As I enter the small scrub a cacophony of sound erupts from the boundary trees. I spot the first one out of the corner of my eye, sitting on the telegraph wire, ruffled front and preening manically. Against the flat white sky my retinas do not register any colour, even with my binoculars. The grey silhouette shifts and shakes constantly, neck bent at right angles, first to the left then to the right, picking away at feathers on the underside of outstretched wings, raised aloft like a Sunday morning yawn. A long, slender tail flicks and wags and waves seemingly with a mind of its own, its movement disconnected from the now otherwise completely still shadow. Then another appears on the wire. By the time I’ve shuffled ten yards to the left, out of the direct sunlight and edged closer to the wire there are around thirty birds all neatly grouped together. Some rest on the cable, others underneath in the canopy just below. The cacophony returns as amongst themselves they chatter and bicker. From this spot, beneath the tree-line, the silhouettes are cast against the dull metal of huge digester tanks from the opposing sewage works. Unhindered by the white winter sun now my retinas register the plumage; black and white.
Pied Wagtails are a solitary bird but at this time of the year they will flock to roost and feed, sometimes in great numbers. There’s not much feeding going on here though and it’s not yet midday. The sun is beaming and given that it’s only the 8th of January, I’m comfortably warm. Twelve degrees warm in fact. It seems I’m not the only one feeling the false stirrings of spring. On my way out of the house a Honey bee, dazed (or hungry), dive-bombs the window. A ladybird walks as if in slow-motion across the windowsill, dragging uncased wings across the plastic in an effort to warm them into motion with the morning sun. A white-tailed bumblebee hovers around the blossom that has been in flower since before Christmas and even the Robins have paired up in recent days. They’ve clocked the new nest box too, standing guard atop the fence that conceals the wooden cube from prying eyes and enthusiastically chasing away the ever-intrigued Dunnock. I feel a twinge of excitement at the thought of early seasons’ change but lets not get ahead of ourselves. I feel for the Bees, knowing that next weekend snow is forecast.
Looking closer at the Wagtails I notice something I’ve never really paid attention too. The birds look a little scruffy around the edges, their plumage less pied and more grey-white. Nearly all of them are juveniles, first winter birds not yet fully developed the jet-black crown and bib of the adults. It’s a case of safety in numbers, learning life’s lessons together in a sort of ‘nursery’ flock. In Spring the black highlights will grow bolder, the white cheeks more prominent and the birds will again disperse, becoming solitary again to begin adulthood.
The wagging tail is a beautiful mechanism, a piece of tailor-made design. The natural habitat of the Pied Wagtail is the same as that of the Grey and Yellow Wagtails; riverbanks, reed beds and pond edges. In this the tail serves its wagging purpose as camouflage, frantically bobbing up and down to mimic the ripple of water, an important adage when stood on a rock in a busy stream fishing for invertebrates on and below the surface. Of course, unlike the Grey and Yellows we are most familiar with the Pied Wagtail thanks to its habit of patrolling car parks, roadside verges, industrial estates and town centres. In fact, winter flocks that number hundreds roost within our major towns and cities up and down the length and breadth of the UK in Winter, a far cry perhaps from the gentle murmur of the riverbank but it is with good reason. Pied Wagtails are a small bird, no larger than a Great tit; the lengthened tail merely creates an optical illusion of a bird much larger. Our town centres are on average five degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside in winter, heat retaining glass and concrete create a cosy micro-climate away from the bitter frosts of the fields. Likewise, our warm town centres harbour insect life that in cooler climes ceases for winter. For Pied Wagtail at least, the town centre represents warmth, food and safety. Essential fodder for small birds that inevitably struggle in hard winters. If you are cast adrift at Heathrow airport on a winters eve you are likely to witness a spectacle as up to one thousand Wagtails descend to roost in lamp-lit trees around the terminal buildings. I remember watching Autumnwatch some years ago where in two small Laurel bushes right in the centre of Sheffield, hundreds of Wagtails came to roost. Once their evening chatter had died down they were invisible, unobserved by passers-by, none-the-wiser.
For all their frantic non-stop movement, Pied Wagtails often go unnoticed as they strut around the pavement in search of ants and spiders. Their black and white plumage blends into the surrounding grey-scape of our office blocks, matchbox terrace housing and shop fronts, Yet living, feeding and sleeping amongst us these little characters are often our nearest neighbours and they do have real character. Observe one for just a moment and you realise just how charming and endearing these birds are, weaving in and out of the hustle and bustle, unfazed.
Preening done and bickering resolved, the flock soon moves on. With real heat in the sun and a sense of spring in the air the edgeland today feels awakened, alive. It is bittersweet. I know that worse weather is still to come. Spring in all her glory is still a long way off and the current trend of flowering plants, the buzz of bees and the birds seeming readiness to mate does worry me. With this false dawn of spring there will be tough times ahead in the coming weeks, inevitably there will be failed nests and casualties amongst the early rising Bees. Seeing this flock of ‘teenage’ Wagtails gathered as shadows on the wire does bring its comforts though. They have fared well, the previous breeding year a success. Bickering or not, these birds are sticking together, safety in numbers and who knows? Right now they might well be hunkered down in the concrete-warmth of a town centre near you, biding their time, conserving energy, gearing up for the real thing.