Focus On Yellow Wagtails - Talking heads


This page contains 3 reader comments. Click here to view (latest Fri 30/04/10 21:29).

Yellow Wagtail is one of the more easily recognisable summer visitors to the UK, with its unmistakeable bright yellow and green livery. However, a quick glance at the Yellow Wagtail page in the Collins Bird Guide, and the bewildering array of heads portrayed, is more than enough to disprove this assumption, with races aplenty waiting to baffle and confuse.

Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava flavissima

Yellow Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail, Lydney, Gloucestershire (Photo: Lewis Thomson)

Restricted to southern and eastern Britain, 'our' Yellow Wagtail will be the most familiar race to British birders. It is quite widespread north to the Borders, though surveys show the population is centred around the Lincolnshire and The Wash.

Aside from our own race, BWPi details 14 races of Yellow Wagtail, many of which have occurred, or theoretically could occur, in Britain and Ireland. Some of these races are fairly regular spring overshoots into the UK from mainland Europe, with others occurring much less frequently. As might be expected by a European overshoot, south- and east-coast records dominate, but they can, and do, turn up anywhere, so which ones should you be on the lookout for on your local patch?

Blue-headed Wagtail M. f. flava

Blue-headed Wagtail
Blue-headed Wagtail, Belgium (Photo: Rudi Debruyne)

This is the nominate race, breeding in mainland western and central Europe, migrating through North Africa and the Middle East. It is by far the most common of the Yellow Wagtail races to occur here, other than our breeding birds (flavissima). Blue-headed Wagtail has successfully bred in the UK, as single-race pairs and also with flavissima.

Blue-headed Wagtail
Blue-headed Wagtail, Frodsham Marsh, Cheshire (Photo: Sue & Andy Tranter)

Channel Wagtail M. f. flava/flavissima

Channel Wagtail
Channel Wagtail, Covenham Reservoir, Lincolnshire (Photo: Nick Clayton)

In northern France, there is an 'intergrade zone' where Blue-headed and Yellow Wagtail regularly interbreed. The offspring of such pairings are variable in appearance, but many individuals show a head pattern that resembles a washed-out Blue-headed, with a paler powder-blue head and often more extensive white in the supercilium, ear-coverts and throat. These intergrades are colloquially known as Channel Wagtail. They are the commonest form of Blue-headed to occur in many northern areas of Britain.

Grey-headed Wagtail M. f. thunbergi

Grey-headed Wagtail
Grey-headed Wagtail, Scalby Lodge Pond, North Yorkshire (Photo: Dave Mansell)

This race breeds from northern Scandinavia to northwest Siberia and is much less common than Blue-headed in Britain and Ireland. It has, however, been recorded in small numbers in every one of the last 10 years.

A dark grey head, lacking any supercilium, and a yellow throat differentiates them from other races. Grey-headed tend to arrive later than Blue-headed in Britain as a result of their more northerly final destination.

Black-headed Wagtail M. f. feldegg

Black-headed Wagtail
Black-headed Wagtail, Turkey (Asian) (Photo: Mehmet Goren)

This is a much rarer visitor to our shores, with fewer than 20 records to date. Black-headed show a complete black head and yellow throat, though a proportion of individuals do seem to show some anomalies or intergrade characters, such as pale marks on the chin, throat or supercilium. These birds continue to spark discussion and some experienced observers consider that these characteristics are shown by a percentage of individuals in fresh spring plumage (Corso, 2001).

Black-headed Wagtail
Black-headed Wagtail, Cresswell Pond NWT, Northumberland (Photo: Alan Gilbertson)

Ashy-headed M. f. cinereocapilla and Spanish Wagtail M. f. iberiae

What might appear not too complicated so far begins to make other ID challenges look easy by comparison once you throw these two races into the mix. Subtle differences between the two exist, with Spanish tending to have a more well-defined supercilium and Ashy-headed darker cheeks and a shade paler yellow underparts (a gross over-simplification).

Ashy-headed Wagtail
Ashy-headed Wagtail, Covenham Reservoir, Lincolnshire (Photo: Russell Hayes)

Whilst Ashy-headed is on the British List, and there have been detailed claims of Spanish (not yet accepted to the British List), the 2006 report by the RIACT sub-committee of BBRC highlighted concerns over intergrades between these two races as presenting possible identification difficulties.

Spanish Wagtail
Bird showing characteristics of Spanish Wagtail, King George V Reservoir (Permit Only), Greater London (Photo: Roy Woodward)

Sykes's Wagtail M. f. beema

Sykes's Wagtail
Sykes's Wagtail, Qatar (Photo: M J Grunwel)

The big prize when it comes to Yellow Wagtail races would be a good record of Sykes's Wagtail, which was present on the British List until earlier this year when BOURC removed it, considering the five previous records "unacceptable or inconclusive".

Finding your own rare Yellow may not be easy but it is possible to make some generalisations that might help. Spring records outweigh autumn ones, mid-April through to end-May the key time; east coast is best with a combination of freshwater and cattle. Many sites have good track records: Titchwell, Norfolk has recorded Black-headed and Grey-headed in the last decade as well as Blue-headed; Cresswell Pond, Northumberland has two of three county records of Black-headed and annual Blue-headed. Skateraw in Lothian also has an impressive track record, with Grey-headed, Ashy-headed and Blue-headed all found.


Cramp and Simmons. 2004. Birds of the Western Palearctic interactive. Published by BirdGuides.
Corso, A. 2001. Head pattern variation in Black-headed Wagtail. Birding World 14(4):162-167.

Related pages

Yellow Wagtail Yellow Wagtail
Grey-headed Wagtail Grey-headed Wagtail
Blue-headed Wagtail Blue-headed Wagtail
Ashy-headed Wagtail Ashy-headed Wagtail
Black-headed Wagtail Black-headed Wagtail
Sykes's Wagtail Sykes's Wagtail
Channel Wagtail Channel Wagtail

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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (3)

An excellent informative article with superb illustrations that elucidates the differing "Yellow Wagtails" - much appreciated.
   Willie, 29/04/10 07:09Report inappropriate post Report 
Very interesting and informative article. I saw my first ever Black Headed Wagtail near Lands End today so this has been a timely article, thanks.
   DAVID KING, 30/04/10 18:47Report inappropriate post Report 
northumberland is scoring highly this spring with channel, black headed and possible grey headed yesterday. I dont know if anyone else saw the bird yesterday - it seemed to me to have a lot of white on throat and chin and not quite as clean around ear coverts as I expected. also a very small post ocular mark. seems to me to match ashy headed rather than gery and the timing might be better suited to that as well with grey headed arriving mid-may in most years?? great article. looking at handbook and bwp it seems so complex from here to japan that it must be nearly impossible to achieve neat splits with differernt colour headed birds interspersed between others and a lot of confusion at the edges even if at somepoints the subs seem well differentiated by plumage and habitat
   Mark Welfare, 30/04/10 21:29Report inappropriate post Report 

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