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Bird of the Month: The Yellow Wagtail. By John McEwen

Blog | By John McEwen | Aug 23, 2023


One of the folklore names for the yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava Flavissima) is ‘sunshine bird’ – flavissima means ‘yellowest of all’.

The male beams its presence, when it finally appears as a summer migrant, from tropical Africa – bright as a dandelion in its preferred marshland or rough pasture.

The artist Charles Tunnicliffe in his Summer Shorelands Diary reported scanning the April ‘bird traffic’ on his Anglesey foreshore and immediately resting ‘on a spot of bright yellow’, soon identified as a male yellow wagtail.

That was 70 years ago. Today, like so many insect-feeding birds, it has drastically declined – in its case, by three-quarters, to 19,500 territories. Unlike the pied wagtail it is not seen in towns, nor by the rivers frequented by the less vividly yellow grey wagtail.

Marshland and water meadows are its favourite habitats, both decimated by modern farming. One helpful adaptation is its willingness to breed in potato fields – the broad leaves shelter its fibrous ground nest, and the furrows offer an escape route.

Even in Tunnicliffe’s day, it was seen as a passage migrant in Wales. West and north Britain were never its preference. It holds on in the Scottish Borders, but its strongholds are East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, the Fens, the Norfolk Broads and Essex and Kent coastal marshes.

England is the headquarters for the most yellow of yellow Motacilla flava wagtails – but British bird-lovers, when abroad, should be alert to the abundance and geographical reach of 17 Motacilla flava sub species, which migrate from Africa to breed in the summer across Eurasia, India and south-east Asia.

Fragmentation may have been caused by separations in the Ice Ages.

Males, especially, have evolved marginally different head markings; among them, the blue-headed yellow

illustrated by carry akroyd

The Yellow Wagtail

wagtail (M. f. flava) in mainland Europe; the grey-headed yellow wagtail (M. f. thunbergia) in northern Scandinavia, and so on.

Science may one day prove that notably distinctive cases belong to other wagtail species altogether. Classification is subject to alteration. In my 1937 edition of W H Hudson’s British Birds, the yellow wagtail is Motacilla rayii.

He quotes Henry Seebohm (1832-95), Sheffield steel magnate, ornithologist, bird artist and early European advocate of the American trinomial classification of sub-species: ‘Its active, sylph-like movements, and its delicate form and lovely plumage, make it

a general favourite.’ It was certainly the literal highlight of

this column’s illustrator Carry Akroyd’s and my visit to Kent’s Elmley Marsh

last year. Males arrive ten days ahead of the paler, suitably camouflaged, ground-nesting females. Half a dozen spangled the water-broken terrain into the far distance.

What Thomas Hardy wrote of wagtails in general applied that day:

The wagtail gazed, but faltered not In dip and sip and prinking.

From Wagtail and Baby

What we did not see was the undulating display flight of curves and circles, flashing gold brilliantly contrasted with black tails edged with white feathers. The breeding season over, families join forces to form substantial flocks for the southern journey to Africa through August and September, a few stragglers lingering into October.