Grey wagtails

The family Motacillidae has some charming members (as does the related Anthus, the Pipits). The Grey wagtail really makes an impact and it’s easy to get carried away by the flashes of intense colour. An excited post from April 2020 on announced the presence of a Red-listed Yellow Wagtail on the Kelvin, providing a picture and confiding that it had flown all the way from Africa to see us. But the twitchers did not flock to Kelvinside – it was clearly a Grey wagtail which had been entertaining us all winter.

It doesn’t seem quite right that a bird blessed with such vibrant yellow plumage should be named for the colour of its head, but it is a very nice grey. What sort of yellow is that though? I’m somewhere between Lemon Cadmium and Deep Cadmium but I could be persuaded otherwise.

These are colours of Derwent Artist Pencils – I was given a big box of them when I was a child, and I was always particularly fond of the yellows and greens.

My best place to find Grey wagtails on the Kelvin is the section between Kelvinbridge and the Belmont Bridge – when the water level is normal (the Kelvin is currently a huge and very brown river), there are many bars, scrapes and ledges where the wagtails can forage. I also found them one January at RSPB Baron’s Haugh, quartering a flooded stock field. Grey wagtails are insectivorous and while there weren’t any insects on the wing to the human eye, the wagtails would probably be able to find anything that was present and snatch it.

I used to prefer BBC Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day when it had more bird and less Homo sapiens. I quite like the old birdsong records where the relevant track would begin “The grey wagtail, the grey wagtail…(nicely intoned by a chap in a dinner jacket) followed by a good blast of song and no more human input until the announcement of the next species. Alas, there is a lot of chat on Tweet of the Day. To be fair, the Grey wagtail episode presenter conveys a fantastic amount of information in ninety seconds but I’d much rather just hear the bird.

One interesting point made is that Grey wagtails can take to the streets in winter, abandoning the stream bed for an entirely different kind of wet rock. Our walk to work along Renfrew Street back in the day used to take us past the Glasgow School of Art and we would see a Grey wagtail between the student bar and the library, which faced each other across Scott Street. In honour of the GSA, here is my digital print of a Grey wagtail.

Grey wagtails don’t seem to need pristine environments; the River Douglas in Wigan is not exactly a crystal torrent but I enjoyed finding a Grey wagtail there early one very cold morning when I was killing time waiting for the Avanti to come and take me north from Wigan North Western station. The TotD presenter (I’m trying really hard not to name him but I can’t help myself, it’s Kwiss, my least favourite nature broadcaster giving it full-on sixth form drama enunciation) also enthuses about the elegant flight of the Grey wagtail – spot on Kwiss. It’s really only in the dipping flight and landing that the fan-like tail is unpacked for your appreciation.

It really is a thing of beauty – once the bird has landed, those long tail feathers are put away and it’s back to the tail flicking. I read something quite surprising about the flight patterns of migrating Grey wagtails; Sharrock writing in British Birds in 1964 tells us that ” Grey Wagtails are mainly diurnal migrants, generally flying at a height of under eighty feet; indeed, [it was] found that most fly at a height of five to thirty feet”. Migration across the sea (some Grey wagtails make quite long journeys) on a dipping flight, skimming the waves? Sounds pretty hazardous for a small bird.

It’s hard to tell if this is a breeding pair perching and calling because we’ve only the back view of one of the birds and we need to see the throats of both.  The image (slightly grainy but long range) was taken in early March. Let’s assume that it was a breeding pair – by the end of June, we found a young Grey wagtail being fed by the male on a rock mid-river a few metres upstream.

Upriver near the weir at Maryhill, we found a bird perched in a tree and singing, something that occurs close to the nest site.

Much further down the Kelvin, we found a male gathering insects and probably servicing a nest in the tall stone wall which confines the Kelvin’s north bank close to Benalder Street bridge.

An interesting visit this one – a large and loud youth accused me of taking photographs of HMS Glasgow, the Type 26 frigate then under construction at BAE in Govan, for the Russians. Little did he know that I had been after something far more beautiful and worthwhile.

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