Thursday 20 May 2021

A Tale of Two Wagtails 20th May 2021

It is always nice to see scarce and unusual birds at my local Farmoor Reservoir but when it is going through a quieter period, such as today, I can always find something else of interest to occupy me. In fact there is never a day when I can say I have found nothing to catch my attention.

This morning, apart from a single nervous Sanderling running along the reservoir's causeway there was little to see, so I made my way down to the River Thames, silently flowing past the western end of the reservoir. I know that here a pair of Grey Wagtails are nesting, having watched them building their nest a few weeks ago and now they are feeding their growing young in the nest.

There are at least two pairs of Grey Wagtails breeding around the reservoir and they can be seen all year round, although they are not nearly as obvious as the more extrovert Pied Wagtails and you rarely see them on the causeway. They prefer the quieter areas of the reservoir, if such a thing exists, since the covid pandemic has brought so many people to the reservoir, and more often the wagtails now seek the quiet, forgotten and neglected backwaters around the reservoir.

Grey Wagtails are sometimes mistaken by non birders for Yellow Wagtails and I have more than once had to explain to a confused passerby that they have not seen a Yellow Wagtail but a Grey one.They invariably respond 'but it was really yellow' and I reply 'yes they are yellow but only on their breast and hindparts.'

The colour of their head and upperparts is an overall mid grey, the flanks are dull white but the breast, belly, under and uppertail coverts are to a variable extent bright lemon yellow. In Spring the male develops a black bib and distinct white stripes running above the eye and beside its chin, and looks very smart, whilst the female retains the buff white chin that both sexes have for the rest of the year. She does however show the same yellow patches as the male but more muted.

Male Grey Wagtail

Female Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtails are a bird of pleasing proportions and the long tail, the longest of any of our native wagtail species, gives them a markedly different profile to the more dumpy Pied Wagtail and indeed the 'real' Yellow Wagtail, both of which have proportionately shorter tails.

This morning was dull with the threat of oncoming rain so I made haste to the riverside and stationed myself unobtrusively by some bushes and waited. I did not have to wait long before the female announced her arrival with a loud chisssick call and, carrying a beakful of food, slipped under the culvert to feed her young. The nest is impossible to see or indeed access which is fortunate as it is close to a path frequently used by dog walkers and joggers.

This worked in my favour as the birds are obviously accustomed to people being  near to their nest and showed little alarm at my standing and awaiting their arrival. Soon the male flew in with a beakful of food and with much tail wagging, an action exaggerated by its long length, waited while the female fed the young, then left, whereupon he flew in to deliver his offering.

They did not have to venture far from the nest to find food for their young, only needing to fly across the river into the overhanging willows on the other side to seize various insects, one certainly being identifiable as a mayfly. Once they considered they had collected enough food, they would perch in the lower branches of the willows or on a convenient protruding tree stump in the river before flying across to the nest site.

Up on the reservoir it had been cold, due to a strengthening southwest wind but here by the river, which lies below the elevated banks of the reservoir, it was sheltered and although hardly warm there was little wind to chill me and it was not unpleasant to while away an hour or so with the wagtails. 

The sounds of Spring were all around. A Garden Warbler chortled his rich notes from a hawthorn as the insistent jerky refrains of Reed Warblers emanated from deep within the reeds. The pungent smell of  emerging may blossom brought its distinctive fragrance to the still air.

I left the wagtails to feeding their family.

1 comment:

  1. Love grey wags - some spectacular gobfulls of food there - great shots! x