Monday 18 November 2019

An Eastern Yellow Wagtail in Suffolk 16th November 2019

Eastern Yellow Wagtail c Wrenny
Comparatively recently a taxonomic decision involving the controversies and complexities of the many sub species of Yellow Wagtail has resulted in the Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava being split into two distinct species, namely Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis and Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava, a sub species of which M. flava. flavissima is the one we mostly see here in Britain.

This split has resulted in many birders, myself included, awaiting the first opportunity to add this species to their British list as well as being able to study the subtle differences between the now two species of Yellow Wagtail. For me this opportunity came when an Eastern Yellow Wagtail was identified frequenting Corporation Marshes, by the North Sea at Walberswick in Suffolk.

Eastern Yellow Wagtails breed in temperate Asia but there is said to be a considerable overlap where the two species range meets.To date there are only five accepted records of Eastern Yellow Wagtail in Britain and one in Ireland although this will surely alter as more birders take notice and become more au fait with the diagnostic characters of an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, chief of which is the different call - a raspy buzzing note rather than the pure upwards inflected call of a Western Yellow Wagtail.

My first opportunity to go and look for the Eastern Yellow Wagtail in Suffolk had to be delayed due to my going to see a Steller's Eider in Orkney but this Saturday was free and I made arrangements to go and see it with Paul Wren(Wrenny) who lives not far from me in Oxfordshire.Thankfully Wrenny was happy to drive as only having had two days rest since my return from Orkney I was still feeling the effects of that exhausting journey.

We met at Wrenny's house at 5am on Saturday morning. The weather, always an important factor in birding was predicted to be windless and rain free, in direct contrast to Friday where strong wind and rain had been all too evident.This would be ideal for viewing a small bird inhabiting a huge open area of saltmarsh and extensive shingle banks, sandwiched between the sea and a hinterland of extensive reed beds.

The drive to Suffolk takes just over three hours but seemed a doddle after my exploits in getting to Orkney and we whiled away the time gossiping, as all birders love stories, even when they are repeated endlessly. Our chatting was interrupted with an amusing interlude of getting slightly lost in a motorway services off the M25. Is it just me who finds these places so horribly soulless in the small hours and confusing to drive into and out of, due to the appalling lack of clear signs?

Dawn broke somewhere towards the Essex/Suffolk border and the day was, as predicted still and grey with light cloud. The sun would certainly struggle to show itself today but that would not matter. We followed some precise instructions given to Wrenny by Justin, another Oxonbirder colleague and found ourselves driving down one of those tiny leafy lanes in the middle of nowhere and so typical of East Anglia, eventually reaching our destination, the curiously named Hoist Car Park, which is nothing more than an anonymous pull in by the side of a small wood. We parked on a grass verge underneath the trees, now with leaves of various shades of gold and yellow, forming a wonderfully colourful and soothing autumnal landscape, the ground below carpeted with many fallen leaves, layered like random jigsaw puzzle pieces on the ground.

As instructed by Justin we followed a track through the still and silent wood and then along a short boardwalk bisecting some reeds, emerging onto another track where we turned left and eventually came out of the trees and followed the track, now winding onwards  through vast reed beds on either side of us. 

We could see birders silhouetted on the distant skyline by the sea, presumably indicating where the wagtail was to be seen. It looked a fair way to walk but it would not be unpleasant. It was indeed quite a distance and as we traversed the track we were waylayed by the numerous Bearded Tits feeding in the reeds, their distinctive pinging calls ringing out although they remained for the most part invisible, but occasionally one or two would sidle up the reeds to show themselves, the males as always looking resplendent with their rust orange bodies, pale grey heads, black fu-manchu moustaches and golden eyes.

It was tempting to tarry and look at them for longer but after a brief look we thought it best we made for the wagtail as this was the priority, a new British tick for both of us and, you never know, it might fly off at anytime. How right we were to think this.

After another fifteen minutes of walking we crossed onto a long bank of shingle by the sea and joined a small line of birders looking down and across the shingle to a small marshy area of water, grass and sedge. 

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail was in there and soon Wrenny picked it up wandering along the edge of the water and then perching out in the open on a bright green grass tussock. There was little yellow evident in its plumage, the upperparts appearing a quite dark brownish grey and the underparts almost white with just a yellowish suffusion on the rear flanks. It showed dark ear coverts and dark lores, two differences from Western Yellow Wagtail. It was distinctive and looked very neat in appearance due to the contrast between its dark upperparts and pale underparts.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail M.tschutschensis
Its identity was comprehensively confirmed when we heard it give its distinctive, diagnostic raspy call which is one of the best ways to identify it. Great care was needed as there were apparently two grey and white looking Western Yellow Wagtails in the area as well and this could potentially confuse the issue.

Western Yellow Wagtail M.flava - note the pale lore and pale sub ocular mark on the lower ear covert
The Eastern Yellow Wagtail was in front of us for just a couple of minutes  before it flew up from the marshy pool and came towards us on the shingle, landing briefly for a minute or two before flying off south and continuing for miles towards Dunwich and was eventually lost to sight. Wrenny and myself looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief. If we had delayed a minute longer with the Bearded Tits we would have missed the Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

We stood, somewhat perplexed as to what to do now as it looked like the eastern wagtail had flown off forever but other local birders said it always eventually came back. We obviously wanted to see more of it and so decided to remain here. It was 9.15am when the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had departed.

During the wagtail's absence there was a nice alternative to keep us occupied, in the form of a flock of nineteen Snow Buntings which were feeding on the shingle nearby. They were, as they often are, tame and kept returning to one particular square patch of grass just to our left. It was only later I realised that a lot of seed had been put down there for them and that is why they were so reluctant to leave. 

Snow Buntings
It made for a good diversion as we clicked away with our cameras whilst awaiting the return of the wagtail.

Snow Buntings are attractive little birds, remarkably hard to see when they are shuffling about amongst the shingle due to their variegated plumage of grey, black, orange buff  and white replicating the colours of the pebbles but when they fly the varying but always noticeable white in their wings betrayed them. 

The flock would regularly fly about us, disturbed by arriving birders who had not noticed them on the ground, their conversational twittering marking their progress in the sky before they circled around us, as a flock, to settle and feed once more. The flock itself comprised a mixture of at least one adult male, females and  first year birds and as always was a delight to observe at such close quarters

The presence of the Snow Buntings is a typical natural sight during the winter on the east coast of England, especially in Suffolk and the neighbouring county of Norfolk. There are two races of Snow Bunting and both races are thought to spend the winter with us. nivalis which comes from Scandinavia and Greenland and insulae which originates in  Iceland, The Faeroes and Scotland. It is virtually impossible to discern the differences between them in the field and the flocks which grace our shores can comprise members of both races.

Eventually a yellow wagtail flew in and landed on the shingle in front of us. Everyone got very excited as it was hoped this was the eastern bird. Quite a waiting crowd had built up now, with the continued absence of the wagtail. The yellow wagtail that had flown in was at first elusive but then showed itself very well hunting flies on the shingle, flying up from the stones in typical wagtail fashion to seize passing insects. It was obvious that this was a different bird to the Eastern Yellow Wagtail we had seen earlier and although well marked was paler about the face than the eastern bird, looking greyer and paler and crucially it had no dark lores (the feathering between the eyes and bill base) and showed white on the ear coverts. It just did not look right, although your instinct was to will it to be the eastern bird, but it wasn't.

Western Yellow Wagtail
With little to do and sated with Snow Buntings I scanned the distant reed beds and found a Bittern flying across the reeds. Marsh Harriers were also visible, dark brown against the autumnal colours of the wood beyond the reeds and Little Egrets, dazzling white, were regular visitors to the marshy areas and channels of water bisecting the reeds. Wrenny found a distant Peregrine perched in an Oak tree and Meadow Pipits came and went from the marshy pool in front of us.

Intermittent minor panics rippled through our ranks when a yellow wagtail flew in or was heard flying overhead but the bird always turned out to be just an 'ordinary' yellow wagtail. There were, I think two Western Yellow Wagtails. although they never seemed to arrive together and they too looked smart and pristine in their grey and white plumage with a slightly more extensive yellow suffusion on their underparts.

The star bird however was not co-operating and we never saw it again until Wrenny saw it briefly on the shingle at 1115 before it fled once more. I missed it as I was, like everyone else apart from Wrenny, looking at a Western Yellow Wagtail and consequently failed to notice that there were in fact two wagtails on the shingle, one of which was the Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

Time slowly moved on but there was no sign of the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. To make matters harder, if a wagtail did fly in it would often not call but arrive silently. The distinctive call of the eastern bird was a good way of being alerted to its arrival and presence.

Around 1245 we heard the distinctive call of the Eastern Yellow Wagtail as it flew in and tantalisingly circled above us. Time seemed to stand still as everyone willed it to descend. The wagtail flew around and around above us and slowly came lower before diving down to settle on the shingle in front of us. It stood there for a minute at least, not moving, alert and ready to flee at a moment's notice. Then it darted after an insect and commenced feeding, running over the pebbles and then down to the pool of water to feed along the edge. On the shingle we had uninterrrupted views but in the grass it was much more obscured. Finally it was lost to view in the grass and sedge and there was some confusion as to whether it flew off shortly afterwards or whether the departing bird was a Western Yellow Wagtail.

It did not really matter as we now felt we had seen the Eastern Yellow Wagtail well enough and for long enough. The prospect of another long wait on the shingle for it to return was not enticing, so we made for the track and walked through the reeds and the wood back to the car.

Another new species for my British list in what has, for me, been a very rewarding autumn of birding.

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