Wagtails – Home and Away

It has been a long time since I last wrote here – after graduating I went on a long trip to Africa with a Born Free project and immersed myself in the wildlife there, returning only last month. My home-coming was perfectly timed in autumn, easily my favourite season, and I was delighted to see jays, robins, and hedgehogs to welcome in my first few days.  Even magpies and rats looked positively exotic having not seen them in so long!

The similarities, more than the differences, between British and African wildlife was what startled me most, most particularly the ubiquitous presence of pied wagtails in the game reserve I lived and worked in. I’m not entirely sure of the difference between a pied wagtail and an African pied wagtail – both are domestic breeds rather than migratory so it must be more than mere geography – but they are certainly alike in their ability to take over a place.

The African wagtails were building a nest in the roof of my house. The roof was a sheet of corrugated iron over walls made of thick clay-mud, and provided perfect nooks and crannies for the birds (and, judging by the loud chattering that kept me awake most nights, for bats, too). Of course in Britain the birds are less welcome to be swooping in arcs over the dining table, but they are still easily found – I lived happily with the birds in Malawi because they reminded me so much of home.

There are three species of wagtail in Britain – grey and pied, which are here all year round, and yellow, which is a summer visitor.

Pied wagtails are the most common as they are less restricted to water environments than the other two, therefore you can see them in parks, churchyards, city hedgerows, and gardens as well as along rivers and streams. They are sprightly and cheerful souls, and can be seen dashing around in search for food when not standing and frantically bobbing its tail up and down. They are also curious, and very friendly – I worked in a café in Birmingham to save up money for my travels, and on my walk there would pass a church. The café would often let me take home the croissants and pastries which didn’t sell that day and I would scatter some of the crumbs for the birds in the churchyard. Soon, a young (with pale grey/brown markings rather than black) wagtail caught on to what I was doing and would always fly down to my feet whenever I walked past, waiting for the crumbs, and often following me all the way home. They make a characteristic ‘chi-sick’ sound, which has led to Bill Oddie nicknaming the birds Chiswick Flyovers.

Grey wagtails, though not rare by any means, are harder to spot, not in the least thanks to a very misleading name – they are far more distinctive than it suggests, with slate-grey/blue upper parts and long lemon-yellow tail. They are badly affected by harsh winters. Yellow wagtails are fairly easy to spot if you catch them at the right time in summer. Both of these species love water, and aren’t picky about it; they are just as likely to gather around an urban settling tank as a lake or channel. They are beautiful to watch on the water, their characteristic long swoops picking up huge dragonflies and skaters without a single pause or break, and flick up the water in sunlit droplets.

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For anyone interested in reading about my stay in Africa, in which I lived and worked on a rural game reserve, I wrote a blog there at www.apassagetoafrica.tumblr.com. It has lots of pictures of the wildlife and birds I encountered there, and I learnt a lot about the conservation work and issues going on in that part of the world, and the amazing animals that live there.

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