Black and White Wagtails

April 28th 2022

Black and White Wagtails

Swallows seem to grab the headlines about returning for the summer to breed, but this year they have been very noticeable, so far, by their very late showing in any number. (28 Apr. 2022)

However, one of Assynt’s earliest returning migrant breeding birds is in fact the Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrellii. The first Assynt record of them each year is typically mid to late February.

Most of the bird books will tell you that the Pied Wagtail’s status in the UK is ‘Resident’ or ‘Present all year’. Okay, as a species it is present in the UK all year. However, they certainly depart Assynt in the winter and head south. They are in and around Ullapool all year but our birds are more likely to leap frog the Wester Ross birds and make their way to the south coast.

One adult bird that indicates this happens was recorded at Culkein Drumbeg on 23 April 2011. It had a series of small coloured rings on its legs. These had been put on the bird in Weymouth, Dorset on 1 March 2010. At that time it was less than a year old. Young birds can be aged from their feathers.

As Pied Wagtails almost certainly return to their natal area to breed it must have hatched here in 2009, migrated to Weymouth, spent the winter there and was ringed for its troubles! So, by the time it was recorded in Assynt it very probably had migrated four times, the fourth time being early 2011. (Hatched 2009 Assynt[?] – winter 2009/10 Weymouth – summer 2010 Assynt[?] – winter 2010/11 Weymouth[?] – summer 2011 Assynt).

Another variable

Just to help make life even more confusing there is another species of black and white wagtail that gets seen in Assynt. This one is the White Wagtail M. alba alba and it is definitely a migrant. It’s actually a passage migrant. Passage meaning it stops to feed on its spring and autumn migrations but doesn’t breed here.

When we see White Wagtails in the spring they are on their way to Iceland to breed. The autumn sightings are when they are migrating south again to spend the winter in north Africa.

A quick aid to help you tell the spring male birds of Pied and White apart is probably most easily shown in the two attached photos. The spring females can also be identified fairly easily, but that’s for another story, maybe!

Once the autumn migration is underway things get much more complicated. It is then very common to have the adults of both species in winter plumage, and of course the juveniles of both species. They can all be on the beach at Culkein Stoer at the same time, black and white wagtails everywhere!

The joys of birding.


David Haines

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