Wagtails to Buntings

Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava

Yellow Wagtail comprises ten subspecies – nominate flava (‘Blue-headed Wagtail’) in central Europe and western Russia, flavissima (‘British Yellow Wagtail’) in Britain, north-west France, Belgium and the Netherlands, thunbergi (‘Grey-headed Wagtail’) in Scandinavia and north European Russia, iberiae (‘Spanish Wagtail’) in southern France, Iberia and north-west Africa, cinereocpailla (‘Ashy-headed Wagtail’) in Sardinia, Italy and Sicily, feldegg (‘Black-headed Wagtail’) in south-east Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus, Iran and south Central Asia, pygmaea (‘Egyptian Wagtail’) in Egypt, beema (‘Sykes’s Wagtail’) in northern Kazakhstan and southern Russia, leucocephala (‘White-headed Wagtail’) in western Mongolia and lutea (‘Yellow-headed Wagtail’) in southern Russia.

This taxonomy is not settled, however, some authors aggregating cinereocapilla, iberiae and pygmaea as ‘Southern Wagtail’ or ‘White-throated Wagtail’ M. cinereocapilla. Each subspecies is individually variable and there is extensive intergradation involving most, sometimes producing intergrades of relatively consistent appearance, for example ‘Channel Wagtail’ (flava x flavissima) and others. Occasional variant examples of one subspecies resembling another geographically distant subspecies may also occur, whilst hybridisation between Yellow and Citrine Wagtail M. citreola is also well-established.

Six subspecies are on the British List. The subspecies flavissima is a common summer visitor to Britain, whilst nominate flava and thunbergi are scarce migrants. The subspecies feldegg, iberiae and cinereocapilla are vagrants. The Central Asian forms leucocephala and beema were formerly on the British List but have now been removed, considered to be flava variants or intergrades (Kehoe 2006), whilst birds resembling lutea have also been recorded but are generally considered to be variant flavissima.

The identification of vagrant subspecies is not straightforward and, for the most part, only feasible with males, especially adults in spring. Male feldegg is striking but needs to be distinguished both from ‘black-headed’ thunbergi and from feldegg x flava/beema intergrades. The latter may be difficult to detect, showing, for example, only limited pale flecking in the supercilium or white in the throat-sides. Female feldegg can also be relatively distinctive. Male iberiae is somewhat variable and needs to be distinguished from at least white-throated first-summer male flava and from iberiae x flava and iberiae x cinereocapilla intergrades. The subspecies cinereocapilla is also somewhat variable and needs to be distinguished from at least white-throated first-summer male thunbergi and from cinereocapilla x flava and cinereocapilla x iberiae intergrades. Observers of a potential iberiae or cinereocapilla should focus on the precise supercilium, ear covert/eye-ring and throat patterns and, perhaps most importantly, the call.

Females and first-winters of vagrant subspecies pose even greater problems. In the latter case, observers should focus on overall plumage hues. Birds with a ‘cold’, ‘grey and white’ appearance reminiscent of Citrine Wagtail may be of a vagrant subspecies but may also be Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

Vocal clues are important. Birds with harsh or buzzing calls may be of a southern subspecies but may also be Eastern Yellow Wagtail (and both southern and eastern birds can also give softer calls anyway). Sound recordings would be particularly useful whilst trapped birds should have any stray feathers retained for DNA analysis.

Claims of any vagrant subspecies are welcomed but, given the complexities, BBRC has little option but to adopt a cautious approach. Claims of male (and even some female) feldegg might be acceptable if accompanied by detailed notes including on vocalisations (or sound recordings) although good photographs would be highly desirable. Claims of male iberiae and cinereocapilla should be accompanied by detailed notes, including notes on vocalisations (or sound recordings) and, preferably, by good photographs. If not attributable definitively to either subspecies, a bird might still prove acceptable as iberiae/cinereocapilla. Claims of these subspecies in other plumages, and claims of any other vagrant subspecies in any plumage, should be accompanied by a ringing recovery. (updated May 2018 AMS).


Alström, P. & Mild, K. 2003. Pipits and Wagtails.Helm, London

BOU. 2012. BOURC 41st Report. Ibis 155: 204-207.

Corso, A. 2001. Head pattern variation in Black-headed Wagtail. Birding World 14: 162-166.

Cramp, S. et al. 1988. The Birds of the Western Palearctic Vol 5. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Dubois, P. 2001. Head pattern of Black-headed Wagtail. Birding World 14: 388.

Hudson, N. & the Rarities Committee. 2014. Report on rare birds in Great Britain in 2013. British Birds 107: 579-653.

Kehoe, C. 2006. Racial identification and assessment in Britain. British Birds 99: 618-645.

Ödeen, A. & Blörklund, M. 2003. Dynamics in the evolution of sexual traits: losses and gains, radiation and convergence in yellow wagtails (Motacilla flava). Molecular Ecology 12: 2113-2130.

Pavlova, A., Zink, R.M., Drovetski, S.V., Red’kin, Y., & Rohwer, S. 2003. Phylogeographic patterns in Motacilla flava and Motacilla citreola: Species limits and population history. The Auk 120:744-758.

Rowlands, A. 2003. From the Rarities Committee’s files: ‘Black-headed Wagtail’ in Essex in 1999 – a suspected feldegg intergrade. British Birds 96: 291-296.

Schweizer, M. 2005. Hybridization between Blue-headed Wagtail and Ashy-headed Wagtail in Switzerland. Dutch Birding 27: 235-241.

Svensson, L. 1992. Identification Guide to European Passerines. Privately published, Stockholm.

Van den Berg, A, M. & Oreel, G. J. 1985. Field identification and status of black-headed Yellow Wagtails in western Europe. British Birds 78: 176-183.

Winters, R. 2006. Head pattern of yellow wagtails in the Netherlands. Dutch Birding 28: 232-234.

Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba

White Wagtail comprises nine subspecies – yarrellii (‘Pied Wagtail’) in Britain and Ireland, nominate alba (‘White Wagtail’) in Europe (apart from Britain and Ireland), western and central Russia and south-west Asia, subpersonata (‘Moroccan Wagtail’) in Morocco, ocularis (‘East Siberian Wagtail’) in north-east Russia and westernmost Alaska, personata (‘Masked Wagtail’) in southern Central Asia, baicalensis (‘Baikal Wagtail’) in southern Siberia and northern Mongolia, leucopsis (‘Amur Wagtail’) in Mongolia, north and east China and Korea, alboides (‘Himalayan Wagtail’) in the Himalayas and central China and lugens (‘Black-backed Wagtail’) in the Russian Far East and Japan. Some authorities recognise ‘dukhunensis’ from central Russia but this is often synonymised with alba (Alström & Mild 2003). Intergradation occurs between at least some of these subspecies. The taxonomy of the complex is debated, however. Species status for both lugens and personata has been proposed by some authors whilst others have proposed a split into nine species (Sangster et al. 1998).

The subspecies yarrellii is very common in Britain, with alba a common passage migrant and very rare breeder. The subspecies leucopsis is also on the British List on the basis of a male in County Durham in April 2005 (Addinall 2005 and 2010, Hudson et al. 2009). The subspecies personata has now also been accepted onto the British List on the basis of a male in Pembrokeshire in 2016. A claim of ocularis is also currently under consideration by BOURC. Other subspecies are also potential vagrants to Britain, perhaps particularly subpersonata and baicalensis. The first listed has reached Portugal (Moore 1999).

The identification of adult males and most adult females to subspecies can be relatively straightforward, and first-winters of some subspecies are distinctive too. The precise pattern of the head, upperparts, flanks, breast, wing coverts, rump, uppertail coverts and tail should be noted. Aberrant adult yarrellii is a confusion risk for adult leucopsis. Vocal differences have been noted between some subspecies (Alström & Mild 2003, Robb et al. 2010).

Claims of any vagrant subspecies are welcomed if accompanied by detailed notes and good photographs. Sound recordings may also be of value A ringing recovery would provide additional evidence. (updated Nov 2021 AMS).


Addinall, S. 2005. The Amur Wagtail in County Durham – a new Western Palearctic bird. Birding World 18: 155-158.

Addinall, S. G. 2010. Amur Wagtail in County Durham: new to Britain and the Western Palearctic. British Birds 103: 260-267.

Alström, P. & Mild, K. 2003. Pipits and Wagtails. Helm, London

Cramp, S. et al. 1988. The Birds of the Western Palearctic Vol 5. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Eggen, M. The Masked Wagtail in Norway – new to western Europe. Birding World 16: 464-465.

Hudson, N. & the Rarities Committee. 2009. Report on rare birds in Great Britain in 2008. British Birds 102: 528-601.

Moore, C. C. 1999. Moroccan Wagtail in Portugal in July 1995. Dutch Birding 21: 31-33.

Robb, M., van den Berg, A. & The Sound Approach. 2010. Flight call identification of White, Pied and Moroccan Wagtail. Dutch Birding 32: 251-253.

Rowlands, A. 2010. From the Rarities Committee’s files: Proposed criteria for BBRC assessment of claims of ‘Amur Wagtail’. British Birds 103: 268-275.

Sangster, G, Hazevoet, C. J., van den Berg, A. B. & Roselaar, C. S. 1998. Dutch avifaunal list: species concepts, taxonomic instability, and taxonomic changes in 1998. Dutch Birding 20: 22-32.

Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs

Chaffinch comprises fifteen subspecies, normally regarded as forming three groups. A northern group includes nominate coelebs from Europe and northern Russia, gengleri from Britain and Ireland and a further five subspecies in south-west Asia and around the Mediterranean. A North African group (known as ‘African Chaffinch’) comprises africana (‘Atlas Chaffinch’) in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, harterti in north-east Libya and spodiogenys (‘Tunisian Chaffinch’) in northern and eastern Tunisia and north-west Libya. A Macaronesian group comprises a further five subspecies on Madeira, the Canaries and the Azores. This taxonomy is debated, however, with all three groups proposed as potential splits (Collinson 2001, Cramp et al. 1994).

Nominate coelebs and gengleri are both abundant in Britain, the former a winter visitor and the latter a breeder. No other subspecies is on the British List. A number of birds showing characters suggestive of ‘African Chaffinch’ have been recorded in Britain (and also in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe) but in all cases some aspects of their appearance have been considered to be anomalous, and none has been accepted. Two ‘African Chaffinches’, one referred to africana, the other to africana/spodiogenys, have, however, been accepted in the Netherlands so clearly vagrancy to Britain is a possibility (Mullarney 2006).

The identification of typical male ‘African Chaffinch’ can be straightforward. The key features are the pattern of the head, mantle, rump and uppertail coverts, underparts, wing and tail (Corso 2009). Females are only subtly different from female coelebs/gengleri. Caution is required with birds such as those referred to above which superficially resemble ‘African Chaffinch’ but which show apparently anomalous features including near-colourless underparts, scattered orange underpart feathering, olive hues in the ear coverts and grey hues in the malar region, throat and upper breast sides. It is not clear whether these birds are intergrades, aberrant northern birds or whether they may even represent previously undocumented variation in the North African subspecies. Research into their identity continues. Vocalisations of the ‘African Chaffinch’ subspecies are reported to be different both from coelebs/gengleri and from each other (van den Berg et al. 2005).

Claims of africana/harterti/spodiogenys are welcomed if accompanied by detailed notes and good photographs. Identification to a particular subspecies would depend on a ringing recovery or potentially a sound recording. (updated Dec 2017 AMS).


Brinkhuizen, D. M., Heikamp, A. & van den Berg, A. B. 2004. DB Actueel: Afrikaanse Vink in Haren. Dutch Birding 26: 84-85.

Clement, P., Harris, A. & Davis, J. 1999. Finches and Sparrows. Christopher Helm, London.

Collinson, M. 2001. Evolution of Atlantic-island Chaffinches. British Birds 94:121-124.

Corso, A. 2009. Identificazione del Fringuello africano. Quaderni di birdwatching 21: 11.

Jonker, M. Winters, R., van den Berg, A. B. & Ebels, E. B. 2008. Atlasvinken in Eemshaven in april 1999 en op Maasvlakte in april 2003. Dutch Birding 30: 215-223.

Mullarney, K. 2006. A Chaffinch resembling African Chaffinch in Ireland. Birding World 19: 109-112.

Oreel, G.J. 2004. Origin of presumed African Chaffinch on Maasvlakte in April 2003. Dutch Birding 26: 46-47.

van den Berg, A. B. & The Sound Approach. 2005. Field identification of Maghreb chaffinches. Dutch Birding 27: 295-301.

van Duijl, M. 2003. DB Actueel: Afrikaanse Vink op Maasvlakte. Dutch Birding 25: 202-203.

Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis

Snow Bunting comprises four subspecies – nominate nivalis in North America, Greenland, northern Europe and north European Russia east to the Pechora, insulae in Iceland, vlasowae in northern Russia east of the Pechora and townsendi in the Bering Sea region. Intergradation between nominate nivalis and vlasowae occurs between the White Sea and the Pechora, resulting in birds of intermediate appearance (Cramp et al. 1994).

Nominate nivalis and insulae are winter visitors and rare breeders in Britain, the latter outnumbering the former. No other subspecies is on the British List but vlasowae is perhaps a potential vagrant and birds perhaps resembling this subspecies have been noted here.

The identification of vlasowae is not straightforward, resting on the extent of white in the rump in males and its extension onto the lower back and uppertail coverts. The existence of intergrades further clouds the issue, whilst some nominate nivalis from Ellesmere Island (Canada), north-east Greenland and Spitsbergen can match the appearance of vlasowae (Cramp et al. 1994).

Claims of vlasowae are welcomed if accompanied by a ringing recovery. (updated Dec 2017 AMS).


Cramp, S. et al. 1994. The Birds of the Western Palearctic Vol 9. Oxford University Press, Oxford.