Lessons with a Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)

A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) encourages fledglings to fend for themselves, by catching insects on the river.

That afternoon I’d found myself lying on the shingle bank of the river, with lens & camera resting on a stone just an inch above the water. It was a hot humid day, the morning had been busy and the river was enticing. I’d taken the 700 mm fl setup with me in the hope of spotting a Dipper whilst also cooling off my core temperature. I’d seen the Dipper.. on the wing at high speed – in no mood to pose & ‘dip’ for me. But when, some 30 minutes later, the Grey Wagtail appeared, I was glad that I’d been patient despite the insect harassment & the pebbles jabbing at my ribs. She stood just 4 or 5 metres in front of me, her attention not on feeding, nor upon the strange camo clad human lying in the damp shade..

A grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) standing amongst stones on the river margins.
A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) standing amongst stones on the river margins.

Her attention was focused a little upstream (behind me of course!) where young fledglings were learning to catch insects for themselves. A Minnow rose to take a mayfly from the river surface just to my right, the adult Wagtail flew upstream & I realised that I would need to move & reset if I was to record any of this story.

Grey Wagtails are insect eating birds. In summer they are mainly to be found along fast flowing streams & rivers where food is plentiful. Chicks fledge after only 2 weeks or so. In the UK their conservation status is considered red, so it’s pleasing to see them breeding successfully.

A young Grey Wagtail ponders how to catch a snack for himself.
A young Grey Wagtail ponders how to catch a snack for himself.

Some time later I was re-positioned partially submerged in the rapids by some boulders and the Wagtails were back. I spotted two fledglings, ok for a later brood, though 3 would have been nice. They hadn’t fully mastered the skill of catching dinner, so frustrating when it’s hovering just inches away – as in the picture above.

The adult demonstrated the technique necessary by deftly plucking an invertebrate from the fast shallow flow at the top of a little cascade.

With skill & practice, a Grey Wagtail pecks insects out of the fast flowing shallows.
With skill & practice, a Grey Wagtail pecks insects out of the fast flowing shallows.

The lessons must have been tiring, one youngster decided to take a break; fluffing himself up and looking all cute in the afternoon sunshine.

A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) fledgling stands on riverside rocks watching its parent search for insect food.
A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) fledgling stands on riverside rocks watching its parent search for insect food.

If you’re out walking the river banks this summer, keep an eye open for these delightful little birds.

Dipper about in the River

White Throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) are a wonderfully characterful bird of the river. They are a smallish but stout bird with a pale chest that contrasts with their otherwise dark plumage.

A Dipper stands alertly in river shallows.
A Dipper stands alertly in river shallows.

They feed on river invertebrates (esp. freshwater shrimps) which they search for under the water or by turning stones in the shallows. They will immediately swallow larvae & small food whilst still submerged – larger prey are brought to the surface for eating (see pic below).

A Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) catches an insect nymph for an afternoon snack.
A Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) catches an insect nymph for an afternoon snack.

Amazingly capable of balancing themselves in strong currents by using their wings in the water; they also have the tendency to bob up & down whilst standing on rocks & even riverside branches – like a dancer limbering up.

They are of amber conservation status in Britain. A quiet observer can spot them (& hear their high pitched call) on various upland welsh rivers. Below is a short video that I was lucky enough to capture whilst maintaining riverside paddocks last week.

Always happy to see these bouncy chaps 🙂

Breeding & fledging will be in full swing currently, so a few stolen moments of preening are probably very much appreciated.

Do keep a look out for these energetic little birds whilst you are walking by the local rivers – they are well worth a few minutes spent watching them.

Redstart Family Fledging

Most years we notice Redstarts arriving in spring and successfully raising a family. This year I have been particularly happy because a pair chose to nest in the double hedgerow that I renovated & planted a few years ago. This has meant that we’ve had the pleasure of watching at least 3 youngsters fledge; quite literally flitting across the hedged walkway that we created. The featured title image above shows the male calling out the fledglings with one vociferous fledgling close by.

Redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) are members of the Family Muscicapidae or Old World Flycatchers, a group that is well represented locally. In summer the male has quite striking plumage as shown below:

A male Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) calling to encourage his fledglings to explore.
A male Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) calling to encourage his fledglings to explore.

They arrive in the UK during April with the males often being a few days in advance of the females. Once paired up, about 5 or 6 blue eggs are laid in a nest. It will take 2 weeks for them to hatch & another 2 to 3 weeks before they fledge.

The female does not have quite such a bright plumage as the male, but she can be seen to flick her warm coloured tail on a regular basis:

Female Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)
Female Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

After the parental collection of many spiders, flies & worms (with maybe a few berries too), the young chicks will have grown sufficiently to fledge. The male has certainly been giving encouragement and guidance to the nestlings that we’ve seen. Sitting very quietly in long grass at the side of our walkway, I watched as first one & then all three tried a first short flight of about 7 or 8 feet across to some young hedgerow trees. Here’s a picture of one of the fledglings perched in his new found tree:

A young fledgling Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) takes perches in a hedgerow tree.
A young fledgling Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) perches in a hedgerow tree.

Were there more than 3 fledglings? Possibly, I couldn’t clearly see the nest exit, there was definitely much chirping! Will this year be good enough for these little amber listed passerines to attempt a second brood before leaving for Africa this autumn? They should have the time available, I shall certainly keep a watch. It’s very pleasing to know that our hard work does seem to be helping at least some of the wildlife.

The Atlantic Puffin

These charming seabirds can be watched in a few coastal locations around the U.K. with Bempton Cliffs being perhaps the most well known mainland location. There are however some really great island seabird colonies to visit, where Puffins have a significant presence. All of my images for this article were taken on a fantastic trip to Skomer island, located off the SW coast of Wales. (The Farne islands are great for northern England and consider visiting Sumburgh Head on Shetland or the Isle of May, if you are in Scotland).

A Puffin keeps a watchful eye outside its burrow.

These cute seabirds, with their strikingly coloured bill & worried expression, stand about 7 to 10 inches tall & weigh in at just 500 grams. They are evolved for swimming & diving more than for flight, using up to 400 wing beats per minute to achieve a decent top speed of a little over 50 mph. Life span is about 20 years.
An Atlantic Puffin returns from sea with a beak full of sand eels

Whilst much of their year is spent out at sea they must come to land in spring for their breeding season. This is when they sport their bright colours & striking plumage. Puffins nest in burrows. About 10% of the World population breed around the UK, that’s about 500,000 birds. This April about 25,000 Puffins were counted on Skomer. Breeding is a tough business and statistically a pair of Puffins chance of getting just one chick to fledging is about 0.5 to 0.7. One hazard is predation by Gulls & Skuas, not only are the chicks at direct risk but the parents have to run the gauntlet of Gulls attempting to make them drop their precious sand eel cargo.

Sand eels are the primary food for Puffins. The Puffins have reverse facing barbs inside their mouths & on their tongues, this allows the Puffins to typically scoop up about 10 sand eels with each dive. At 3 or 4 years of age Puffins find a mate, they will bond for life. Once the female Puffin has laid her single egg, each adult will take turns incubating the egg for about 40 days, after which it will hatch. Now starts the busy task of feeding the young Puffling who will fledge when large enough, a minimum of 45 days later.
One Sand Eel carrying Puffin passes closely overhead another.

As the Puffin parents busy back & forth with bills full of sand eels, dodging the marauding gulls & avoiding collisions, its a great spectacle to behold (always keeping the welfare of the birds upmost of course).
A Puffin sets off out to sea after more food for its young chicks.

Once the young Pufflings have fledged (mid-summer) the Puffins will start to disperse again, out on the open Oceans until next spring. Puffins are considered to be a vulnerable species Whose numbers are falling. There are various research projects attempting to find out the causes. One possibility is that the supply of sand eels is dwindling due to overfishing by humans another factor may be changing sea temperatures due to global warming. The RSPB currently (2017) has a call out for pictures of feeding Puffins, to help with their research.
A closer view of the Atlantic Puffin’s exquisite markings

We had a great day on Skomer, I would heartily recommend it to all nature lovers. The Puffins (Fratercula artica) are fabulous. You really do need to be very careful to stick to the paths because there are fragile burrows everywhere. The Puffins are so photogenic and it’s a nice challenge to catch the perfect flight shot. Also, long focal lengths are not required which is great if you’re going to walk the few miles around the island on a hot summers day. Here’s a small gallery of a few of the day’s photos including the above (do look at Natures Universe if you’d like to purchase images) :

The Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)

Grey Wagtails are a bright active bird, rather more colourful than their name suggests.

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They prefer to live along fast flowing sections of rivers & streams and are native residents across much of Britain, particularly western areas like Wales.

An ideal location would be one with plenty of rocks & pebbles to perch upon and with rocky banks that present ideal nesting hollows & cracks. The further addition of some woodland shade would provide the perfect abode with plenty of insects just waiting to be made a meal of. The two pictures in this post illustrate just such a location and the wagtail in the first picture is holding a scrumptious beak-full of wiggly insects.

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Grey Wagtail populations are susceptible to harsh winters, amongst other things, and they are currently considered to be of amber conservation status (RSPB).

Like all Wagtails, the Grey Wagtail bobs & wags its long tail almost constantly. If you are lucky enough to find an upland river where Dippers & Wagtails share the stage, you’d be forgiven for feeling that you were viewing the next energetic dance craze! If you’re visiting my neck of the woods, look out for the action along the Afon Dulas.

For more Wagtail pictures, pop across to my galleries at Natures Universe.