The grey wagtail

David Chapman / 03 January 2014

The grey wagtail is one of the most elegant of British birds and, though it definitely couldn't be classified as a garden bird in the summer, there is always a good chance of seeing one close to the house in winter.

Despite its name, the grey wagtail is a very colourful bird with a beautiful lemon-yellow rump, a feature which often leads to its mis-identification as a yellow wagtail. The two can be separated by the colour of their backs: the grey wagtail has a grey back while the yellow wagtail, which is a summer migrant to the UK, has a green back.  Grey wagtails have a long tail giving them a rather elegant profile and they are continually active, pumping their tails up and down as if for fun.

In summer grey wagtails live only around fast-flowing rivers.  Here they make their nests in a crevice beside the river and hunt for insects on rocks close to the water.  Occasionally they will be found along lake edges and beside slower moving rivers but never away from water.  Their breeding distribution covers the whole of Britain except on low-lying ground in the south east.

As autumn approaches they become less particular about where they search for food and, though our population is resident, many grey wagtails come to Britain from Europe in the winter and generally they spread out across the country with the exception of the far north and high ground. So at this time of year grey wagtails can be found in many different habitats in most parts of the country.

Our small garden pond regularly attracts a grey wagtail in winter and, equally, we often see them on our house roof along with pied wagtails. Our house faces south so the roof warms up earlier than the ground and insects in the nooks and crannies of the slate tiles become active providing food for the wagtails. 

We might also see grey and pied wagtails on the streets of our cities and towns in winter because they never get as cold as the surrounding countryside and few birds can brighten a dull grey winter's day like a grey wagtail.

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