Grey Wagtail

Motacilla cinerea

The gray wagtail, generally known by its British English spelling as grey wagtail, is the slimmest and longest tailed of all wagtails.

Other names:

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

Length:

18cm to 19cm

Wingspan:

25cm to 27cm

Weight:

14g to 22g

What does a Grey Wagtail look like?

The summer plumage of the adult male reveals mainly grey upperparts extending from the crown to the back where it morphs into a yellow green rump. The upper wings are black and dark brown with the long black tail edged in white. The inner flight feathers are also edged in white which shows as a wide white stripe running from the area of the tips of the primary coverts to the lesser coverts. The face is a mid grey shade with a white stripe above the eye and a white moustache over a black chin and throat. The underparts are yellow with the undertail coverts being bright yellow and the flanks a pale yellowy white. The underwing feathers are grey. The bill is black, eyes are brown with a white eye ring and the legs a pinky flesh colour. Non breeding males are similar but with a white chin and throat. The adult female’s plumage is similar to that of the ‘summer’ male but with a white chin and throat with black streaks and a more greyish hue to the belly. Non breeding females are a paler yellow than the male with a greyish buff coloured breast and pale chin and throat. The juvenile bird has mainly buff underparts with grey upperparts and black wings. There is a small area of yellow under the tail near the vent.

Gray Wagtail / Grey Wagtail

Gray Wagtail / Grey Wagtail

What does a Grey Wagtail sound like?

A high toned metallic sounding ‘tsi’ often repeated as a staccato ‘tsi – tsi’ is commonly used as a call by the grey wagtail.

Grey Wagtail call

ławomir Karpicki-Ignatowski, XC646859. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/646859.

Grey Wagtail
Grey Wagtail

What does a Grey Wagtail eat?

In the main gray wagtails choose a diet of small invertebrates, flies, fly larvae and ants which they either forage for on the ground or take in the air. They will even paddle in shallow water and take tadpoles and aquatic insects.

Gray Wagtail feeding on insect

Gray Wagtail feeding on insect

Distribution

Occupying much of the Palearctic region these colourful little birds are found from the Azores and the island of Madeira, located in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coasts of Europe and north Africa, eastwards through north and sub-Saharan Africa, the British Isles and southern Europe, across Asia to the Kamchatka Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean in Russia’s far eastern region. Gray wagtails can be seen in almost every country and region within the Palearctic including the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, Siberia, Middle East and Arabian Peninsula, The Indian sub- continent and the Himalayas, China and Japan. Many birds are breeding residents, particularly those located on the smaller warmer islands whilst those who breed in regions with cooler winters migrate south to north east Africa and southern Asia.

Grey Wagtail in flight

Grey Wagtail in flight

Signs and Spotting tips

Never far from water, particularly during the breeding season, the gray wagtail chooses habitats close to lakes, rivers, mountain streams, canals and wetlands. Out of the breeding season they are just as likely to appear in lowland pastures, forests and urban environments. Their very long tails and slim bodies differentiate them from the similar looking yellow wagtail whilst their yellow underparts separate them from the pied wagtail. They are often seen perching near water or on rocks in streams.

Female Gray Wagtail

Female Gray Wagtail

Breeding

Due to the extensive geographical range occupied by gray wagtails their breeding season differs from location to location but generally falls within the period of March to August. A cup shaped nest is built by both parents and located on the ground close to water, often among rocks, on an embankment or in a hole in a wall. Gray wagtails are monogamous. Often two broods are produced annually, although three is not unknown, where the average number of eggs in the first brood is between 4 – 6 and may reduce in number with each successive brood during the same season. Both parents incubate the eggs which normally hatch at approximately two weeks after laying. Fledging occurs two weeks later and the young may continue to be fed and supported by the parents for a further three weeks after that.

Grey wagtail feeding young

Grey Wagtail feeding chicks in nest

Grey wagtail feeding young 2

Gray Wagtail feeding juvenile

How long do Grey Wagtails live for?

The gray wagtail has an expected life span of up to five years.

Similar birds to a Grey Wagtail

Other birds in the Pipits and wagtails family