The Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) is an occasional visitor to St Nicks, seen more often in the Autumn and Winter months (but see below). This attractive grey and yellow bird is nearly always found near running water, so all the St Nicks sightings have been along the Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Becks. Typically it is found on muddy banks along the becks, feeding and wagging its long tail, although it sometimes perches on low branches.
The male, in full breeding plumage, has a striking black throat, but this plumage has not been seen at St Nicks; the birds we have seen here have been either females or juveniles
In the York recording area, it is both a winter visitor and a resident breeding bird. In 2013, Breeding was suspected at St Nicks, when four birds flew out from a hidden hollow next to the “Kingfisher Culvert”. The nest is built from moss and grasses, and is lined with hair, and is built in a crevice or hollow in the bank of a stream. Usually the clutch consists of four to six eggs, creamy or greyish in colour. The chicks hatch after about two weeks, and fly when around 17 days old.
Grey Wagtails feed mainly on insects, and sometimes invertebrates from the muddy stream sides. Occasionally the bird dances in the air in momentary pursuit of a fly, midge or other insect. Mayflies, small dragonflies and water beetles are also captured.
Despite its bright yellow underparts, the bird can be quite difficult to spot as it creeps around on the mud. But look out for movement, as its bobbing tail is very active, so active that it often moves the whole body up and down! When disturbed, they may off sounding a brief alarm call, which you can hear here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/40217. You might need to turn your speakers up for this very brief recording!
There are three species of wagtails that occur regularly in the UK: Yellow, Grey and Pied. Yellow Wagtails are summer visitors that breed in agricultural areas. Pied Wagtails are a widespread and common species, often seen near water, but not exclusively so. Although they hang around the Tang Hall take-away shops (!), and gather in winter roosts of 3-400 birds in the trees in Parliament Square in York, they are quite a rarity at St Nicks, with only four records to date.
So, in the coming months, keep a close eye on the muddy banks of Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Becks, and you might be rewarded with a good view of a Grey Wagtail! Please report any sightings to the staff at the Environment Centre. Good hunting!
All photos were taken at St Nicks.