The Monthly Web Magazine for Birdwatchers   
Home Bird Guide Features Birding news and events Bird reserves Birdwatching Clubs Mystery Bird Quiz Birdwatching FAQ's Bird Shop
 Grey Wagtail - Fact File

Grey Wagtail
summer: female (left), male

Motacilla cinerea
Widespread resident. Retreats from upland areas to some extent in winter.
Breeds along fast running rivers and streams, mostly in hilly country. In winter also round still water in lowlands.

Very long tail (longer than Yellow and Pied Wagtails). Grey back, yellow breast and male has black chin. In winter, both sexes lack black chin, and show much less yellow on breast.

18 - 20 cm (7 - 8")

Grey Wagtail

When I visited Breydon in early November, the most unexpected bird was a splendid grey wagtail heading inland across the marshes. The Birds of Great Yarmouth (1993) describes it as a 'passage migrant in very small numbers, scarce in winter... most records refer to singles passing high overhead calling.'

Typically, the grey wagtail favours fast-running upland and mountain streams. Here in Norfolk, old watermills provide attractice alternatives.

In winter the bird usually appears singularly. In Norwich individuals may be found at the sites of Trowse and Hellesdon watermills, in the vicinity of city bridges spanning the Wensum and on flat roofs in the city centre where rainwater accumulates. It would be interesting to learn where local examples spend the long winter nights.

Elsewhere in the country an exceptionally large reedbed roost in Hampshire once held over 180 grey wagtails in company with 100 pied wagtails. Not surprisingly the grey wagtail is a scarce nester in Norfolk.

The county population is now known to have exceeded 20 pairs including up to three pairs in the centre of Norwich, and two pairs in both Thetford and West Acre. In 1963 following 10 weeks of Arctic weather with biting easterly winds and exceptionally severe frosts, only two grey wagtail nesting localities were mentioned in the Norfolk Bird Report.

I always enjoy watching a grey wagtail: each movement is so graceful and delicate. Tail-wagging is almost incessant and accentuated by its considerable length.

Feeding at the water's edge, it moves with a dainty walk, ever changing direction, dipping head and neck forward at every step and careless if the water flows over its feet.

It may pause a few moments before running again at a surprising speed. At times it may dart into the air after a passing insect showing remarkable agility - a mere flash of black, white, grey and golden-yellow.

Insects form the bulk of the diet even in winter though occasionally minnows are also taken. Unlike other wagtails the grey regularly perches in trees, especially when disturbed while feeding. There it remains quite still for as long as the observer is visible.

.By Michael J Seago

Return to Bird Guide Index

Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.