Pitsford Pied Wagtail: seeing things in black and white

When Matthew Care posted two tweets containing mobile phone images of a Pied Wagtail on Pitsford dam showing, as he put it, ‘isolated black breast and white wing patch’, it appeared, at least in some quarters, that there were enough ingredients there to alert local birders to the possibility that it might be something worth investigating.

Amur Wagtail was flagged up as a possibility. However remote this may seem, this south-east Asian subspecies has already reached Britain (see here) and the classic eastern vagrant month of October would surely be a prime time to find one.

The images, taken only with a mobile phone camera, left a lot to be desired from an ID perspective, as well as leaving a lot to the imagination, thus telling only half the story. The bird depicted in the images, despite also looking unusually ‘white-faced’ (the origin of the scientific name leucopsis for the Amur race of White Wagtail) was surely just a Pied Wagtail, wasn’t it? It is well known that pictures can lie and it had to be worth a look, to be sure, to be sure.

The bird was in the same place, on the wall of the valve tower walkway, when I arrived late afternoon and after a quick look, I set up my camera to get some digiscoped shots. Unfortunately, at the same time, an Anglian Water engineer proceeded down the walkway and entered the tower. The bird quickly took flight and I was left with the rather messy images, below.

While the bird did indeed show a lot of white in the wing (formed by unusually broad white fringes to median coverts, greater coverts and tertials – probably freshly moulted and unworn) and an isolated, triangular black breast patch, it was the latter which lent the impression of a greater extent of white to the head. Although there are published images (see here for example) of Amur Wagtail showing the same amount of white in the wing as this bird appears to, the ‘norm’ for Amur Wagtail is more of an extensive white ‘block’ which, when combined with clean white flanks, gives this race a much cleaner, more striking appearance than the bird at Pitsford. Indeed it’s the extensive grey and blackish flanks of the Pitsford individual which, at a glance, kill the chances of it being anything other than the Pied it actually is.

However, there is nothing wrong with flagging up anything which, at first sight, appears unusual – lest something juicy should slip the net …

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