text and nearly all photos by Don Roberson

On 23 Dec 1988, Doug E. George discovered a wagtail at Moonglow Dairy. It remained until 21 Jan 1989. It was difficult to approach but I was able to take these two photos (below):

Frank Schleicher took black-and-white prints (one of which is reproduced; right). All the photos show a bird with uniformly gray upperparts, the appearance of two white wingbars (rather than anything approaching a white wingpatch), and dark bases to the secondaries (both in flight and on the ground). Doug George's details note a "smudgy buff area" between the base of the upper mandible and the gray crown; he also saw "some 'horn' color" on the "short thin bill."

The CBRC has accepted this as a White Wagtail M. a. ocularis. In commenting on this record at CBRC request, David Sibley wrote "photographs show a first winter White Wagtail, probably a female. ID is fairly straightforward based on the mostly dark greater and median coverts with small white tips forming two narrow wingbars, dark bases on secondaries contrasting with tips of greater coverts. No plumage of Black-backed matches this small amount of white on the folded wing."

While I was watching this bird near dusk on 23 Dec 1988, "it took off on its own, calling and flying up over our heads and undulated straight away to the north, very high in the sky, until lost from view over the Moss Landing salt ponds." This is in a straight line toward the Pajaro River mouth which is approximately 2.5 miles distant [the river mouth itself is just a few hundred yards south of the Monterey/Santa Cruz county line]. The wagtail returned to Moonglow by the next day, however, and was never found on the ground away from Moonglow in winter 1988-89.

The next winter a wagtail of the White/Black-backed-type was actively feeding on beach flies on Sunset State Beach, just north of the Pajaro R. mouth, on 4 & 6 Dec 1989 where it "flew up and down beach 6-8 times during 1/2 hour observation" (Earl Lebow details on 4 Dec). Others saw it at the Pajaro R. mouth over the next week and one observer reported two wagtails at the Pajaro R. estuary on 11 Dec 1989. He saw these birds after searching 90 minutes around the vicinity without any success. No photos were taken of this bird(s), and in the end the CBRC accepted the presence of one wagtail here over the period as a White/Black-backed Wagtail. This bird was described in general terms as having "wingbars" (details by Lebow and George Ledec).

The next winter a wagtail of this type was found at the Pajaro R. mouth on 7 Nov (by Bob Merrill) who saw it fly south at bit, then north up the dunes along Sunset State Beach. He eventually relocated it a half-mile farther north in the middle of Sunset State Beach, Santa Cruz Co. This bird was gray above with a more "distinct white eyeline -- broadening behind the eye" than the bird studied here the year before (Bob Merrill details). It was back at the Pajaro R. mouth itself on 8 Dec (John Mariani) and on 1 Dec (Jean Marie Spoelman). It was not photographed.

On 21 Dec 1990, a wagtail of this type was discovered by Doug George at Moonglow Dairy, and remained there off and on until 19 Jan 1991 (photo right and all following photos). It was seen flying west toward Moss Landing on some days. At Moonglow itself the wagtail first usually foraged on a small dairy pond adjacent to Elkhorn Slough but later in its stay spent almost all its time feeding on flies on piles of drying manure much farther away from the Slough (pers. obs.). Given the three consecutive years of occurrence, the fact the wagtail could often be missing from its usual spot during its stay, and observations of the wagtail in the winters of 1988-89 and again in 1990-91 flying in a straight-line direction toward the "other" sites of occurrence, I considered it the same White Wagtail M. a. ocularis returning three consecutive winters and commuting irregularly between the Pajaro R. mouth vicinity and Moonglow Dairy. I also considered the plumage to be consistent with an adult female White Wagtail.

Vagrant wagtails are known to use the same sites during migration stops in consecutive years [e.g., Black-backed Wagtail on the Pajaro River at the Santa Cruz/Monterey Co. border in 7 Aug-22 Sep 1979 & 12 July-21 Sep 1980 (Roberson, 1985, Monterey Birds) and White Wagtail at Arroyo de la Cruz, San Luis Obispo Co., 9 Oct 1983 & 5-8 Oct 1984 (Roberson, 9th CBRC rpt., W. Birds 17:64)] and other wagtails have returned to the same wintering site for consecutive years. An adult male White Wagtail near Saticoy, Ventura Co., 22 Nov 1987-6 Mar 1988 returned 16 Oct 1988-4 Mar 1989 and again (after not being located in 1989-1990) 8 Nov 1990-9 Mar 1991. During its stay it commuted between two sites about two miles distant (Pyle & McCaskie, 13th CBRC rpt., W. Birds 23: 116; Heindel & Garrett, 16th CBRC rpt., W. Birds 26:12).

Other observers, however, felt the 1990-1991 Moonglow Dairy bird was either not an adult, or not a White Wagtail, and one thought it was a first-winter Black-backed. In disagreeing with my identification, one observer candidly stated that "we were immediately stuck by the bird not looking like the adult White Wagtail that has wintered three of the four years in the Ventura/Saticoy area area in Ventura County." To this my response was "yes" (I had seen the Ventura bird) "but that was a male and this Monterey County bird is a female." Sibley & Howell (W. Birds 29: 180-198) considered it not conclusively identified but labeled it "probably White (adult female)." In the end the record circulated numerous times through the CBRC and was considered only a "White/Black-backed Wagtail" by most members with but one (Peter Pyle) voting to accept as an adult female White Wagtail. This series of photos (all © 2001 Don Roberson except for the Frank Schleicher black-and-white shot from 1988) document the occurrence, and they permit you to make your own evaluation.






Page created 26 May 2000 & 7 Feb 2001