Spotlight on... Yellow Wagtail

Spotlight on... Yellow Wagtail

in partnership with Wild Oxfordshire

Yellow Wagtail 

The yellow wagtail (Motacilla flavais a small but lively bird and is the flagship species for the Yellow Wagtail Project. The project, hosted by Wild Oxfordshire working alongside Earth Trust and Church Farm Partnership, is using traditional management approaches to restore wetland meadows in the hopes that this will encourage yellow wagtail back to the area and inspire other landowners to do the same.

Yellow wagtail is a migrant species that spends the summer in the UK, where they breed before venturing back to West Africa for the winter. Yellow wagtails are insectivorous, they eat insects, and their favourite foods include, damselflies, beetles, flies, worms and spiders.

They like open spaces with few hedges and are regularly seen around the feet of grazing cattle where they forage for flies and other insects. Interestingly, yellow wagtails have been linked to areas with high quality soil, which likely benefits insects, their main food source.

Yellow wagtails are ground nesting birds and usually nest in hay meadows, wet grasslands, and large fields. They will lay four to five eggs in nests that comprise of grass, animal hair or dried stalks. The species normally has two broods and it is not uncommon for them to move breeding sites, especially in agricultural settings where habitat features change dramatically, for example, changes in crop height.

These beautiful birds were once widespread throughout England and Wales however, their numbers have been declining for decades. By the early 1980s, much of the population had contracted to the East and Southeast of England. The yellow wagtail has declined by 70% in farmland habitats and by 97% in wetland habitats since 1970. This is thought to be largely do to land-use change and agricultural intensification.

Where are Yellow Wagtails?

They can be found in a number of habitats. Traditionally, yellow wagtails are considered a wetland species, and reports as early as 1821 have described them to thrive in water meadows, marshy flats, and wet grasslands, although habitats like corn and rye fields, and pastures were also noted. Today, reports suggest a shift in habitat preference, with more sightings in arable land including potato fields, oil-seed rape, and legume crops although, wetland habitats are still considered to be important.

Have you seen any yellow wagtails?

If you spot any wildlife when you’re out and about, share your records and photos with TVERC. By letting TVERC know what you have seen you will help protect and improve your local environment by increasing the quality and quantity of data we hold. 

Absence records are also very useful, so also let us know if you’ve been out and haven’t seen anything!

Your records can inform a variety of exciting biodiversity projects and help people make informed decisions about how to develop and manage land sustainably. We are a ‘not for profit’ organisation so rely on valuable help from skilled volunteers to improve our database.

Identification Help

The yellow wagtail is a small bird with a medium-length tail. Its upper parts are a green-yellow colour and underneath, bright yellow. Females tend to be duller in colour. If you watch them closely, you will notice the occasional wag of their tail, which gives them their name.

Yellow wagtails can be mistaken for grey wagtails which are a similar size and colour, although the grey wagtail also has a yellow chest and undertail. Grey wagtails do, however, have a longer tail and shorter legs, their upper parts are also a grey-blue colour which is its most telling feature.

Find out more:

Yellow Wagtails:

The Yellow Wagtail Project:   

Where should we direct our spotlight next?

If you are a recorder, a local recording group or just have an interest in a species, send us your suggestion for a species, along with some facts and a photo (if possible) to