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.

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.