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 Yellow Wagtail - Fact File
Yellow Wagtail
Montacilla flava
Summer visitor to lowlands, mainly in eastern and central England. Population declining.
Favoured habitat is lowland meadows and wetlands edges.

Male has bright yellow underparts, greenish above. Female paler and duller. Tail much shorter than grey wagtail (which also has yellow underparts).

17 cm (6.5")

Yellow Wagtail

By Michael J. Seago

Among the host of summer migrants to Norfolk's wetlands few are more attractive than the yellow wagtail. Wintering in West Africa, the birds return during April and May.

All wagtails are dainty, delicate birds but the yellow is the most graceful of them all. When spring-time parties appear in the marshes the males are wonderfully brilliant.

Running nimbly within inches of grazing cattle, their slight bodies are often hidden, but bright colours, golden as dandelions, catch the eye.

Then for no apparent reason, birds rise suddenly and head for the nearest trees. After perching a few moments, they drop back one by one into the marsh. Here, with flirting tail and a to-and-fro motion of the head each bird hunts insects disturbed by the stock.

Depending on weather conditions, large groups of spring migrant yellow wagtails may halt briefly on the coast. I once chanced upon 80 at Salthouse. An hour later all had departed westward. On another occasion between 400 and 500 were seen briefly at Cley.

Display flights between rival cocks occupy much of the birds' time on the breeding grounds. You may see two males dancing in the air with fluttering wings, pecking and clawing at each other. Courtship ceremonies are delightful: the cock slowly circles the hen with puffed-out breast feather, depressed wings and fanned tail. At times he hangs suspended in the air, hovering with widely spread tail.

The vast Yare basin drained by the Yare, Bure and Waveney represent the largest low-lying coastal grazing marsh in this country. Until very recently, the pattern of land-use had hardly changed since the levels were enclosed by dykes 200 years ago. A survey by the RSPB found that the Yare basin was of national importance for yellow wagtails and more than 450 breeding pairs were recorded. The Ouse Washes are also very important and as many as 300 territories have been located. On more than one occasion the majority of pairs have lost nests during late spring flooding.

Yellow wagtail families begin flocking early in August, especially near the coast. Impressive assemblies of 300 have been reported at Denver and at Horsey. In the autumn of 1990 a vast roost was discovered in reed-covered ponds edging the lower Waveney. At its peak it contained 750 wagtails. Shortly before sunset the birds began arriving at considerable heights — all calling excitedly. They first alighted on adjoining marshes to preen, feed and sing before entering the roost just before darkness.

The racial complexity of yellow wagtails is most bewildering. Bird-watchers have long been fascinated by the variety of spring male head patterns in the geographical races of yellow wagtail. Examples identical to far and distant races may put in appearances and even breed among wagtails of quite different forms.

Here, normal breeding birds are of a yellow-headed race, but there are occasional pockets of grey headed birds identical to a form breeding in south-east Russia. Despite the problems where two races overlap and intermediate forms, male examples of several races or forms of wagtail have been identified in Norfolk.

Most regular is the elegant blue-headed wagtail in southern Scandinavia and western Europe except the Iberian Peninsula. One recent Spring an unprecedented total of almost 50 passed through Norfolk. Occasionally, blue-heads have nested locally.

The grey-headed wagtail from Scandinavia and Russia has been reported on 70 occasions. The ashy-headed wagtail from Italy and central Mediterranean islands was added to the county list in 1955.


By Michael J. Seago

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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.