Birding: Visiting Wagtails from Europe, Central Asia

Come winter, Indian Subcontinent plays host to an interesting family of birds- The Wagtails

Birding: Visiting Wagtails from Europe, Central Asia
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Lt Gen U K Sharma (Retd)

They get their name-Wagtail, from their habit of constantly wagging their tails vigorously. Wagtails are lean and sprightly birds. Ornithologists are not certain why they wag their tails so energetically. It is now believed that it is a demonstration of their alertness, to deter potential predators.

The five species found in India show numerous subspecies variations and lend themselves to interesting debates among birders and even experienced ornithologists. These five are Yellow wagtail, White Wagtail, Citrine Wagtail, Grey Wagtail and White-browed Wagtail. All except Citrine Wagtail are widely distributed all over the subcontinent.

White Wagtail
White Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) winters all over India after passage through Pakistan and J &K. Essentially grey-to-olive in upper parts, its chin, throat and underparts are a variable shade of yellow. Citrine Wagtail (Motacillacitreola) on the other hand is slightly larger than the Yellow Wagtail and is distinguished by the fact that the face, crown, nape and underparts are a variable shade of bright yellow. The ear coverts may also be a bright yellow or at the most, grey in color. It is a winter visitor to the subcontinent north of the Vindhyas and coastal Maharashtra.

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), on the other hand is characterized by a longish tail compared with other wagtails, entirely grey upper parts, a thin, long, white supercilium, a white chin and throat and buff to yellow breast with white underparts and yellow vent. The breeding male sport a black ‘bib’ that extends up to the breast.

Citrin Wagtail
Citrin Wagtail

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is another beautiful wagtail which sports a white face and a combination of black and grey in its upper parts in different subspecies. Commonly seen close to slow-moving streams and water bodies, it can even be spotted in cultivated gardens close to human habitation. It may in fact be the most common wagtail spotted in backyard birding.

The last species worth a mention is a very Indian wagtail that resides and breeds on the Indian Subcontinent including the plains of Pakistan’s Punjab. It is called White-browed Wagtail or Large Pied Wagtail (Motacillamaderaspatensis).

It is in fact the largest species of Wagtails. It sports a black head, nape and mantle and a thick white supercilium. The underparts are white and there is a broad white wing bar giving it a very pied appearance. Its size and broad white supercilium easily help distinguish it from White Wagtail.

The birds are insectivores and forage for their food on the ground.With the exception of White-browed Wagtail, which is a wholly Indian resident bird of this genus, Indian Wagtails breed in Europe/ Central Asia and migrate to the subcontinent in winter.

They make their nests on the ground. First-winter birds are capable of undertaking winter migration. Often found near slow moving streams and in open deciduous forest, no less than five species are found on the subcontinent out of 13 reported species. Another bird called Forest Wagtail was earlier classified with other species of Motacilla but it is now named as from a different genus called Dendronanthus.

Go out and look for these wonderful birds vigorously wagging their tails either in open scrubland or close to rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. Happy Birding!

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