Spring Birding: The Quest for White Wagtail

Out of the White Wagtail complex 4 out of the 11 races have been documented in UK & Ireland: White (alba), Pied (yarrelli), Amur (leucopsis) & most recently Masked (personata). Where as Amur & Masked are vagrants Pied Wagtails are the dominant race in the UK & Ireland with the dominant global race White Wagtail occurring as a passage bird with the occasional wintering bird or even hybridisation with our resident Pied.

For many the White Wagtail is a true sign of Spring like that of Barn Swallow, Northern Wheatear, Common Chiffchaff & Sand Martin, however unlike that of its fellow spring migrants the White Wagtail requires a bit more expertise when identifying in the field. So ladies & gentleman, here's a list of key features to keep an eye out for whilst out in the field:

Key Features:

Adult male White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba) - Image - Elliot Montieth
  • Mantle & Rump: Compared to that of our resident Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrelli), which mantle tone shades from a dark grey (♀) to a coal black (♂), the White Wagtail has a much paler, cleaner and eye catching grey which unlike that of the Pied's has a clear cut when the mantle connects with the jet black nape instead on grading into that of Pied's. The same story applies to the rump with Pied's holding a black-dark grey where as White's reflects that of the pale grey mantle. The sex will also affect the fuses into the mantle: with White Wagtails males have a sharp boarder (as shown above), which in contrasts to female swiftly grades.
Adult male White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba) - Not the best shot of a White's however in extremely lighting it does the paleness of the mantle with a sharp clean cut when it makes contact with the black nap as well as pale grey-white flanks and a "neat" bib. (Image - Elliot Montieth)

male Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrelli) -  A dirty breast, sooty flanks, black mantle which is same shade as that of cap & mantle makes it impossible for this to be Whites (Image - Elliot Montieth)
  • Flank & Belly: Another feature, that at times can cause conflict over integration between female Pied's and that of White's. As you can see in the images posted that the flanks of that of Pied Wagtail range from that of a dark-medium toned grey with mottled black, which 

  • Bib:With ties to that of already mentioned features (Mantle, Flanks & Belly), the black "bib" which extends from the throat down to the breast is an obvious but like that of the flanks at time a conflicting feature. By observing the images featured then you should be able to pick up on the fact that on Pied Wagtails bib grades into the flanks and belly, however with White Wagtail this isn't the case as theirs very much like the mantle-nap, has a clean cut and appears "neat".  
Female Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrelli) - To some this might seem like a White Wagtail however a prominent black rump & dusky flanks prove this bird to be of British race yarrelli & not that of White alba (Image - Elliot Montieth)

Female Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrelli) - A classic female Pied Wagtail that's mantle is noticeability paler than that of the male, however is much darker than that any White's that has traces of black mottles on the mantle and above the medium coverts (Image - Elliot Montieth) 

Adult male White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba) - This image shows a clean white flanked individual with the characteristic neat, sharp black bib (Image - Ben Moyes) 

Thanks for reading folks and hope that this post has helped you and hopefully you'll go out now and find your very own!


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