Rarity finders: Iberian Wagtail on Scilly


April is a great month for flava wagtails on Scilly. Never common and frequently only one-day birds, they are always delightful given the variety of plumage characters on offer from the males. A few years ago I found a putative Ashy-headed Wagtail/'Southern Wagtail' on St Agnes which, given an absence of photos or sound recordings, was unsurprisingly found not proven. Others found further candidates in 2019 and 2021 which remain in circulation. In 2018 Graham Gordon turned up Britain's second accepted record of Iberian Wagtail – though there had been earlier sightings of good candidates on the islands.

Wednesday 13 April was fairly typical, in that I was late heading home for lunch – the commute on Scilly is terrible! I had taken to taking a detour past Little Porth, a small bay familiar to many birders, at the western end of Porthcressa. It can be a bit of a sun trap and frequently holds migrants that feed on the invertebrates associated with the sand and stranded beds of weed. Recent highlights had been two Siberian Chiffchaffs and at least five Black Redstarts, as well as the notable presence of a handy bench.

There are only two accepted British records of Iberian Wagtail away from Scilly since the first at Filey, North Yorkshire, in 2015 (Scott Reid).

I exchanged pleasantries with an islander interested in birds, who thought one of the Black Redstarts was still present and mentioned seeing 'a wagtail'. As there had been a number of White Wagtails I thought that the most likely and bid farewell. I had hardly gone a few yards, however, when a patch of vivid yellow caught my eye on the sand.

A quick check with the bins and there was a belter of a flava wagtail. I scuttled back to Tony and lent him my bins to see this 'Blue-headed Wagtail'. I soon registered the white throat, having a brief 'bowl of petunias' moment and steeled myself for another intergrade encounter.

I popped the news out on WhatsApp as 'Blue-headed Wagtail with a white throat'. This was rather splendidly interpreted by some birders as there being a Common Whitethroat present too, which lured the Scilly year listers. Sam Viles had come back immediately querying the possibility of Iberian, but I wasn't so enthusiastic, partly as I'd forgotten what they looked like.

Scott Reid had been working nearby and soon arrived to take some photos. As we watched the bird from the path overlooking the beach, the wagtail and a Rock Pipit flew up and over the town. Was that it – gone? Thankfully it returned mere seconds later, steeply descending to the beach while calling. The call wasn't obviously like the North African birds I had lived with a couple of decades ago. It was more flava-like, perhaps with some 'hardness'. But my hearing is rubbish these days, so I was relieved that the ever-diligent Scott managed to get some decent recordings.

Regardless, by the time people had stopped looking for the 'whitethroat', Iberian Wagtail was indeed being strongly touted, with the slate-coloured head darker than the Blue-headed (nominate flava) that had arrived the day before. There was a long, narrow but distinct white supercilium, set off by an exquisite white crescent on the lower part of the eye-ring, as well as the previously mentioned white throat contrasting with yellow underparts. Having read that Dani Lopez Velasco had commented on Mark Pearson's first for Britain, I messaged him and he supported the identification as a 'classic' iberiae!

The Little Porth bird is the second Scilly record of Iberian Wagtail, after one on St Agnes in 2018 (Scott Reid).

The bird stayed until Saturday [16 April] evening, faithful to Little Porth in the main and providing wonderful views. It had given great enjoyment to a steady stream of admirers, including a number of visitors over for Easter and was remarkably confiding, allowing a close approach or when I was videoing it, at times walking steadily towards me. Towards the end of its stay it became rather frisky, chasing other birds including a Black Redstart, and seemed to give a bit of subsong.

Written by: Bob Dawson