As an American birder I don’t get to see wagtails very often at all.  In fact, the only time I have been so fortunate to see wagtails were in October of 2007 when I was in Germany and just recently on the trip to Kazakhstan.  Sure, wagtails will show up and breed in Alaska but I’ve never been there and last fall a vagrant Yellow Wagtail was photographed in Brooklyn but that was a one-day, one-observer sighting and I wasn’t the observer.  So, needless to say, the chance to see lots of wagtails while in Kazakhstan was wonderful.  Of course Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava) were the most common wagtail, with White Wagtail being next and a couple each of Grey and Citrine Wagtails crossing my field of view.  But Yellow Wagtails are a marvelously complex species that is likely more than one species*, and I was lucky enough to see one of the subspecies that is likely another species (or, at least, that is how it was explained to me at the time).

The three shots above and the three shots below, are, so far as I can tell, of the most common subspecies of Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla flava flava (if I am wrong please correct me, some of the birds with paler crowns might be Sykes’ Wagtail (Motacilla flava beema ), especially, I think, the birds in the top two pictures, the lower of which is pictured closer up in the last picture in the post).  When one thinks Yellow Wagtail one thinks of Motacilla flava flava.

The other subspecies of Yellow Wagtail that crossed my path in Kazakhstan actually landed on the lakeshore right in front of several of us birders.  There were at least five or six of them and they were accompanied by Motacilla flava flava and White Wagtails.  The new subspecies (to me) was Grey-headed Wagtail, or Motacilla flava thunbergi, which sometimes, according to Wikipedia, are also known as Dark-headed Wagtail (though I have not seen this name elsewhere in my googling).  I got a shot of some of the thunbergi that is posted below.

So one would think that with the internet as a tool that identifying Yellow Wagtails down to subspecies would be a snap, even for an amateur, right?  Wrong!  For example, I really don’t know where to classify this bird (my best guess is a female thunbergi):

So, what I learned about Yellow Wagtails is that I shouldn’t even be trying to write a post about Yellow Wagtail subspecies identification because someone who has spent a total of about two weeks in areas where a Yellow Wagtail is even remotely likely to be seen should really leave this type of information to the experts.  So, Jochen, Dale, Charlie (anyone else?) please get to it and fix my screw-ups before the internet is polluted with false information (gasp! the horror!).  Also, for reliable information written by people who know what they are talking about when it comes to the occurance of different subspecies of Yellow Wagtail in Kazakhstan one could visit the Birds of Kazakhstan page about just that.

*And, actually, under the IOC checklist that I am trying to sort my life list out on Yellow Wagtail already is more than one species, with Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) and Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) each forming their own species. Unfortunately, I was not far enough east to get to tschutschensis, though, if I ever went to Alaska I would likely see one.

This post has been submitted to Bird Photography Weekly #41. Go check it out!


My trip to Kazakhstan was made possible by the wonderful folks at Swarovski Optik who sponsored the trip not only to draw attention to their marvelous optics but to the fact that Swarovski Optik is, with the RSPB, the Species Champion for the Sociable Lapwing, a critically endangered species that breeds almost entirely in Kazakhstan. We here at 10,000 Birds, the only blog designated a Species Champion by BirdLife International, salute Swarovski Optik‘s commitment to conservation.

To learn more about 10,000 Birds’ commitment to conservation through BirdLife International’s Species Champion program and what it means to us at 10,000 Birds (or to donate to the program through 10,000 Birds) just click on the nice Species Champion logo to the right.

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.