Bird of the Month – Yellow Wagtail
There are three species of wagtail that we’re likely to see here in Andalucia; white, grey and yellow.
Of these the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is an abundant winter visitor and a trip to wet or coastal grasslands and marshes will reveal many thousands, some in large flocks and whilst it’s a scarce breeder here, most will have now departed.
The Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) is another scarce breeding species and as it favours rocky watercourses, is most likely to be seen at altitude in our sierras.
The Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) is a summer breeding species, arriving in early spring and departing in late autumn, by which time the wagtail niches will be filled with the returning white wagtails.
The Yellow Wagtail is a bird of many faces and plumages, divided into two main species – the western and eastern. Within this species classification are numerous subspecies with often distinctive features.
In general terms the yellow wagtail appears a little smaller and shorter tailed than its relatives, particularly cinerea. The male of the nominate form (M.f. flava) is a glorious saturated yellow beneath, with olive green mantle and back, whilst the head is bluish grey with a white supercillium.
Some of the subspecies show quite distinctive variations from this basic pattern, in Andalucía the Iberian Yellow Wagtail (M.f. iberiae) is present and is the one that breeds here. Iberiae is found in the south west of France, Iberia and in N Africa and as a trans-Saharan migrant it spends its winter in Gambia and the Central African Republic.
The males of Iberiae resemble the nominate but have a stronger grey back and mantle with a white chin and throat and as such, can be misidentified as a grey wagtail. This confusion often arises with British bird watchers who are familiar with flavissima, the race found there and along Channel coasts, which is more strongly yellow/olive in character. In common with the other subspecies the females of Iberiae are duller and in this case with darker cheeks and whiter chin.
To add to the possible confusion there are a further seven subspecies breeding in Europe, that can and do turn up here in Iberia and there are even intermediates between those subspecies that occur where the races meet. It is worth scanning the yellow wagtails, particularly during passage for these unusual visitors.
The ‘song’ of the Yellow Wagtail is a couple of scratchy notes repetitively delivered from a low perch, whilst the sharp call is an insistent sound in the breeding grounds. At this time of year their simple vocalisations blend in with corn bunting, lark and pipit forming an irresistible chorus amongst our open spaces.
It is a species associated with, though not tied to water; damp meadows, ditches, irrigated fields, marshes and lake margins are where you’d expect to find them as well as in drier pastures and harvested cereal fields. This association with water and the bobbing action may have contributed to the Spanish name of Lavandera boyera (washer woman).
This is a mainly ground dwelling species where it hunts and nests and is a familiar sight following the red cattle of Andalucía as the hooves kick up and disturb insects. They eat a wide variety of invertebrates both aquatic and terrestrial; sometimes taking flying insects with short sallies into the air somewhat reminiscent of flycatchers.
Shortly after they arrive the males begin displaying to females and defending their territories from other males. These displays involve fluffing out their body feathers, dropping the tail and strutting around the female or dashing towards a rival male. Occasionally, if the threat display is not sufficient, males may fight, leaping into the air, pecking and clawing at each other.
Once the pair has formed they remain monogamous throughout the breeding season with the territory being rigorously defended by the male. Within this they will make their nest, which is a shallow scrape or cup on the ground, with the female being largely responsible for this construction. Both male and female incubate the eggs (4-6) and once hatched they both feed the young too.
It is a species that is showing a modest decline in its range, though with 7,000,000 breeding pairs across Europe it remains common. The declines are almost certainly associated with intensification and draining of farmland, particularly a move towards intensive arable farming with an increase in the use of pesticides.
Having said this, like several species of open country birds showing serious declines in other parts of Europe, the Yellow Wagtail is a familiar and abundant component of Iberian grasslands and marshes.
Article: Neil A Hill
Photos: Peter Jones
Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.