Grey abandon

Known around the country as ‘Polly washdish’, ‘nanny washtail’ and ‘scullery maid’, the grey wagtail is much more than it seems, says naturalist Conor Jameson

Illustration by Corine Bliek

Words by Conor Jameson

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I have been enjoying occasional encounters with a colourful bird in central Cambridge, noting its readiness to use the roofs of buildings as well as the walls, pathways and even the parked punts along the river.

Like many creatures attached to aquatic habitats, it is recovering from the years of industrial pollution that rendered many river catchments no-go areas, including our waterways. And it has spread from its hilly haunts to be a familiar feature of even our most urban settings, particularly outside the breeding season. I’m talking about the delightful grey wagtail, guaranteed to lift the spirits on the greyest of days.

It strikes me that the so-called ‘grey’ wagtail doesn’t get the credit or the limelight that it deserves. I am on something of a quest to put this right – starting with this article. I have often wondered whether fame and fortune would have been different for the grey wagtail had fate bestowed on it a different (and more accurate) name. Because few birds can have been left with so underwhelming, so misleading and so unprepossessing a monicker.

The defining feature of this bird is not its greyness, far from it. Instead, you could point to its bright yellowness – to be fair, the name ‘yellow wagtail’ was already taken by its country cousin – or its hyper-activeness, its constantly bouncing tail, its exuberant flight, its sharp vocalisations, and, perhaps most of all, its fondness for waterways. So, perhaps we should think of it as the ‘water wagtail’, at the very least.

How did it happen that history passed down to us this grey thing, of all names? Author Francesca Greenoak records in her precious book All the Birds of the Air that the grey wagtail has had a number of much more poetic local names over the years, such as ‘Barley Bird’ and ‘Oatseed Bird’. Both names were shared between the grey and yellow wagtail, reflecting a time when the two were lumped together in people’s minds.

To the good people of Sussex, the bird was known as ‘dishwasher’. Wagtails must have been regular companions at the water’s edge while people washed clothes and dishes; their bobbing tails were perhaps seen to mirror the actions of dipping and lifting. This also gave rise to some other wonderful nicknames such as ‘dishlick’ (Sussex), ‘Polly washdish’, ‘nanny washtail’ and ‘scullery maid’ (Wiltshire).

I was also pleased to learn from Victorian author WH Hudson that in Arabic the species was known as the ‘salutation bird’. When I next see one – chin up, chest out – I may be tempted to return the salute.

The grey wagtail is so perfectly in harmony with the running waters of its environment, it seems to mirror the sound and movement of the current. It has a pretty song, but not one that is readily heard against this backdrop – indeed in one of his letters to a friend, Hudson asked the question “why do wagtails sing so seldom?”. It has a piercing flight call, which it utters as it bounds overhead. Its endlessly flicking tail reflects the constant movement. It has also drawn comparisons with the naiad – the Greek female spirit of water courses.

It even has a fondness for the infrastructure we create around waterways: the bridges, weirs, locks and reinforced embankments of our canals. It nests in cavities close to water, in walls and on ledges under bridges. It forages busily at the edge of water and is adept at fly-catching in mid-air, using its long tail to steady its flight.

Another old name, the ‘winter wagtail’, reflects the fact that it might be much more conspicuous and widespread at this time of year, when the birds of upland streams move to the more benign conditions and sheltered environments of the lowlands. Wagtails, like other water birds, are at the mercy of the elements and hard weather can make life difficult for them. The population of grey wagtails has plummeted during some of the harder winters we have known. During these difficult times, many will have found sanctuary overseas; they are capable of impressive migrations in times of need.

I myself have witnessed a rare and extreme example of their intrepid nature. I was working in the Seychelles at the time, for BirdLife International, helping local schools to adopt and take action to protect their local waterways. One day, while exploring a waterfall in an area of lush forest, I was describing the grey wagtail to my colleagues. Imagine my surprise when, as we crossed a stream at the end of a long trek, I heard the familiar trill and looked up to see a grey wagtail chirruping overhead. It was 1,000 miles from the nearest continent, Africa, but looked very much in its element. Fancy meeting you here, Polly washdish!

I reported it to the island’s Bird Records Committee, who confirmed there had been records of grey wagtails visiting the Seychelles in the past. The man in charge of the records had never seen one and so when he finally found it, a couple of days later, he was extremely pleased. I earned my stripes there, I think, thanks to the salutation bird.

But if I had to choose a favourite from the long lexicon of old names for the grey wagtail, I’d probably go for Polly washdish, brightening even the greyest of days.

Where to look for the grey wagtail

One of the best things about grey wagtails is the way they can turn up on virtually any good stretch of river or canal. “People see grey wagtails – and pied wagtails for that matter – on most of our canals and navigable rivers,” says Trust ecologist Jonathan Hart-Woods. So you should keep your eyes and ears open on any part of the network.

Pay particular attention to places where they can perch and run in search of invertebrate food, such as lock gates and weirs. These birds like hardware – even concrete! You can also focus your search around adjoining lakes and reservoirs and where waterways pass through towns and cities. In fact, these urban spaces might even provide the richest pickings! Read on for wagtail spotting tips from our ecologists around the country…

North East: Chesterfield Canal and the Aire & Calder

“I remember watching a grey wagtail bob about on Pudding Dyke Weir on the Chesterfield Canal,” says the Trust’s Imogen Wilde. “The bywashes along the Thorpe Locks and at Forest Locks are good too, being shallow and fast moving.”

“We have grey wagtails active around Crown Point Weir all year round on the Aire & Calder Navigation,” says Jonathan Hart-Woods. “On some waterways they even have wagtails boxes on lock gates. Maybe we should canvas to get this built in as a standard feature when we make new lock gates!”

Also in this region, Pocklington Canal runs from the Vale of York into the Yorkshire Wolds. Waterways like this are like the M1 for grey wagtails, commuter routes taking them from higher ground to lowland retreats in autumn and winter.

North West: the Rochdale Canal and the mighty Llangollen

Tom King, the Trust’s ecologist in the north west, is used to seeing grey wagtails in Manchester city centre along the Rochdale Canal. The birds are another cheering reminder that the canal has recovered from a time when it was so polluted that nothing could live here. This canal is the only really easily accessible water-space in the city. It’s a good example of how the Trust’s network allows wildlife into the heart of our cities and enables people to experience and enjoy it.

Also in this region, the Llangollen Canal has a stronger current than most and may have aspirations to be considered a river! Grey wagtails are used to the splash and thrust of even the most vigorous upland torrents, so will feel quite at home here at any time of year.

East Midlands: the Cromford Canal and the winding River Trent

“In the East Midlands, the Cromford Canal in Derbyshire, near Codnor Park Reservoir, is a good bet for grey wagtails,” says Trust ecologist Imogen Wilde. “They are often seen there, among the disused locks. The Facebook page has loads of great photos from this area.”

Penny Foster from the Trust’s East Midlands team reports seeing wagtails nesting on the lock gates at Watford Locks in Northamptonshire, as well as the Marsworth lock flight in Hertfordshire. “They don’t seem bothered by the boaters opening and shutting the gates!” she is happy to add. Finally, the long and winding River Trent is a magnet for wintering grey wagtails, as it drains a vast area of central England.

West Midlands: The Ashby Canal and the Grand Union

The languid Ashby Canal is said to be one of the country’s most scenic waterways; glimpses of grey wagtails can only add to the magic. Grey Wagtails have also been reported on the Stourbridge Canal. The species is also known to be a regular inhabitant of the lower end of the Grand Union Canal, near Limehouse Basin, and it is likely they will make use of the waterway along it length, moving safely between the South East and the West Midlands.

South East: the Kennet & Avon

The Kennet & Avon is described as “a gentle lowland canal that wanders through deeply wooded valleys east of Bath and then more open chalklands of Wiltshire.” A great place for a relaxing walk and one which offers the real possibility of encounters with grey wagtails.

South West: the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal

The Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal has claims to being the least tamed of all the canals of the southern half of Britain. It is also close to the hills from which grey wagtails will come in autumn and winter – young birds dispersing from their natal homes and adults looking for winter homes with regular food and shelter.

London: Unlikely sightings in our capital

There have been recent reports of grey wagtails seen in unlikely locations such as Upminster and Streatham, individual birds sometimes staying for days on end when they find a stretch of water – and adjacent gardens and parks – where the pickings are rich. it is always worth keeping your eyes and ears alert along canals in the city, especially in harder weather when the shelter and microclimates of the big city can be rather appealing to a wandering wagtail.

Posted on 22/11/2019