Saturday, 3 December 2016

A Welsh Wagtail 2nd December 2016

This was my first venture out birding in Britain since returning from the paradise of palm fringed beaches, warm blue seas and millions of birds that is The Seychelles. The contrast could not have been more stark.

The sunshine, heat and humidity of The Seychelles seemed but a distant fantasy as crossing The Severn Bridge I headed into a grey, cold and murky Welsh dawn. The landscape was austere, with winter very much in evidence as rain and mist surrounded Cardiff and then further on the rolling green fields of mid Wales were sugar coated by a white frost. The trees were bare of leaf, their trunks and larger boughs stark and black in the cold early morning light with each tree crowned by a halo of bare twigs forming a mesh bonnet of countless erratic lines etched against an insipid watercolour sky of grey, white and the occasional streak of palest blue.

My reason for rising before dawn and heading west was to see a Masked Wagtail that appears to have chosen to spend its winter on and around the rooftops of a  row of houses in a tiny village called Camrose which is near Haverford West in Pembroke, West Wales.

Now bear with me while I digress into a little taxonomy to explain what exactly is a Masked Wagtail. The name Masked is colloquial as the bird that the name is applied to is in fact currently classified as a sub species Motacilla alba personata of the more familiar White Wagtail Motacilla alba alba that regularly occurs on spring passage at our very own  Farmoor Reservoir in Oxfordshire and breeds throughout western Europe and Scandinavia. The White Wagtail comprises of ten subspecies of which Masked Wagtail  is but one, although some, very much in the minority consider Masked Wagtail as a species in its own right even though it often interbreeds with two, possibly three of the other sub species of White Wagtail. In fact the whole taxonomic  picture concerning the White Wagtail, just like the Yellow Wagtail is still so confusing that no one really knows definitively what the position is.

We humans are a funny lot as we constantly seek to classify everything be it flora or fauna. In this particular case the Masked Wagtail looks  obviously different to any other wagtail that shows a combination of black, grey and white plumage and in the time before mitochondrial DNA arguably became the  definitive means in ornithology of deciding what is a species and what is not, it would probably have been considered a species based on its plumage differences but with the aid of mitochondrial DNA analysis it has been found that it is very closely related to two other sub species of White Wagtail and so its claim to be a species is currently doomed. Not that the wagtail could give a toss and neither do I,  as to me the main purpose of going to see it was that it is an attractive and interesting bird and one that I have never seen before.

It is hardly surprising I have never seen one as Masked Wagtails breed in Central Asia from the Russian Altai southwest through Kazakhstan and western Mongolia, Xinjiang in China, northwest Kashmir, Pakistan. Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and normally spend the winter in Iran, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, none of which countries apart from China I have ever been to.  

Vagrant individuals have on rare occasions strayed west to Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Bahrain, so for one to arrive in the unlikely location of a small rural village in west Wales is truly exceptional and unsurprisingly this is the first ever record of one being found in Britain, adding yet another unexpected record to an exceptional autumn in Britain, that has seen so many unprecedented arrivals of vagrant birds from Asia.

And what of the Masked Wagtail itself? Its plumage was an attractive combination of black, grey and white. Its white forehead and face sides encompassed by a black hood, the black running down onto its breast. The rest of the upperparts were pure unsullied bluish grey and displaying a large amount of white in the form of an extensive and very noticeable white patch on its forewing created by the all white median and greater coverts, half white half black tertials and white edges to its long tail. The underparts were dull white apart from grey on the flanks. When it flew the large amount of white on the wings became even more obvious. Judging by its plumage I think this was a male and looking closely at its worn wing and tail feathers it would appear to be an adult male.

Seen from behind it is apparent just how much white there is in the wagtail's
plumage. The worn ends to the tail feathers and the faded brown wing feathers
would indicate that this is an adult as a younger bird would have fresher wing
and tail feathers.

Camrose is a small village in a pleasantly rural location accessed through winding lanes just beyond Haverford West and the wagtail, judging from the photos I had seen on the internet was spending most of its time messing around on the roofs of a row of houses fronted by a service road and a small area of grass. At just before nine am I parked  in a sunken lane running below the steep grass bank that led up to the houses. On getting out of the car I noticed two other birders looking down from the top of the bank and beyond my car and there was the wagtail strutting about further down in the middle of the lane. It was not there for long however as a lorry came down the lane and it flew off in alarm.

The lane where I got my first glimpse of the Masked Wagtail
I walked up the steep grass bank to the top and joined some other birders on the flat grassed area opposite the houses and waited. After ten minutes the wagtail arrived, very briefly on the roof top of one of the houses but immediately dived down the other side into a back garden. 

We stood and waited. Fifteen minutes later it returned and landed in the service road between us and the houses and proceeded to work its way along the edge of the road where it joined the path picking ants and other invertebrates from the gutter. It seemed quite content and showed little alarm at the fifteen or so birders looking at it through scopes, bins or taking its picture. A garbage lorry arrived to collect refuse from the houses and the wagtail flew back up onto the roof of one of the houses before again disappearing down the other side.

Ten minutes later it re-appeared in the concreted front garden of another house further down the row and we all transferred there to watch it happily seeking out flies and spiders where the concrete patio joined the wall of the house.

It spent some time dealing with a large fly which, after having finally been swallowed, caused it to pause for a minute or so's reflection before carrying on searching the nooks and crannies in the concrete.

All its actions were, as one would expect, typical of a wagtail and even its call was a very similar cheery melodious chissick as it moved around a localised area comprising the row of houses in front of us, the sunken lane behind us and the larger houses and gardens rising up on the other side of the lane. It was the only wagtail present so was easy to locate and identify and it appeared to have no difficulty in finding food and would sit quietly for some minutes, obviously replete, before resuming its quest for sustenance.

The row of houses we stood in front of were definitely its favoured location and if it disappeared it would always eventually return to these houses after a brief absence. One kind resident came out and invited us into his back garden and even offered us the use of an outside toilet if required.

I suppose because it is not classified as a species and therefore not considered worthy of the attention of serious bird listers it did not attract the large crowd one would normally expect for a first of its kind for Britain.There were never more than fifteen people present at any one time, although possibly there will be more on the weekend and in my opinion those who have so far not made the effort to come and see it have definitely missed out on a really attractive and charismatic bird

By ten thirty I was satisfied and left for the three and a half hour hour drive home while the wagtail wandered up the concrete drive of a house opposite.

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