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Grey Wagtail

Once common on streams and rivers but now far less so.

Photograph by: 
Pam Parsons

It is sad that I have to start most bird species reviews by saying that it is not as common as it once was but that is just the way things are as bird populations in general continue to decline despite best efforts of conservation organisations to stop the rot. The grey wagtail (Motacilla cinereais yet another species that falls into the category of 'declining' having not so long ago been a familiar sight along the Dorset rivers and streams but are now seldom seen. Being an insect feeder the grey wagtail is associated with rivers, often by bridges or where there are stony outcrops above the water level, where they can wait and watch ready to fly out and catch any insect they espy.

One of the first things you notice about the grey wagtail is that it is yellow! Many people think that they are, in fact, yellow wagtails, but the yellow wagtail is much more yellow than the grey which is so named because it flanks and front are grey.  The two species are quite different in colouration and can easily be told apart, especially when you consider that they frequent very different habitats. The grey wagtail has the long tail that bobs up and down (or 'wags') like other members of the family and also shares the short 'quip' alarm sound. 

The grey wagtail is a resident breeding species in Dorset and despite being less common there are reports from most weeks of the year outside of gap from week week 22 to week 32, that is from early June to mid-August. I personally think that this reflects the decline in the Dorset breeding population and now the grey wagtail is more likely to be seen on migration or as a winter visitor. It is also a fact that the inland river breeding sites for grey wagtail are not watched in the same way as coastal locations where migrants are more likely to be spotted.

The are records from forty nine locations in Dorset but only ten or so of these are the sort of habitat where one would expect to find breeding grey wagtails, the remaining sites are coastal where one would expect to find wintering or migratory birds.

I am not sure there is a guaranteed way to see grey wagtail for your Dorset list now other than perhaps a trip down to Lyme Regis to the river Lym where I believe they still can be seen regularly. 



Common Name Grey Wagtail
Scientific Name Motacilla cinerea
Species Group Birds Pipits and Wagtails
Status Occasional
Interest Level
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
Look for

The wagging long tail on rocks and branches in streams

Identification Notes
  • It was said every bridge across Dorset's rivers had grey wagtails nearby but that is no longer the case
  • Often confused with yellow wagtails because of their colouring but far less yellow than its cousin
  • The long wagging tail is a characteristic of the family 
Primary Habitat
Preferred Environment
Look for
Additional Identification Notes
Similar Species

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Notebook Sites List Distribution Map Some Charts Some Photographs Recent Records Guidance Notes

To see related species click here: 

Birds Pipits and Wagtails