A confusion of wagtails - distinguishing an elegant trio
Of all of our native birds, none are as misleadingly named as the wagtails. Yes, they do all wag their tails but that’s the only helpful bit of the name. Take the grey wagtail for example. A bird of unrivalled elegance, with one of the longest tails of any of our small birds, it is a classic example of poetry in motion. However, the word grey is totally misleading. Though the back may be grey, the most obvious feature is the bright yellow under-tail. ‘Yellow wagtail’ would be a much better name.
The trouble is that we already have a yellow wagtail. Unlike the grey wagtail, the yellow is a summer migrant from tropical Africa and is a bird that likes damp meadows rather than rivers and streams. Just to confuse the issue, yellow wagtails are a brilliant yellow when they arrive in the spring but autumn-plumaged birds are much duller and youngsters hardly show a touch of yellow at all.
A cock pied wagtail is aptly named for his plumage really is pied. However, females and juveniles are grey rather than pied, so once again their official name is misleading. Pied wagtails can be found in a great variety of habitats from muddy farmyards to school playing fields.
Of this trio only the pied is a regular garden visitor, though if your garden is close to a stream you may be favoured with appearances from grey wagtails. Their preferred habitat is the fast-flowing hill stream but in south-east England they can often be found around mill ponds or weirs. Grey wagtails are doing rather well in Britain at the moment, and in winter often turn up in unlikely places, including gardens.