Britain: have a bit of Pied

We’re a small group of islands, a stone’s throw from mainland Europe, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that we don’t have many endemic species of birds – that is, ones native to our country that occur only here.

But we do have a few races of bird that exist almost exclusively here, sufficiently distinct from their Continental counterparts to be recognisably different, if not entirely separate species.

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)One of them is one of our most familiar birds, the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarelli), the small, black-and-white, tail-pumping bird seen most often on rooftops and in farmyards, or stalking about in the grass of garden lawns or paddocks.

We have plenty of Pied Wagtails in the parishes, ranging from smart two-tone adult males through many variations of grey and streaky females and young birds. You’ll see them 9 out of 10 times at Glynde Station or Place Farm, and because they’re with us all year, we generally take them for granted.

But occasionally we get a reminder that these are our wagtails, unlike those just a short hop across the Channel.  We had such a reminder this autumn.

Although Pieds are mainly resident here and across much of Britain and Ireland, there’s also a strong migration of northern and higher-altitude wagtails in spring and autumn, that sees lots more passing through Sussex. One morning in early October, more than a dozen of these migrants set down in a ploughed field beside Chalky Road, and amongst them was a continental White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba).

We probably see quite a few White Wagtails without realising, but it’s only the adult males that stand out. The Chalky Road bird had black head and bib, like a Pied, but a pearly-grey back and rump. It spent its time flitting between the field and the puddles along the track, feeding up, drinking and washing before it continued its journey.

It’s a neat bird, the first I’ve knowingly seen in Firle. But it’s also one of those that makes you take a second look at what’s on our doorstep.

The Pied Wagtail is a great local variant, which birders from elsewhere in the world would be keen to see on a trip to Britain. And an adult male bird, though common enough to be overlooked much of the time, is a stunning, wonderful thing, right in our own backyards.

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