The White Wagtail

By Richard Hoath

Everyone has their own idea as to when winter really begins. Perhaps it is when the traffic police swap their white summer plumage for somber black. Maybe it is when the air-conditioner is switched to warm or when the ceiling fan becomes redundant. But for me, winv6-5ter starts with the arrival of the White Wagtails from their northern breeding grounds. And to my delight, the irrigated gardens, though embryonic, seem to be providing the White Wagtails with ideal habitat on the New Campus.

The White Wagtail Motacilla alba is a small bird of immense character. It is a slim long-tailed bird, 18cm long and largely grey and white with a white face and a blackish band across the upper breast. In the winter male the crown and nape are black, in the female grey. The tail is long and black with white margins. It is one of the more sensibly named birds in that it does indeed wag its tail, particularly vigorously when nervous or agitated. In flight the White Wagtail appears slender, the flight bounding and often accompanied by a distinctive call variously interpreted as tslee-wee or tslee-vit.

Like most wagtails, the White Wagtail is often associated with damp or waterside habitats. However it is an adaptable species and in many parts of its range it is a familiar urban bird with roosts, sometimes of many thousands of birds, gathering in city centers and it is now frequently found far from running water. The gardens of the New Campus provide these winter visitors with ideal new habitat in what would otherwise have been an unsuitable environment. Like all wagtails, and their close relatives the pipits, they are insect eaters. I saw my first New Campus wagtails at the beginning of November, two flying over the square outside HUSS and Admin before my 8.30 class adding a welcome bit of zip to the early morning. Listen out for that call.

Wagtails do indeed wag their tails but scientists really do not understand why. Theories range from it being a form of communication between individuals or species recognition to a distraction to potential predators. Whatever, it makes them one of the most readily identifiable groups of birds and for that, every birdwatcher used to battling with the complexities of such difficult groups as larks or warblers, is very, very grateful.

 

Alstrom, Per and Krister Mild. Pipits and Wagtails London: Christopher Helm, 2003.

Beaman, Mark and Steve Madge. The Handbook of Bird Identification London: Christopher Helm, 1998.

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