Alan Tilmouth: days at the races


Read the public utterances of many birders, whether across social media, blogs or forums, and you will notice that, while many continue to be focused on ticks and twitches, the slowly growing 'low-carbon birding' movement continues to chip away at the collective birding conscience. There's been much written about the changes we need to adopt – and many counter-calls for people to be allowed to bird in whichever way gives them pleasure.

Perhaps there is a perception in some quarters that staying local can be 'boring' and reduce the number of species seen in any given period. While it's hard to argue that you are going to see fewer species staying local than you would merrily zipping about all over the UK, there are numerous ways of adding interest to local birding without polluting the planet so much. One of my favourite ways of spicing up daily birding over the years, and one championed by the likes of the late Martin Garner, is to look for different subspecies of commoner birds.

Many of our regularly encountered species have cousins from the near-Continent that frequently turn up in Britain and can be readily identified as individuals of a different form. Spring offers some great opportunities to catch up with some of these visitors. Scandinavian Rock Pipits (subspecies littoralis) are colouring up into the smart grey and pink tones of summer livery, making them much easier to pick out from any local petrosus Rock Pipits as they move back north and east. Rocky shores and washed-up seaweed along the coast, or inland reservoirs, are the places to seek them out. 

At the same time, clean, pale and grey super-sleek White Wagtails of the nominate alba form are arriving from the south. In fresh breeding plumage, males are like minty mouthwash in the morning. Look for the pale grey rumps as opposed to blackish-grey of 'British' Pied Wagtails to be sure of the identification.

The attractive White Wagtail is one of several subspecies worthy of your attention, our columnist suggests (Oliver Smart).

Late April into May brings the arrival of another wagtail I often think of as the 'king of the races'. With at least 10 defined forms, most of which can occur in Britain, and the prospect of subspecific hybridisation to throw more hot lemon curveballs into the mix, Yellow Wagtails are a rabbit hole of colour to disappear down every spring. From the pale blue hues of the hybrid 'Channel Wagtail' to the striking black of feldegg, there's more than a lifetime of interest in searching through Yellow Wagtails for rarer forms.

If your head hurts from the intense flava overload then turn to the humble Northern Wheatear, a harbinger of spring. But is your bold, upright, apparently larger and more saturated 'white arse' of the Greenland form leucorhoa? Ponder that as you walk on through some scrub to hear the safe, familiar sound of a singing Willow Warbler, only to catch a glimpse of the songster and realise it seems awfully grey. Could it be acredula or 'Northern Willow Warbler', which breeds east from Scandinavia into Siberia?

If you are lucky enough to have a birding patch that gets good wader numbers then here too you've ample opportunity to pick out some different forms. Whether it's northern 'altifrons' European Golden Plovers in March or tundrae Ringed Plovers in late spring, or the myriad of Dunlin forms that can occur during migration, there's so much to get your 'scope stuck into.

I've just realised that I've nearly reached my word count without even mentioning argentatus European Herring Gulls or heinei Common Gulls, haven't found space for sinensis Great Cormorants or coburni Redwings, let alone discussed the question marks that exist around monedula Jackdaws. Maybe next time. 


  • This column was published in the April 2023 issue of Birdwatch.
Written by: Alan Tilmouth