I recently mistook a peewee for a magpie, reminding me to be more careful about identifying pied (black and white) birds! Talking of which, when is a wagtail not a wagtail? Answer - when it’s a Willie Wagtail, which is a fantail and not a wagtail. But what happens when the Willie Wagtail you’re watching is not a fantail either? Well…
It all began when this Willie Wagtail kindly allowed me to take its picture:
It then resumed its Willie Wagtail routine - swinging its tail and calling loudly, and then darting off to catch an insect.
There were lots of insects around the trees:
Another Willie Wagtail soon joined it, and I was delighted to get some mid-air photos. (It can be a bit of a challenge to catch small birds on the wing!)
And then I began to realise that there was something different about that second bird....
There was too much white under its chin, and its proportions were different, especially around the head and beak. Its “jizz” was wrong, to borrow an old term used by more serious birdwatchers than me.
When it paused for a break, I had a chance to look at it a bit more closely:
It turned out to be a Restless Flycatcher (Myiagra inquieta) , a bird I’ve not seen before. (It’s not a particularly common bird, even though its range extends over a wide area of Eastern Australia.) When it came closer, I could see rictal bristles around its beak, and the faint buff wash on its throat and belly indicating that it was a female.
As she turned her head, I could also see the slightly hooked tip to her beak.
The Flycatcher spent much more time in the air on her forays than did the Willie Wagtail. She also preferred to stay a couple of metres above ground, using a small tree as a base, while the Willie Wagtail would often launch from lower down. She also carried her tail low, whereas the Willie Wagtail frequently fanned and cocked its tail like other fantails, and let its wings droop slightly when perched.
So, if a Willie Wagtail is really a fantail, what is a wagtail? The true Wagtails belong to a separate family (Motacillidae) not closely related to fantails. The family has several species, none of them native to Australia. However individuals from some of them occasionally end up as seasonal vagrants in our coastal areas. They are all similar in size, shape and patterning, except that in some species part or all of the white is replaced by yellow. They are generally more earthbound birds that walk around whilst foraging for food, like this White Wagtail I photographed in Weymouth, England:
Another point of difference is the tail-wagging that gives them their name – Willie Wagtails wave their fanned tail from side to side, while the true Wagtails bob their tails up and down.
This extract from a quaint 19th century poem by John Clare describes a true Wagtail:
Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain
And tittering tottering sideways he near got straight again
He stooped to get a worm and look’d up to catch a fly
And then he flew away e’re his feathers they were dry
Little trotty wagtail he waddled in the mud
And left his little foot marks trample where he would
He waddled in the water pudge and waggle went his tail
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail
(Little Trotty Wagtail by John Clare)