Bird of the Week: White Wagtail

It’s Saturday and that means it’s time for Bird of the Week. The inaugural Bird of the Week will be a bird that can be found across the Western Hemisphere and even here in Qatar. It’s the White Wagtail!

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The White Wagtail is the best-known member of the wagtail genus Motacilla. It gets its name from a common behavior it exhibits – wagging its tail up and down almost constantly. Nobody actually knows why it does this; most scientists believe it helps flush insects from the ground. The tail can also act as a rudder when the wagtail performs complicated aerial maneuvers while catching insects in midair. Because the wagtail is strictly insectivorous, the tail is very important for feeding.

The White Wagtail is also a highly territorial bird. It often engages in midair fights with others of its species. It exhibits sexual dimorphism; the males’ plumage has darker grays than the females’. It has eleven recognized subspecies, which often sprouts debate over classification of individual subspecies. For example, some taxonomists classify the Pied Wagtail subspecies as a separate species.

It is surprising that there is so much debate over such a commonly seen bird. Quite often, the first sign of a White Wagtail’s presence is a slender bird with a bobbing flight pattern low over the ground. Upon landing, the bird will authoritatively wag its tail and proceed to strut around comically. This first impression quickly gives way to the birds’ cuteness, and it is always enjoyable to see one of these birds walk on a curb, keeping between the road and grass. Even when the curb curves, the wagtail will stay the path and follow the curb.

Although this bird is quite common in the Western Hemisphere (excluding Africa), birders limited to the East will have a hard time seeing its cute behaviors. It only occurs as a spillover in Alaska from Siberia. Oddly enough, the White Wagtail is one of few songbirds able to endure harsh cold in the North even though it is also abundant in hot climes.

Whatever the location, the White Wagtail is a ground nester, like most other wagtails. It usually lays six speckled eggs in a cup-shaped nest made from dry grass. Unlike many birds, the male helps the female incubate the eggs. Both parents feed the young for about 3 weeks until the fledgelings are ready to feed themselves.

Wagtails are often associated with water and this one is no exception. A large part of its diet consists of aquatic insects. A running river often hosts a wagtail hopping on the rocks, hoping to capture a quick meal in the water. Oddly, when most insects have died off during the winter, the white wagtail will continue to feed on insects rather than adapt to a seasonal diet.

The White Wagtail can be a great ‘teaching’ bird. It often exhibits different behaviors in close proximity to the viewer, therefore quickly increasing the viewer’s knowledge of birds. Feeding is almost always happening when one sees this bird, and when several are present, you may see midair fighting. And of course, you will always see the birds’ trademark tail wagging!

My first White Wagtail was in Aspire Park, Doha. It was feeding with two bulbuls and several sparrows. Having began birding in the States, I was very excited to see this bird which would have taken me years to find in the East. Since then, I have seen wagtails all around Qatar, in Japan, and even my house!

How about you? Have you been lucky enough to observe this bird and how it commands attention from people around it? Share your experiences here and read about others.

Sources:

RSPB – Pied Wagtail

RSPB – Why do wagtails wag their tails?

Personal experience!

Roadside Birding

Today I proved that you can find birds anywhere. I was on my way back from a campout in the desert and was watching power lines and wire fences that stretched on for miles, enjoying Crested Larks and a large count of Gray Shrikes – 4. I was also taking photos of birds on the ground (mostly larks), but apart from the shrikes, I hadn’t seen any notable birds. Then I came across an area with green grass, berry bushes, and even yellow flowers. I was there looking at birds for half an hour.

My single life bird for the trip was the Gray Francolin. This is a game bird closely related to partridges that has only bred in this area for a decade or two. It actually is not an introduced species – no one really knows for sure how it got to Qatar, but it presumably expanded its range here. The two birds ran away from me but I still managed a decent shot:

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One common urban bird represented in the grassy patch was this White-eared Bulbul. I always enjoy hearing its calm, assuring gurgling call. Bulbuls enjoy eating fruit and this individual was no exception, seen here expressing interest in a berry bush:
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Another group of common birds exhibiting interesting behavior were the wheatears. We saw the common Isabelline and Desert varieties, but both of them were flycatching – flying up from a perch to catch insects midflight. It really was fun to watch and it is quite amazing how many different kinds of birds capture prey this way.
The final birds seen were three small Namaqua Doves. This was a treat because you rarely see more than two of these birds feeding together, especially considering the territorial instincts of the species. These birds are instantly recognizable; the handsome males sport a black mask that covers their face and throat along with a pink and yellow beak, and the females are easy to identify because of their elegant black eyeline and piercing black eyes. They are also among the smallest pigeons – they are only about the same size as a House Sparrow. We saw two males and a female foraging amongst the grass, looking for the tiny seeds which compromise almost their entire diet:
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I was pleasantly surprised to see this little patch of green in the middle of the bland desert. It really was something else to be surrounded by vast expanses of sand and beautiful birds at the same time. On my way to the campout we had actually gotten a fleeting glimpse of the francolin, my life bird, but in this oasis I was able to get photographs of a bird who runs and runs fast. This was also only the second time I ever observed the Namaqua Dove and my best views of the bird at that. A patch of grass in the middle of nowhere might not seem like the best place for birds, but during a slow season still having two months to wait till spring migration, this little oasis is a great place to look for some of the resident species.
Here is a complete list of birds we saw there (some birds were omitted from above due to lack of notability):
Gray Francolin
House Sparrow
Gray Shrike
Crested Lark
Isabelline Wheatear
Desert Wheatear
Laughing Dove
White-eared Bulbul
Namaqua Dove
All photos were taken by myself.
Happy birding!