A bit of a long entry today, but I thought that I would write about the various species of wagtails we have in Western Europe. Within this group of birds made up of Pipits and Wagtails they provide a huge diversity of regional subspecies each with their own characteristics. We have four species of wagtails in Europe, the White and Pied Wagtails (Motacilla alba), the Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava), The Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola) and the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea). The Citrine Wagtail however is only really found in Eastern Europe where it migrates to from Southeast Asia. That leaves us Western Europeans with three species.
The White and Pied Wagtails are split into two subspecies in western Europe, Pied Wagtails M. alba alba and White Wagtails M. alba yarrellii. The Pied Wagtail is is found in Britain and Ireland whilst the White Wagtail is found on continental Europe. Here’s a map showing their major distributions.
The following shots taken in Ireland show how the male has a dark glossy back and the female has a dark grey, blotchy back.
Pied Wagtail male (Motacilla alba alba)
Pied Wagtail female (Motacilla alba alba)
The White Wagtails on the other hand, both male and female, have a much more grey back as shown in these next two shots taken in Spain.
White Wagtail male (Motacilla alba yarrellii)
White Wagtail female (Motacilla alba yarrellii)
Now lets move on to the Yellow Wagtails. There are no less than 17 subspecies of M. flava! I am only going to mention three types, the Blue-headed Wagtail (M. f. flava) found in central Europe, the Yellow-crowned Wagtail (M. f. flavissima) found in Britain, and the Iberian Yellow Wagtail (M. f. iberiae) found in Spain and northwest Africa. There are also Russian, Fenno-Scandinavian, Siberian and many other subspecies. I might also note here that the subspecies are generally distinguished by the male colourations,
Let’s look at the nominate species first, The Blue-headed Wagtail (M. f. flava).
Blue-headed Yellow Wagtail (M. f. flava)
Note how the supercilium is a prominent white, the back is an olive-greyish-green and its breast, neck and belly are all a bright yellow, and the legs are black.
Below is the ssp. found in Britain which has the crown nape and ear-coverts a yellow-green with bright yellow on the rest of the head like the underparts.
Yellow-crowned Wagtail (M. f. flavissima)
The Iberian ssp. can be differentiated from the nominate species by the white chin.
Iberian Yellow Wagtail male (M. f. iberiae)
Iberian Yellow Wagtail female (M. f. iberiae)
Finally we have the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) of which there are six subspecies. I am only going to mention the nominate here though. They have a bright yellow vent with plainsh flanks, and grey upperparts which contrast with the black wings. It could be confused perhaps with some Yellow Wagtails however if you look closely, the legs are brown on M. cinerea whereas all other wagtails are black. Another good clue is the white supercilium and submoustachial stripe. The male in breeding plumage has a black chin.
Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
And just to finish off I’ll mention two other species of wagtails I have had the pleasure to see on my travels, the Cape Wagtail (Motacilla capensis) found in much of Africa from eastern Zaire and Angola across to Kenya and south to the Cape in South Africa, and a very dapper little bird the African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp) which is found just about everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.