Ringing Features

Identification Guide to Autumn Wagtails by Iain Livingstone


This guide is to help Ringers and Birders separate Pied Wagtails (M.a.yarrellii) from White Wagtails (M.a.alba) in the hand. It is of greatest use in the autumn and early winter periods. A Spanish photographic guide of White Wagtails is also available on the internet here .

Our project began in September 1999 and, like most other Ringers and Birders, we were unfamiliar with the winter plumage of White Wagtails. We were catching good numbers of Pied Wagtails at roost and were using Svensson to age and sex the birds, when the penny suddenly dropped! The pale, grey-crowned first winter birds were not funny looking female Pied Wagtails but were White Wagtails. The full details are written within Svensson but his guide is aimed at continental Ringers already familiar with the race being handled which we in the UK are not!

We have continued to catch both Pied and White Wagtails in Lanarkshire every Autumn since and have also been able to travel to Europe to handle White Wagtails in both the Autumn and the Spring and are now fully confident that we are correctly identifying the majority of the birds we catch.

With an increasing number of Ringers becoming involved in Autumn wagtail ringing there is a real chance to increase our understanding of the plumages, and migration of these races nationwide. The aim of this article is to encourage more Ringers to get involved and to become confident at separating the two races in the hand so that they will not all simply be recorded as "Pied Wagtails". IPMR now gives us the chance to record the races separately.

Identification Features

With a bird in the hand, you can look through the plumage systematically, we usually start by ageing, then examine the plumage from the head down, mantle, back, rump then wings. Most birds are straight-forward but there are those that we remain uncertain of (5-10%), these are submitted as Pied Wagtails but with no race given.

Numbers in bold and in parenthesis refer to the photographs.


Juveniles: Be very aware of the juvenile plumage (Photos 1 & 2) . Juveniles are fairly easy to pick out as their plumage is soft and "fluffy", with bare areas on the belly and flanks when blown (as normal), and the gape flange can be prominent.

Photo1 Pied Wagtail Juvenile
Photo 2 Pied Wagtail Juvenile

As the season goes on the birds undergo a partial (post juvenile) moult resulting in a first winter plumage, with the expected contrasts between moulted and un-moulted wing feathers. Depending upon the stage of this moult some birds can be assigned to one race or the other when several feathers - key for indentification - have been replaced (see below).

The main pitfall here is late in the season perhaps after having handled a few first winter Whites. It is easy to forget about the juveniles and jump in too soon identifying them as Whites without thoroughly checking all details. We have juveniles here in Lanarkshire until late August but I expect this will vary across the country. (Throughout August, September and into October, very occasionally November at Slapton in Devon).

Juveniles have a dirtylooking upper body and chest with pale greyish/off white tone and an untidy, narrow, plae-blackish or brownish chest band. I submit all juveniles as Pied Wagtails (unraced), not yet able to tell the two races apart in this plumage.

Adults: Undergo a complete post-breeding moult so may be caught prior to, during or post-moult. Ageing should be straight-forward using normal principles. Watch for waxy sheathes on outer primaries late in the season and be aware that in Whites especially the tertials may appear brownish and look slightly worn even when fresh.

Racial Classification

Having first aged a bird I then look at the head, chest, flanks, mantle, back, rump and finally the wing coverts.

First Winter: Pied Wagtails (Photos 3,4,5,6,7,& 18)

Photo 3 Pied Wagtail 1st winter
Photo 4 Pied Wagtail 1st winter
Photo 5 Pied Wagtail 1st winter
Photo 6 Pied Wagtail 1st winter
Photo 7 Pied Wagtail 1st winter
Photo 18 Pied Wagtail 1st winter

Head: All birds have a black crown, generally sharply demarcated from the white/yellowish forehead which extends up nearly to eye level (5 & 18) . The vast majority also have the pure black extending back onto the nape, with the exception of a few females that have some dark olive/grey edges to these feathers (3 & 4) . The face is almost always white, extending down the chin and throat (5) . Some have a lemon yellow wash over this white, which tends to be uniform (4) .

Chest: The upper chest has a broad, jet black necklace, often deep in the centre. The chest and lower abdomen are white bordered by dark smokey-grey flanks (6) .

Mantle: The mantle colour is generally a dark grey with blackish background or black feathers admixed (18) . The extent of the black varies, with males probably being blackest. The rump (area above the upper tail coverts, covered by the closed tertials) is invariably black in males, and dark blackish grey to dark grey in females (7) . The upper tail coverts are always black.

First Winter: White Wagtails (Photos 8,9,10,11,12,13,14 & 15)

Photo 8 White Wagtail 1st winter

Photo 9 White Wagtail 1st winter

Photo 10 White Wagtail 1st winter

Photo 11 White Wagtail 1st winter

Photo 12 White Wagtail 1st winter

Photo 13 White Wagtail 1st winter

Photo 14 White Wagtail 1st winter

Photo 15 White Wagtail 1st winter

Head: The head pattern is significantly different from Pieds and is one of the main features in separating the two races. Female type birds (8,9,10,11,14 & 15) have a completely olive grey nape and crown extending to the forehead, which usually has a small narrow band of pale white covered with a marked olive wash. Male type birds (12 & 13) tend to have black showing through particularly on the fore crown with more concealed, and have slightly more white on the forehead but many are between these two and have to be left unsexed (Svensson). The ear coverts are greenish white with a patchy, almost olive appearance (8 & 9) . The chin and throat are mainly white with an olive wash. Some show a pale supercillium not unlike a Yellow Wagtail's.

Chest: The upper chest has a variable black band, typically thin and narrow (8) , but can be almost as white as Pied's on a few males. The rest of the chest,vent and under-tail coverts are spectacularly white, almost wader like in brightness. The flanks are a pale grey, contrasting with the chest. Some show a few faint brownish streaks parallel to the flanks.

Mantle: The mantle colour can vary, a few birds, (10-20%) are pale grey "classic" Whites but most have an olive wash (10) , this colour extending down to the rump, which is slightly darker grey, never black. The upper tail coverts are usually black or very dark grey but a few birds have the mantle colour extending all the way down to the tail.

Adult: Pied Wagtails: (Photos 16 & 17)

Photo 16 Pied Wagtail adult (photo missing)

Photo 17 Pied Wagtail adult

Head: The two sexes have completely black napes, crowns and very white foreheads and faces.

Mantle: The majority of females have dark grey admixed with black mantles only a small minority <2% have pale grey mantles. The males are the familiar black backed, occasionally with grey mixed. The rump and upper tail coverts are black.

Adult White Wagtails : (Photos 19,20,21,22,23,24 & 25)

Photo 19 White Wagtail adult

Photo 20 White Wagtail adult

Photo 21 White Wagtail adult

Photo 22 White Wagtail adult

Photo 23 White Wagtail adult

Photo 24 White Wagtail adult

Photo 25 White Wagtail

These are not what you would expect and will be picked up once aged as adults and compared to adult Pieds that have been handled.

Head: Many females have a completely grey nape and crown (24) with some black concealed below (as with winter male Reed Bunting) and with a narrow whitish forehead but some have no black on their crowns at all (21,22 & 23) . A few exceptional adults have black crowns and a white forehead (19) but the majority (80%) have a light covering of grey with the black showing through (20,24 & 25) . The face is white but with a speckled, almost black, wash over-lying especially on the ear coverts. The pictures show more contrast between the black and white on their heads than you will see in the hand.

Chest: As first winter but with slightly wider band.

Mantle: As first winter.

Wing coverts: (Photos 20,24 & 25)

White Wagtails : Lesser and median coverts have a neat,broad grey edge and dark-grey centres. The greater coverts are dark grey, edged pale grey/greyish white, with whitish tips.

Pied Wagtails : Lesser coverts are black,thinly edged grey and the median coverts are dark grey/blackish with white edges. The greater coverts are usually black with a marked white edge, except in first winter females where they can be grey edged also. Tertials, even in adult birds, can appear to look worn in some individuals (20,24 & 25) although this is more noticeable in the field.

The differences in wing coverts between the races, have become increasingly noticeable to us. Where possible take some time to compare birds together until familiarised.

Other characteristics: Whites are often, but not always smaller than Pieds on biometrics, but they also "feel" different, they lack the broad chest of the Pieds, often the sternum on Pieds presses into the palm of your hand, Whites feel sleeker, more like Yellow Wagtails, when handled.


First Winter Pied Wagtail : Black nape and crown with a neat edge to the white forehead and face. Slight grey edges to some hind crown feathers. Many with lemon yellow wash on the face. Black chest band is wide, especially in the centre. Dark smokey grey flanks, dark grey mantle without olive wash often admixed with black, black/dark grey rump and black upper tail coverts. Greater coverts edged white, or greyish in females.

First Winter White Wagtail : Grey nape, crown, mantle with an overall olive wash. Face and throat yellowish with olive wash. The upper chest has a narrow black band the rest is pure white including vent and undertail coverts. Wing coverts mainly grey with darker centres, greater coverts edged grey with whitish tips. Pale grey flanks, darker grey rump and occasionally grey upper tail coverts (not common). Females' crowns are mainly grey with a narrow white/olive forehead and males have some/moderate amounts of black, edged olive grey, showing through with a narrow white band on the forehead.

Adult White Wagtail : Have mainly grey crowns with black concealed, some have more black showing and much concealed with a white forehead. They have white faces but are slightly mottled and lack the pure white faces of the adult Pieds. They can also have very noticeable wide grey edges to greater coverts and tertials.