All hail the wagtail

All hail the wagtail

Grey wagtail photographed next to the Floodgates Pool, Sudbury, by Ron Smith

It is a bird I look out for on the common lands every summer.
The grey wagtail is a stunning creature, small and sleek with grey and black feathers on its back and a gorgeous yellow underbelly, and of course, a long dark tail that it wags constantly.
The grey wagtail is a bird of the uplands, favouring fast flowing hill streams and rivers, and certainly when it ventures to low-lying areas, such as Sudbury’s meadows, you are most likely to find it near running water. Over the years I have watched grey wagtails hop and scurry around the water outflow next to the mill pond, by the floodgates and along the salmon leap feeding off water invertebrates and insects.
I have visited these locations a number of times in recent weeks without seeing any grey wagtails. Sudbury Common Land Rangers tell me they have seen them but I haven’t been so lucky. One evening, I thought I had spotted a wagtail on the salmon leap where a giant willow tree has fallen across the fence and covered part of the structure, but it was in fact the bright yellow flower of a lily pad showing through the branches.

I am reliably informed that several decades ago there were six pairs of grey wagtails breeding throughout the meadows. Our rangers check out and clean the nesting locations, often holes in brick walls, in the winter, so they are ready for the following spring. While this lovely bird still inhabits the meadows, it is not in these numbers anymore – their decline mirroring the drop in numbers of other birds, such as flycatchers.
My search for a grey wagtail this year ended in Long Melford during a long walk last weekend. On a small weir in a concealed stream, I was treated to the sight of a pair busying themselves in the shallow water – a female and male, who in summer can be distinguished from his partner by the black bib under his chin.
What a delightful bird, one that is a joy to behold and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. In flight, just like its black and white coloured cousin the pied wagtail, the grey wagtail is equally fun – moving through the air in a wave pattern, rising and swooping in tight undulations. I have seen green woodpeckers and magpies fly in a similar formation and have no idea if there is a practical reason for this style – but I suspect the birds are just enjoying themselves and rejoicing in their aerobatic freedom.

Pied wagtail, credit PIXABAY

I must also offer a word or two about the pied wagtail, which is equally delightful and a bird that seems at home near to people. You may see them in groups on open parkland and fields, but they have also adapted to search for insects on concrete and asphalt like car parks, roofs and pavements. I regularly see one of these black and white beauties in Sudbury’s marketplace milling with passers-by outside Greggs!!!!!
The Latin name for the pied wagtail is Motacilla – a diminutive of motare, “to move about”, and you rarely see them standing still. They are forever shuffling around and nodding their head before breaking into a short sprint, their tiny legs moving quickly beneath them like the roadrunner from the Looney Tunes cartoons.
If we are talking movement, a characteristic of all three of Britain’s breeding wagtails – the pied, grey and yellow (which I have never seen in this area) – are their constantly wagging tails. Although, I must add here, that I have always found this term a misnomer. Surely, the term wagtail suggests a side-to-side motion, whereas, in fact, the birds pump their rear appendage up and down.
Other birds exhibit this behaviour, most notably on our riverside the moorhen that cannot move very far without flicking up its tail to reveal a highly visible patch of white feathers.
There have been several theories put forward to explain this behaviour: one suggestion is that tail wagging helps the bird capture its insect prey by flushing it out; another is that tail wagging is used to mark social status.
A theory I particularly like is that the wagtail wags to signal to predators that it is healthy and vital. By flicking its rear feathers athletically, the bird is saying “There’s no point trying to catch me because I’m too alert and quick for you.”
Studies have shown that the frequency of tail movement increases in the presence of predators. I like to think it is a lovely show of confidence from this most lively and spirited family of birds.

Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity