Girton Birdwatch - January 2007
Probably one of the most elegant and attractive - not to say familiar - little birds to be seen around the village, is the Pied wagtail. As its name suggests it is black and white, with a long tail which it often wags up and down. In fact its tail is usually in constant motion. The female's back is greyer than that of the male. Its flight is markedly undulating, a few flaps and then a descending glide; its flight call is equally distinctive: a high-pitched 'tschizzik', which it also uses in courtship. The Pied wagtail may be seen all year round, although some British birds migrate to the south west of the continent in winter. These delicate birds are regular visitors to our gardens, especially in the winter, as it is here that they can find the abundant insect life which is their food of choice, although they have no objection to feeding from the scraps which fall from our bird-tables. They are often to be found by water so you are more likely to have one or two in your garden if you have that great insect-attracter: a pond. It is unfortunate that in many parts of the country modern farming methods have robbed this bird of the winged insects that form such a large part of its diet and which, until relatively recently, could be found in large numbers in any farmyard. The traditional farmyard, of course, is in terminal decline and such developments as more hygienic cowsheds, the greatly increased use of piped water, and the use of more effective insecticides, mean that wagtail numbers have suffered in some areas. East Anglia, fortunately for us, is an exception to the rule. In country areas around here it is often referred to by its pet names of 'Peggy Dishwasher', Polly Dishwasher' or 'Penny Wagtail' which Cocker and Mabey suggest may be traced to the fact that women in rural areas once washed clothes and pots by a stream, garden pump or village well, where splashes and spillages would create the kind of wet, muddy conditions that the birds love. Furthermore: 'The rhythmic actions involved in all forms of cleaning would find their direct visual echo in the lovely motion of the attendant wagtails, and it is this … immediate connection between bird and women washing that surely explains the country names'. It is certainly a joy to have the odd one or two pied wagtails around our winter gardens.
Those of you who know a thing or two about this particular bird will know that I've been having a little fun here, because another distinguishing characteristic of Pied wagtails is their proclivity to form huge winter roosts and, although you may only see the odd one in your garden, on other occasions you are likely to see hundreds if not thousands of them in one place. And you won't have to tramp miles into the country either because the birds - although they love reed beds - are also attracted to highly urban areas. In recent years over 400 birds were to be found at Addenbrookes Hospital, 225 at the Maltings, Ely, while Christmas shoppers in the centre of Norwich have been treated to hundreds of Wagtails complementing the decorations in the main shopping area. They also seem to have a curious affinity for the Post Office and I remember, when a student, a huge gathering on the glass roof of the main post office in the centre of Leicester. Similar gatherings could be found at the Edinburgh GPO and O'Connell Street in Dublin city centre.
The attraction seems to be the warmth associated with human habitation or work places, and power stations and cooling towers also have their roosts. Hospitals, apart from their warmth, usually provide lots of enclosed courtyards and shrubs which provide shelter and food for the birds. Commercial greenhouses have also been discovered by the wagtails, much to the chagrin of their owners who, despite any affection for the birds, have to deal with the potential damage and droppings.
You may also have had a Yellow wagtail or two in your garden. Correction - in the summer you may have had visits from Yellow wagtail. In the winter the yellow bird will almost certainly be a Grey wagtail, which is predominantly yellow! In fact, despite its name, the Grey wagtail is one of the most colourful of the wagtails with bright yellow underparts and black throat, contrasting with a blue-grey back and long black tail. It's a bird which prefers to be by water, especially running water, but is now a routine winter visitor to lowland farms, ponds, sewage farms, reservoirs etc.
The Yellow wagtail is one of our most beautiful summer visitors with the deep yellow of its plumage only being approached by the colouring of the cock yellow-hammer. Its back is greenish brown. It arrives in April and leaves in September, early October to winter in West Africa. The Yellow wagtail is a classic example of evolution in action, with six or seven 'races' from parts of mainland Europe all showing different facial patterns and usually referred to generically as 'flava' wagtails. Its numbers are declining - disappearing completely from some localities - and no body knows why, as there has been no obvious environmental change in the districts that the birds have abandoned.
The escaped Staffordshire vulture is a White vulture, and not a Griffon as I reported last month.
A yellowish, pigeon-sized, parrot-like bird has been glimpsed around the village (D.M.A). Has anybody else seen it or know what it is?
Jem Belcham confirms that Woodcock are fairly frequent visitors to the village.
Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com