeks first-winter White Wagtail pass through Britain- often undetected. They are tricky. We have covered the subject here in some detail in the past. Have another look HERE.

Or just have a look more closely at Justin’s image. Critically the rump tones of grey are well captured, but also all that detail in the outer tail pattern (average differences from Pied), and in the wings.

South Landing beach at Flamborough has a whole bunch of young alba wagtails feeding there right now and the babies from the hybrid Pied X White pairing near my house must be somewhere nearby. Time to go do some learning…

White wagtail justin carr (1 of 1)


Two first-winter White Wagtails showing off all their more subtle ID features. Turkey, August 2015. Justin Carr.

Spanish Wagtail X Blue-headed Wagtail

“Central Atlantique” Yellow Wagtails – flava x iberiae

by Eugene Archer

Yellow Wagtail_3241

Hi Martin,

Hope all are well there ?

Regarding the Filey wagtail I find it a bit difficult to judge exactly the colour of the upperparts, especially around the head so I don’t know if this will be of much use but here’s something else to muddle up the possibilities:
In western France (essentially from the Gironde up the Loire valleys) there is a fairly stable population (maybe 30% in some areas) of intergrade Yellow Wagtails showing plumage characters of both Blue-headed flava and Spanish iberiae. These bird are usually referred to as “Central atlantique” Yellow Wagtails locally.

Yellow Wagtail_1330Classic examples look basically like a normal flava but with a pure white throat. The blue-grey crown and nape are sometimes a little darker and often there is a prominent white sub-ocular crescent. It has also been suggested that 2CY birds may be more prone to exhibiting a full white throat. I’ve seen individuals with slightly contrastingly darker ear-coverts but not quite the full mid-grey and dark-grey head pattern of typical iberiae as it were. They give raspy calls too, like a lot of the birds around here, but I don’t have any recordings of them unfortunately.

Philippe Dubois wrote an interesting article on Yellow Wagtails in France in Ornithos, vol 8-2: 44-73 (2001) which covers the various intergrades including those on the Mediterranean coast (iberiae x cinereocapilla) which apparently can show the full range of mixed characters !

A few photos attached to show various birds from the Loire estuary region , some with variable amounts of yellow suffusions on the lower throat, some with more or less prominent supercilliums, etc. etc. ! Complicated, eh 😉

All the best,


yellow wagtail_5080yellow wagtail_5096yellow wagtail_8138yellow wagtail_5074Yellow Wagtail_1332


all photos above by Eugene Archer

Spanish Wagtail: iberiae

What they look like…

Trevor Charlton has taken these images in Morocco and Western Sahara in recent years. Most look like straight iberiae – ‘Spanish Wagtail‘. They give a good idea of the appearance and some of the variety to be found. The Filey bird looks very similar. Trevor describes the call as “To my ears, the call is rasping, often loud, sometimes uttered aggressively and repeatedly.

Have a look at these lovely images:

spanish 1 (1 of 1) spanish 3 (1 of 1) spanish 4 (1 of 1) spanish 5 (1 of 1) spanish 6 (1 of 1)

Here’s the Filey bird again:

spanish 8 (1 of 1) spanish 9 (1 of 1)

This next one taken in NW Africa by trevor is a little paler headed, at least in the photo:spanish 7 (1 of 1)


and this next one may be a cinereocapilla– Ashy-headed Wagtail.spanish 2 (1 of 1)

Spanish Wagtail

iberiae or no?

This afternoon Mark Pearson, busy writing ‘in the field’ had this flava wagtail drop in front of him. Speaking to him about it and then seeing the photos- yikes! I would be pretty pumped up to find one such. The plumage- crisp white throat with no ‘bleed’ of yellow on lower border, skinny white supercilium and Mark’s call description sound appealingly good. Please may it be seen again and sound recording obtained!

Mark writes:

“A brief but close encounter with this little beauty at a small wetland near the Dams here in Filey this afternoon. With conditions, time of the season and the glut of southern European overshoots further south, I’ve been hammering the patch accordingly – to no avail, until this afternoon. As well what seems like a very promising suite of characters, the bird also delivered an interestingly un-flava-like call several times….


More photos on Mark’s Blog


eIMG_5903a eIMG_5949a



Isn’t Evolution Brilliant?

By Terry

 “One of the most exciting discoveries I have been involved with” – Professor Per Alström  

This was how Per described the results of his latest research, released last week.

Coming from the man who, among other things, discovered the breeding grounds of the enigmatic Blackthroat in China, not to mention several species of bird new to science, this was quite a statement.

And so, unusually for me, I read a scientific report from front to back. And it reminded me – as if I needed reminding – just how brilliant are nature and evolution.

Per’s report – based on DNA analysis – reveals that two little-known forest-dwelling birds are actually members of the pipits and wagtails family, evolving very different appearance and behavior after colonizing tropical-forested islands.

The Madanga Madanga ruficollis, occurring exclusively on the island of Buru, Indonesia, is actually a pipit (Anthus) and the São Tomé Shorttail Amaurocichla bocagi is a wagtail (Motacilla). The strikingly different appearance of these birds, compared with their closest relatives, has totally obscured their true relationships.

Madanga ruficollis © Rob Hutchinson

The Madanga, formerly considered an aberrant-looking white-eye (!) is actually a pipit, displaying plumage not resembling any of the world’s 40 species of Anthus. Photo by Rob Hutchinson/Birdtour Asia

Tree Pipit Israel April © Göran Ekström

A more ‘traditional’ pipit – a Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis). Photo by Göran Ekström.



The Sao Tome Shorttail (Amaurocichla bocagi) is actually a wagtail. Photo by Fabio Olmos (

2014-04-06 White Wagtail ssp baicalensis2, Ma Chang

A more ‘traditional’ wagtail – a White Wagtail (ssp baicalensis).

As well as plumage, the Madanga and São Tomé Shorttail have different habitat choice and feeding style from pipits and wagtails. Both inhabit primary forest, where the former feeds like a nuthatch on epiphyte-covered branches and tree-trunks, while the latter feeds both on the ground and on tree trunks and branches. In contrast, nearly all pipits and wagtails occur in open habitats, and all forage exclusively on the ground.

The suggestion is that the radically different appearances of these birds were triggered by the fundamental shifts in habitat and feeding behaviour following their colonisation of forest-covered tropical islands. This is estimated to have happened around 4 and 3.3 million years ago, respectively.

The presumption is that the birds’ ancestors were long distance migratory species that landed on the islands and became established, despite the alien habitat.

These islands were probably totally covered by forest when these birds’ ancestors first arrived, which is a very unfamiliar habitat to pipits and wagtails,” Professor Alström said.

Two of the closest relatives to the Madanga are the European Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis) and the Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni), which, although breeding in forested areas, nest and feed on the ground.

“Although the Madanga’s plumage is very different, interestingly, the structure of the bird is quite similar to the Tree Pipit and we believe that the ancestor of the Madanga was pre-adapted to this new niche it became established within.” – Professor Per Alström 


Tree Pipits are very good at creeping through dense vegetation on the ground. When they are startled and flushed from the vegetation, they often fly up into a tree and they will sit there or they are able to walk quite effortlessly along bigger branches. But they never feed up in the trees, so the hypothesis here is that the ancestor of the Madanga would come to the island of Buru, which was completely covered in forest, and it might have fed on the ground between the trees but then would fly up into the canopy when it was scared by something. It would have then discovered that there was plenty of food on these epiphyte-covered branches and, as it was pre-adapted to walking along branches and in thick ground cover, it could probably have managed fairly well in that new habitat.”

Prof Alström said that this would have meant that there was no evolutionary pressure for it to evolve a new structure.

For example, if you look at the bill, it is very similar to a Tree Pipit’s, and so are the legs and claws. This means the actual shape of the bird has not changed very much.”



For the full report, see: Alström P, Jønsson KA, Fjeldså J, Ödeen A, Ericson PGP, Irestedt M. 2015 Dramatic niche shifts and morphological change in two insular bird species.R. Soc. open sci.2: 140364. See URL:

And Per Alström’s research page can be accessed here.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Candidate on the Isle of White

Dear Martin,

I live on the Isle of Wight and was out birding with my pal Andy Butler on Sunday (Jan 25th) when we came across the Wagtail attached at the derelict Atherfield Holiday camp, a couple of miles West of Blackgang in South Wight.

Somewhat unexpectedly I must admit.

I was interested to read about the possible Eastern Yellow Wag from Spurn on your excellent website but I have scoured the net for pictures of adults in Winter with no success, or at least nothing which resembles our bird. We only heard it call twice which was a single “tsleep” each time, not much like nominate yellow at all.

The call was not the “sweet” longer single note of Yellow Wagtail and seemed a bit disyllabic and truncated, but again we only heard it twice. I listened to a fair few on the Xeno-Canto site and it most resembled one of the Citrine recordings.

I’ve been birding since I was a small nipper in the late ’50’s and twitching since 69/70 so would be most grateful for any thoughts you or your team might have.
The pictures were taken by Andy, you may have also seen his super shot of one of our Bee Eaters throwing a bee into the air in the National Daily papers last Summer.

Kind regards, Pete Campbell

yellow wag 2a

yellow wag 1aYellow wagtail 4aaAll photos above by Andy Butler

Citrine Wagtail calls analysed

The Barry White of Citrine Wags.

This morning (8th November) Phil (who gave it the Barry moniker) and I went to check out Danes Dyke South- to look for the Citrine Wagtail. Last seen two days ago, the tidewrack at South Landing which had provided food for pipits and wagtails including the Citrine had been almost nearly washed away in the windy/ stormy conditions of two days ago. South Dykes, one mile to the west can keep the higher level tide wrack. It had, and there was the Citrine Wagtail.

First winter Citrine Wagtail South Landing, Flamborough, 6th Nov. 2014. Andy Hood

First winter Citrine Wagtail South Landing, Flamborough, 6th Nov. 2014. Andy Hood

There are some curious things about this bird as already covered. In a nutshell it is:

1) Exceptionally late- about the 4th November record in Britain ever

2) It has a distinct orangey bill base- more usually associated with flava wagtails

3) The call seemed odd, deeper and ‘fuller’ than typical Citrine

Late birds often come from further east… There are several potential explanations. The plumage and call are too close to Citrine to me to invoke the hybrid explanation. Normal variation, say a young bird with pale bill base may explain it (though have no data on such young birds)? However my preferred working hypothesis is that it’s from a less well-known breeding population– perhaps further east than our usual records. Intriguingly this record of Citrine Wagtail on Vancouver Island (2nd record for North America) was coincidentally (or not) a vagrant in mid November with similar orangey bill base pattern.

The call really is also definitely unusual. Following the field impression of three of us Flamborough regulars that it sounded a little odd for Citrine (and some friends commenting here on the blog), the sonogram seemed to bear that out. So I asked some Dutch guys who have been looking into the calls of Citrine and eastern flavas for some time. Thanks to Nils van Duivendijk, Sander Bot and especially Dick Groenendijk

Hi Martin,

I just looked through the recording of the Flamborough Citrine Wagtail. I looked at the recording where eight calls can be heard and these calls are all rather low pitched. I compared the calls with some of my own recordings and after some measurements it seems that the Flamborough wagtail called more than 1 kHz lower compared with other recordings of Citrine Wagtail. The average maximum frequency of the Flamborough bird is 6.6 kHz, whereas I am used to see recordings of Citrine Wagtail with maximum frequencies well above 7.5 kHz.

When looking to sonogram structure, this looks OK for me for Citrine. The first ascending part with two very close parallel lines, the length of both legs roughly similar and for most of the eight calls in the recording the rather blunt-tipped ‘n’ shape. Note that the descending second part of the call looks rather solid and that the modulations are only proper visible at the maximum frequency, which also suits Citrine much better compared with an eastern yellow wagtail. The first and to a lesser extend also the fifth flight call looks a bit more pointed (like in Eastern Yellow Wagtail), but I have found some more flight calls of Citrine showing this feature and I think this is best explained by variation.

Although (very) low pitched, structure of the sonograms looks to me pretty good for Citrine Wagtail.

Dick Groenendijk

Citrine Wagtail sonagram 6th Nov 2014 2nd half


Have another listen to the call: