Saturday, April 9, 2011

White Wagtail, Point Mouillee

Updates:  On the evening of 4/12, I again visited Point Mouillee and saw the bird again only briefly.  I had the privilege of looking for the wagtail with one of Michigan's most experienced birders, Alan Ryff. Alan has identified the bird as a second calendar year male M. alba ocularis.

Still present, same location and behaviors, through 04/24/2011.  Likely still present, but it rained all day on the 25th and I have not seen any reports of the bird since the 24th.  Will update if the bird is reported again.  Of note, I went out again on the 23rd with Julie Craves and Darrin O'Brien.  The bird had been seen by others just a half hour earlier in the Vermet Unit but we were unable to find it.  Even when the bird is known to be present, it's not a guarantee.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Finally, a major rarity on a day and near enough that I could chase.  

A White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) was found by Adam Byrne this morning while doing one of his Point Mouillee surveys.  Adam spread the word quickly via Caleb Putnam.  Darrin O'Brien called me and I then I told Eric Huston with whom I was leading a field trip for Ford Motor Company engineers and their families at Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor.  

The bird proved challenging to see.  It was very flushable and flew between a wet field area near the Vermet Unit and cell 3 of the banana. Being small and fast moving in either location, but especially on the extensive mudflats of cell 3, it proved hard to locate.  The first looks I got through Lyle Hamilton's spotting scope (I was a real putz and failed to see the bird at all on my first two attempts looking through Lyle's scope) were very distant. Fortunately, the bird chose this time to momentarily settle down and remained long enough to allow everyone to finally get relatively close and satisfying looks.

Of the large group of birders who saw the bird at the same time I did, only Jerry Jourdan got photographs and, remarkably under the circumstances, some astonishing video.  Jerry's White Wagtail video is linked here.

For those who saw the White Wagtail today and for those who may try tomorrow, I think Jerry describes it best when he wrote on his listserve post - "it is extremely spooky and very difficult to see in the mudflats.  Patience is key and a scope will be required."

I made the long walk back to the Mouillee Creek parking lot with Robert Epstein, who was also very generous with his spotting scope today, and we talked about the experience.  At one point, I suggested I might give up. Robert is a veteran of many successful bird chases and spoke about what it takes to see a rarity.  In summary, luck and patience are required.  I don't think of myself as having either of these traits particularly, but I am happy I had them today.

Of note, it occurred to me that the only reason we could all dash around the dikes looking for this bird today was because it was cold and gray. If this had been a hot and sunny day chase, we all would have been dying of dehydration with all the running around we were doing.

Comments on subspecies:  


Of course, I came no where near getting a photograph of the Point Mouillee White Wagtail today, but I do have my two amateur brightly lit photos of a juvenile bird (M. alba yarellii, also called Pied Wagtail, the subspecies found in Great Britain and Ireland) that I saw on Ramsey Island in Wales last June.  I was told by the RSPB staff that the bird had only fledged that morning, but to me it seemed to be an already skillful flier.  As I recall, even getting these two photos was challenging. During my trip, I tried several times for photos of adult birds but was completely unsuccessful every time.  


Mladen Vasilev, of Bulgaria, has excellent photos of White Wagtail on his website.  The habitat that appears in many of Mladen's photos seems similar to what the Michigan wagtail has found at Point Mouillee.  However, all of Mladen's photos from eastern Europe are of a plain-faced bird with white forehead, cheek and nape likely making them the alba subspecies of M. alba.  The © 2009 second edition of [Princeton Field Guides] The Birds of Europe describes the alba subspecies, as in M. alba alba found on continental Europe.   

The bird that Jerry has digiscoped so well shows a very distinct, straight, thin black ocular line extending from the bill through the eye to the nape in addition to a very pale gray back.  This favors the ocularis subspecies of M. alba that breeds in northeast Siberia.  This leaves the lugens subspecies of M. alba.  This was formerly the Black-backed Wagtail that is shown in the © 2000 Sibley guide.  This is a black-backed bird with a more-extensive black bib and larger white wing patches in adult breeding birds.  The lugens subspecies also has the thin ocular line and it breeds in northwest Alaska.  I checked much older field guides and only White Wagtail is described.  This suggests that the ocularis and lugens subspecies have been lumped, split and are now lumped again.

File:White wagtail distribution.PNG
Worldwide distribution range map for M. abla copied from Wikipedia.
Note the tiny bit of yellow in northwest Alaska.

My subspecies investigation has been corrected a couple of times.  The gold standard for wagtail identification is Pipits and Wagtails by Per Alstrom and Krister Mild.  Alstrom and Mild devote 49 pages to White Wagtail identification secondary to the complex taxonomy.

Along with Jerry Jourdan's blog, Jerry's Birding/Digiscoping Blog, Caleb Putnam also has excellent commentary, photos and video on his blog, Avian Tendencies.

Good birding! 

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I agree about the weather, Cathy- Although on top of the dike, exposed to the lake wind, it was cold, when I was walking I sweated a lot.

By the time I arrived there about five minutes after you left, the bird was energetically feeding, so it was really calm and only flushed when a biker or birder walked by. I don't know how it's acting today.

Good birding,

Sarah T.