When I started birdwatching I remember avidly reading a field guide in wonderment at the range of birds one could find here in Britain. I recall thinking one bird I really had to see was the Grey Wagtail. What a stunning bird with such beautiful sulphur yellow colours below, the male with a black bib and the soft grey back to contrast, such a graceful creature, constantly bobbing its tail and confidently announcing its presence as it flies along the river or over the riverside trees. When I first found a Grey Wagtail it was in typical habitat on an upland stream in the north-west of the country but in the last 20 years the bird has spread to lowland streams and become much more widespread. Despite this, the bird is amber listed, numbers having declined moderately in recent years.
Here in the Blackwater Valley we are very lucky to have these beautiful birds present all year and as numbers are swollen by migrants from Northern Europe from August to October and wintering birds, they are easier to find than normal. The Grey Wagtail likes fast-flowing water so the best place to see them is near weirs, sewage works outfalls and the faster flowing stretches of the river. The best place to look for them is Blackwater Park, they can often be seen from the footbridge adjacent to Blackwater Bridge. If that fails, walk up river towards Hawley Meadows and check the outlet from Camberley Sewage Works on the bend in the river just after the end of Blackwater Park. I have also seen them at Frimley Hatches, Tongham Pool and at Swallowfield. Another place to look is the New Mill restaurant at Eversley where Kingfishers are also often seen.
Nesting usually takes place in man-made structures, bridges and culverts providing ideal conditions for them, often with patches of shingle in the riverbed where the insects on which they feed can be easily caught. Each nest is likely to produce four to six young birds and the young are identified in winter by a very pale breast with a buff throat, although if you see one clearly preening the black bib can be seen beneath the breast feathers. Older birds have a little yellow on the breast and are whiter on the throat.
These birds are not that hard to find but they can be overlooked by assuming they are Pied Wagtails, they are often near to each other on lakesides and their calls are similar. The Grey Wagtail has the longest tail of all the Wagtails and the bright yellow under the tail gives it away in all plumages. It might be mistaken for a Yellow Wagtail but these are now very hard to find and only pass through the Valley sparsely on migration. Grey Wagtails rarely flock, unlike Pied Wagtails, so the most you’re likely to see in one place in autumn is one or two. Keep your eyes open for them and you’ll see what I mean about their striking plumage, even in winter.
Berkshire Ornithological Club