Friday, January 4, 2013

The common white wagtail

White wagtail. (Montacilla alba)

A few weeks ago Birdlife Malta announced that the 7,761 white wagtails were counted as they flew towards the large trees surrounding the Great Siege monument in Republic Street in Valletta where they roost. This was the largest number of wagtails counted since surveys were started in 1986. The trend over the past years has been a steady increase showing that this wintering species is doing quite well. 

Most, if not all wagtails wintering in the Maltese islands, roost in Valletta. Many species of birds including sparrows and starlings roost in trees often in urban areas. Communal roosting is advantageous to birds mainly because the large number of birds resting together increase the temperature of their surroundings. This type of roosting also provides safety in numbers. A birds forming part of a large flock stands a much better chance of surviving an attack by a predator than a solitary bird. Another advantage is that young inexperienced birds can follow older more experienced birds when leaving to search for food.

The wagtails are counted as they approach their roosting sites. Birdwatchers post themselves around Valletta to count the birds as they fly in small groups. Watching the small flocks arriving is exciting in itself but watching a large flock of roosting birds as they fly over their roosting site is a spectacle that is difficult to forget. Sparrows can be seen and heard roosting in trees in several towns and villages in Malta and Gozo especially during the summer months when the number of sparrows reaches a peak following the breeding season. In winter large flocks of starlings can be seen performing aerial feats as the flock twists and turns as if it is a single living creature whilst seeking a place where to land.

The white wagtail, known in Maltese as zakak abjad, is a small elegant bird with grey, black and white plumage. It is a wintering visitor to Malta arriving in November and leaving in March. It is often seen in urban areas waging its long tail as it walks slowly feeding from the ground. In the countryside it is a bird of open spaces preferring pools and puddles around which it pursues insects, spiders and other small creatures. In urban areas it often feeds on hard ground and can be seen on pavements and roads.

Recoveries of ringed birds have shown that wintering wagtails arrive from central and northern Europe. Birds have been recovered from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Denmark and Sweden countries with severe winters. Birds living in areas with milder winters tend to be sedentary and do not migrate.

The white wagtail breeds throughout Europe except in some parts of the Mediterranean. It is also found in most of Asia. Its range extends over more than 10 million km² and it is considered as a common species. It has not declined in numbers and has managed to exploit human changes such as man-made structures which are used for nesting sites and increased open areas which are used for foraging.

This article was published in The Times on 11.03.09.

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