Status and Occurrence of Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) in British Columbia
by Rick Toochin
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Introduction and Distribution
The Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) is a small passerine species that breeds from the arctic coast of the northwestern Mackenzie River Delta, west across the arctic coast of the Yukon, west throughout northern and western Alaska, west into Russia from the Chukotka Peninsula, south and east to Amurland as far west as eastern Kazakhstan, north-eastern Mongolia, and Northeast China (Godfrey 1986, Alstrom and Mild 2003, Brazil 2009, Dunn and Alderfer 2011). This species winters from southern Japan, southern China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, the Greater Sundas, and northern Australia (Alstrom and Mild 2003, Brazil 2009). Birds that breed in North America migrate back to Russia to winter in southern parts of Asia. One Eastern Yellow Wagtail subspecies called (Motacilla tschutschensis simillima) that breeds in eastern Siberia has been recorded as a casual vagrant on islands in western Alaska north to St. Lawrence Island and is accidental on the Alaskan Mainland (Gibson and Kessel 1997, West 2008). Some authorities recognize this as a subspecies of Eastern Yellow Wagtail which Clements et al. (2014) merges with the nominate subspecies of Eastern Yellow Wagtail called (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis). In 2004, the AOU recognized a split in the former species called Yellow Wagtail which was officially split into two species: Eastern Yellow Wagtail and Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava). The systematics of the Western Yellow Wagtail is complicated and is currently not fully understood (Banks et al. 2005). There are many distinct subspecies that are currently lumped together under Western Yellow Wagtail that could be split into more species in the future (Banks et al. 2005). The Western Yellow Wagtail breeds from Europe, North Africa, through Turkey, the Middle East, Iran, north and east to Eastern Mongolia, and across southern Russia into the Arctic regions of Siberia to the Kolyma River (Alstrom and Mild 2003, Brazil 2009). This species winters from Sub-Sahara Africa, areas of the Arabian Peninsula, India and areas of South and South-east Asia (Alstrom and Mild 2003). Currently, the AOU doesn’t recognize any records of Western Yellow Wagtail for North America (Banks et al. 2005). It is unclear if there are any records for North America, but observers should keep this in mind when reporting Eastern Yellow Wagtail anywhere in North America (Banks et al. 2005).
All records south of Alaska of the Eastern Yellow Wagtail are presumed by authorities to be of the subspecies (Motacilla t. tschutschensis) due to its abundance in northern Alaska (Hamilton et al. 2007). A photographic record from Ocean Shores in Washington State of an adult bird found on July 29, 1992, was believed to be of the subspecies (Motacilla t. tschutschensis) (Wahl et al. 2005). Due to the similarity of immature and winter plumages of the two known Eastern Yellow Wagtail subspecies that are known occur in North America in Alaska, it is presumed at this time that all West Coast records south of Alaska, pertain to the more abundant (Motacilla t. tschutschensis), but in the future, a more in depth study of these records could change our current understanding (Hamilton et al. 2007).
Along the west coast, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail is a casual vagrant with almost all records occurring in the fall (Roberson 1980, Hamilton et al. 2007). In Washington State, there are only two accepted state records by the Washington Bird Records Committee (Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2013). In Oregon, there are only three accepted state records by the Oregon Bird Records Committee (OFO 2012). There are eighteen accepted state records for California by the California Bird Records Committee (Hamilton et al. 2007, Tietz and McCaskie 2014). There is one accepted record for Nevada (Cressman et al. 1998, Banks et al. 2005, NBRC 2015). There is even an incredible accepted record of “Yellow Wagtail” for Alabama, but it is unclear which species is involved (Banks et al. 2005, ABRC 2015). There is one accepted record for Mexico from the Baja Peninsula (Banks et al. 2005). An even more spectacular record is of a photographed “Yellow” Wagtail from Plum Beach, Brooklyn, New York, from September 7, 2008 (NYSARC 2008, Guthrie 2009). In British Columbia, there are over ten Provincial records and all have come from coastal locations (Campbell et al. 1997, Toochin et al. 2014).
Occurrence and Documentation
The Eastern Yellow Wagtail is a casual vagrant to British Columbia with fourteen Provincial records (Campbell et al. 1997, Toochin et al. 2014). Of these records 10 are from the fall period which mirrors all other records down the west coast (Hamilton et al. 2007, Toochin et al. 2014). British Columbian Records have occurred from September 1 – October 18 which is exactly the same time period for California with records in that state starting from mid-August to the end of September (Hamilton et al. 2007, Toochin et al. 2014). Birds found in this period are almost always juvenile or immature birds making identification of subspecies impossible due to the overall similarities of both Eastern Yellow Wagtail subspecies at this age (Hamilton et al. 2007, Toochin et al. 2014). Of note, there are no spring records from California to Washington (Hamilton et al. 2007, Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2013).
In British Columbia, there are three spring records spanning from April 30 – May 16 (Toochin et al. 2014). These birds were most likely individuals that successfully wintered somewhere in the New World. An intriguing record comes from the Queen Charlotte Islands of a bird seen while field crews were conducting alpine bird surveys (Walmsley 1994). An adult male Eastern Yellow Wagtail was watched singing and doing nuptial flights in early June 1993, and was seen again in the same alpine area a few times until early July 1993 (Walmsley 1994).
There are no confirmed breeding records of Eastern Yellow Wagtail away from the north coast of the Yukon and the Mackenzie River Delta in the Northwest Territories (Hamilton et al. 2007). Unless further survey work is conducted in similar areas in the future, this record will always remain an unsuccessful or possible breeding attempt (Walmsley 1994). It should be noted that a second bird was never reported, and no nest with eggs or chicks was ever found despite many searches (Walmsley 1994). There is only one other record along the west coast that doesn’t fall into the established fall period. This was of an adult breeding-plumaged bird found at Ocean Shores Washington on July 20, 1992 (Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2013). Almost all records to date south of Alaska have been along the coast (Hamilton et al. 2007). There is an intriguing inland record from Boulder City, Nevada, on September 11, 1994 (Cressman et al. 1998, NBRC 2015), and another from the San Quintin Plain in Baja California in Mexico (Hamilton et al. 2007). Most Eastern Yellow Wagtails are found solitary which was the case of an immature bird found on Bearskin Bay, in Queen Charlotte City, by James Bradley on September 29, 2014 (J. Bradley pers. Comm.); however, some Eastern Yellow Wagtails have been found with large groups of American Pipits. This was the case on September 29, 2014 when the author found an immature Eastern Yellow Wagtail with 500 American Pipits in a corn stubble field in Sumas Prairie, Abbotsford (R. Toochin pers. Obs.).
It is highly likely this species will occur again in British Columbia since it breeds in North America and is highly migratory (Campbell et al. 1997). The most likely areas for future sightings are coastal estuaries and agricultural fields (Campbell et al. 1997). Since there are a couple of inland North American records, interior observers should watch for this species in the fall and check areas that get large numbers of American Pipits. The recent record of an immature White Wagtail in Salmon Arm on September 21, 2014, sets the precedent that a wagtail can be found inland in the province (D. Cecile pers. Comm.).