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The Grey Wagtail - John McEwen

Blog | By John McEwen | Aug 22, 2022

Illustrated by Carry Akroyd

Grey! – what a mistitling, a Calvinist’s

description of this jinking, weaving spirit of the

sinuous burns, this leaper at gnats in mid-air, this

avian jig played at speed on a new penny whistle, the

rich slate blue of its back set off by the powder yellow

of its breast curve. Birch-delicate, trig as a girl – can

it be male at all? – it is mountain burns and the

trickle of rivulets, it is skinkling rills and lit emerald

moss; a chipping from sunlight, airily dressed in

feathers. Re-lining, as often, a last year’s blackbird’s

nest, in a cup on a ledge on an aqueduct it is one

coveted egg whose spry potential twitterer I try to

give back now.

Gerry Cambridge (b 1959), Motacilla cinerea

For beauty of movement and plumage, the grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) has few rivals.

W H Hudson and Grey of Fallodon both rank it high. Hudson thought its plumage ‘pleases, perhaps, more than the colouring of any other British bird’ (British Birds). For Grey, it was ‘one of the most delicately beautiful’ (The Charm of Birds).

All birds moult, but the male grey wagtail conspicuously moults twice: after breeding, from early August to the end of September; and a pre-breeding transformation between February and March. In spring, the female’s moult means she emerges the same but brighter. The male, similarly enriched, is differentiated by a new black throat.

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M alba), its cousin, also smartens up for the breeding season, but most noticeably only through extension of his permanent black throat.>span class="Apple-converted-space">

Greys have longer tails, of which they take full advantage. They wag them vigorously and fan them exotically in courtship to more effect than the pied or the yellower yellow wagtail, a summer migrant.

Grey wagtails are ubiquitous in Britain and Ireland, with a healthy increase in range and numbers over the last half-century, but resident population of 37,000 (2016) is dwarfed by the half million pied wagtails. Breeding densities are highest in the uplands – Wales, the Pennines and mainland Scotland. They prefer swift rivers and streams running through broad-leaved woodland, a habitat that offers infinite insects.

I am indebted to Gareth Thomas, a leading authority on the bird. He has studied grey wagtails and dippers, which often prove nesting neighbours, for over 50 years on the River Teme in Ludlow, where he is Weirs Manager. As a member of the Nature Photographic Society, he has made an unrivalled record of their movements and moults, especially their balletic ability to jump for flying insects.

Let BB, last of England’s sporting naturalists, have the final word: ‘Daffodil yellow and soft grey, a fairy bird in fairyland’ (The Countryman’s Bedside Book, 1941).