Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea, Jiangsu, China, September. (Craig Brelsford)
Grey Wagtail
Grey Wagtail, Hainan, China, January. (Craig Brelsford)

Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea has vast breeding range covering much of northern Eurasia. In China, nominate breeds northeast China and much of north-central China, west to western Inner Mongolia and south to Sichuan. Also breeds Xinjiang, in Tianshan and Altai. Passage migrants found throughout eastern China; winter range includes much of China south of Yangtze, including Hainan. HABITAT & BEHAVIOR More tied to water than other wagtails, usually breeding near fast-flowing mountain streams; in winter also usually found near water. On migration and in winter usually solitary, rarely in flocks, and hardly ever in flocks with other species of wagtail. Forages along rocky riverbanks and shorelines, pumping tail up and down and bobbing head. Flight is even more undulating than other wagtails. ID & COMPARISON A grey, black, white, and yellow wagtail with a very long tail. Breeding male grey from forehead across mantle and scapulars to back. White supercilium, black lores. White submoustachial stripe separates grey face from black throat. Underparts as well under- and uppertail coverts yellow, rump more greenish. Wings black with white fringes to tertials. All non-breeding have white throats. Throat of breeding female ranges from completely white to white with strong black mottling; less distinct and buffier supercilium than male; and paler below especially on belly and flanks (often white). Non-breeding female paler still. Juvenile like non-breeding female but duller above and buff on breast and belly, being yellow on vent and tail coverts only. No Yellow Wagtail has black throat in any plumage, but as black throat is not always present in grey wagtail, the most reliable characters distinguishing from Yellow Wagtail are grey upperparts, a white submoustachial stripe, longer tail and no obvious wing bars on coverts but instead white bases of inner flight feathers seen as a bar in flight. BARE PARTS Short, pinkish feet. Bill black, juvenile has a pink base. VOICE Harsh tzit-tzit flight call sharper and higher-pitched than White Wagtail M. alba; male delivers complex, sibilant song during song flight that ends with male fluttering to ground or tree branch. — Craig Brelsford

THE PIPITS AND WAGTAILS OF CHINA has research on all 21 species in the family Motacillidae in China. Click any link below:

Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus
Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
Eastern Yellow Wagtail M. tschutschensis
Citrine Wagtail M. citreola
Grey Wagtail M. cinerea
White Wagtail M. alba
Japanese Wagtail M. grandis
White-browed Wagtail M. maderaspatensis
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi
Paddyfield Pipit A. rufulus
Blyth’s Pipit A. godlewskii
Tawny Pipit A. campestris
Meadow Pipit A. pratensis
Tree Pipit A. trivialis
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni
Pechora Pipit A. gustavi
Rosy Pipit A. roseatus
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens
Water Pipit A. spinoletta
Upland Pipit A. sylvanus


Daniel Bengtsson served as chief ornithological consultant for Craig Brelsford’s Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China, from which this species description is drawn.

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