Saturday, 26 April 2014

A wheatear and a wagtail

We've just had a visit from a member of a species we haven't seen here before - a female wheatear oenanthe oenanthe, traquet motteux. She sat nicely on the chimney pot for us, making sure we got a good view.

My goodness, that brickwork needs pointing...
Or in extra fuzzy closeup
From this angle, you can't see the white rump that gave this species its English common name "whitearse" gentrified into "wheatear", but other features such as the dark eyestripe with pale eyebrow (supercilium), the brownish-grey back with black wingtips, the peach-pink throat, and the dark beak, all characteristics of the female Wheatear.

It was particularly nice to see her because one of the many species of wheatear first got me actively birdwatching, more than simply being generally interested in Nature. In 1978 I visited Israel, youth-hostelling by bus, and found my way down to the Sinai peninsula, then occupied by Israeli forces. From the bus window I caught sight of a vividly-costumed small black-and-white bird. I had to know what it was, and realised that I hadn't really looked at it well enough to pick out the features that distinguished it from other related species. I did rather better with the Common Bulbul, the middle east's counterpart of the blackbird, with its black head and yellow bottom. I bought my first pair of binoculars and then I was hooked.

And yesterday we had a visitor of another species new to our records at La Forge - a Yellow Wagtail motacilla flava flavissima Bergeronnette flaveole on its way to the British Isles or the Channel coast to breed. This smallest of all the wagtails comes in a number of subspecies in a range of colour variations. The subspecies that breeds in Britain is yellow below and olive-green on top including the head, and is generally paler than other subspecies. The subdued colour tones of our visitor suggests that it was a female. The Central European subspecies Blue-headed wagtail motacilla flava flava Bergeronnette Printanière has a slaty-grey cap and much more contrast between back and front.

This one was on the Kingfisher Trap* when I looked out to check on the moorhens' nest. It bobbed up and down and wagged its tail, demonstrating that it was not a chiffchaff. I fumbled for my camera, which was beside me, and when I looked up it had just taken flight and was heading down river. I last saw one of these just outside Reeth in the Yorkshire Dales (actually quite a party of these) so it's a little taste of home. 

Motacilla flava flavissima - Photo by Andreas Trepte

The olive-green back and head show up well in this fine picture of an adult female by Andreas Trepte. You can see more of his work on his website Officially the English name for this subspecies is Yellow-crowned wagtail, which I don't get at all, and I've never heard anyone use it. The german names for this subspecies are Englische Schafstelze (English wagtail - OK, I get that) or Gelbkopf-Schafstelze (yellow-headed wagtail - no, they've done it again).

By contrast, this is a young female motacilla flava flava, bergeronette printanière. She wears a slaty grey cap, contrasting with the green of her back.

Motacilla flava flava - Photo by Wojsyl
This, the  mainland European subspecies, is known to English birdwatchers as the blue-headed wagtail.  My first and last sighting of one of these was at Spurn on a York RSPB outing rumpty-tum years ago. If you want to be really confused, these subspecies hybridise where their ranges overlap, so if you see a Yellow Wagtail near Dunkerque, just hope it goes away...


Anonymous said...

Here in Devon we have seen several wheatears this year by the coast; we tend to see grey wagtails by rivers

Pollygarter said...

Philip: we get grey wagtails by the river too.