by Don Roberson

Monterey County birders are fortunate to have recorded four species of wagtails: Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava, Gray Wagtail M. cinerea, Black-backed Wagtail M. lugens, and White Wagtail M. alba; it is presumed on geographic grounds that any White Wagtail in western North America is of the race M. a. ocularis which breeds in northeast Asia (sometimes called the "Swinhoe's White Wagtail"). Two individual wagtails in the White/Black-backed group in Monterey County have stirred significant interest and debate. I have separate pages full of photos and commentary on these:

As it happens, both wagtails were found by observers who were unsure which species they were seeing. I was telephoned on both birds and asked to help try to identify them in the field. During these efforts I also tried to obtain photos. I believe both birds were White Wagtails of the race ocularis but the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) does not agree at this point. Recent information, however, may change this status. I consider them White Wagtails in the listing below. One of the White Wagtails and the only Black-backed Wagtail frequented sites on the Pajaro River which divides Monterey County ("MTY) from Santa Cruz County ("SCZ") to the north. Santa Cruz County also has an early September record of Yellow Wagtail.

The identification of wagtails in this group is notorious difficult, probably because they are so closely related. They were split as separate species by the AOU (1983) "because they are sympatric with limited hybridization in Kamchatka and southern Ussuriland (Kistchinshi & Lobkov 1979)" [quote from AOU 1998]. Both species have been recorded several times in California. There are three primary sources of identification information to which I have referred over the past decade: Morlan (1981), BMRC (1983), and Sibley & Howell (1998). However, a new book by Per Alström and Krister Mild on wagtails and pipits is currently (Nov 2001) in press heading for publication in fall 2002.

Recent biochemical evidence suggests that "Yellow Wagtail" may actually be a composite of three separate species (Voelker 2002); if so, the MTY record is presumably from the NE Asian population on geographic grounds [in 2004 the AOU adopted this split; see below]. Likewise, White and Black-backed Wagtails are from NE Asia, although it is possible that they should not be considered separate species, even though it is also possible that "White Wagtail" is an amalgam of several species (Voelker 2002). Research continues on these interesting questions.

Monterey County records of wagtails to date are:

EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL Motacilla tschutschensis
    An immature seen at Pt. Pinos on the beach opposite from Crespi Pond on 19 Sep 1982 by Jon L. Dunn and his tour group and by Ronald L. Branson. This bird was not photographed but details were accepted by the CBRC. The early September occurrence is consistent with the dates of other vagrant Yellow Wagtails in California. This was the fourth state record at the time.
    In July 2004, the AOU split the Yellow Wagtails M. flava of Eurasia, although they did not delineate just how they would do this. Rather, for purposes of North America, they considered those that have occurred to be Eastern Yellow Wagtail M. tschutschensis

GRAY WAGTAIL Motacilla cinerea
    An immature was discovered at the Salinas River mouth 9-10 Oct 1988 by David A. Sibley. During its two-day stay it was viewed by many interested observers and various photos were taken (photo right © 2001 Don Roberson). This was the first state record of Gray Wagtail and remains the only California record to date (Feb 2001), and one of very few for North America. Besides the plumage pattern, note also the slim shape and very long tail.

WHITE WAGTAIL Motacilla alba
     Two records: a first-year bird was at Moonglow Dairy, Moss Landing 23 Dec 1988-21 Jan 1989, returned to the Pajaro R. mouth on both sides of the MTY/SCZ line 4-11 Dec 1989, and returning a third winter at Pajaro R. mouth 7 Nov-1 Dec 1990 and moving back to Moonglow Dairy 21  Dec 1990-21 Jan 1991. Many photos and commentary on this saga are linked by clicking HERE or on the left-hand photo below.
    Another first-year bird was along the Big Sur River near the river mouth 28 Sep 1998. Many photos and commentary on that bird are linked by clicking HERE or on the right-hand photo below. [Both photos below © D. Roberson]

    An adult returned to the Watsonville sewage ponds, SCZ, 7 Aug-22 Sep 1979 and on 20 Jul-21 Sep 1980. Initially found by Carolyn Fredricksen and Steve Allison, it was a first California record and viewed by many observers. It also spent time in the Pajaro River bed and on at least 17 Aug 1979 was seen foraging and flying on the MTY side of this border stream. The photograph (right © Al Ghiorso) was submitted to the CBRC and accepted. The huge white wingpatch comprising all the upperwing coverts is visible in this shot and forms a large white area on the wing in flight.


American Ornithologists' Union. 1983. Check-list of North American Birds. 6th ed. A.O.U.,  Washington, D.C.

American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American Birds. 7th ed. A.O.U.,  Washington, D.C.

Bird Migration Research Center (BMRC). 1983. Bird-banding Manual, Identification Guide to Japanese Birds 2:7-11. Yamashima Inst. Ornithol., Shibuya, Tokyo (text in Japanese; scientific names in Latin)

Howell, S.N.G. 1989. Identification of White and Black-backed wagtails in alternate plumage. West. Birds 21: 41-49.

Kistchinski, A.A. and E.G. Lobkov. 1979. [Spatial relationships between some bird subspecies in the Beringian forest-tundra.] Moskov. Obs. 1 Spyt. Prirody, Otd. Biol. Bull. (n.s.) 5:11-23 (in Russian)

Morlan, J. 1981. Status and identification of forms of White Wagtail in western North America. Continental Birdlife 2:37-50.

Sibley, D.A., and S.N.G. Howell. 1998. Identification of White and Black-backed wagtails in basic plumage. West. Birds 29:180-198.

Voelker, G. 2002. Systematics and historical biogeography of wagtails: dispersal versus vicariance revisited. Condor 104:725-739.





Page created 26 May 2000 & 7 Feb 2001 & 14 Nov 2002