E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Motacilla alba Linnaeus, 1758
White Wagtail; White Wagtail
Family: Motacillidae
Photo of species

© Val George  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #56451)

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Distribution of Motacilla alba in British Columbia
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Status and Occurrence of White Wagtail (Motacilla alba ) in British Columbia

by Rick Toochin and Don Cecile

Read the full article with photos here.

Introduction and Distribution

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a small passerine species that is found throughout the Old World: breeding from the southeastern tip of Greenland, and Iceland; from Great Britain, south to Morocco, across all of Europe; throughout western Russia, all of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, along the Himalayas east into southern China, Mongolia, all of eastern Russia, and into western coastal areas of Alaska (Alstrom and Mild 2003). The White Wagtail winters from Great Britain, south throughout western Europe from Germany to Spain, east through Italy, Greece, into Turkey and the Middle East, south into the northern countries of Africa, east to Saudi Arabia, throughout Iraq, Iran, into India, east throughout south east Asia north through southern China, the northern Philippines, Taiwan and Japan (Alstrom and Mild 2003).

There are 9 recognized subspecies found throughout the range of the White Wagtail with only 3 having been recorded in North America (Alstrom and Mild 2003). The nominate subspecies of White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba) has occurred accidentally along the east coast of North America (Hamilton et al. 2007, Dunn and Alderfer 2011). In western North America, the White Wagtails that occur are from the subspecies that make up the (Motacilla alba ocularis/lugens) complex (Sibley 2000, Dunn and Alderfer 2011). These two subspecies were once separate species with one called White Wagtail (Motacilla alba ocularis) and the other called Black-backed Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens) (Alstrom and Mild 2003). In 2005, the AOU officially lumped Black-backed Wagtail back with White Wagtail and now the Black-backed Wagtail is considered a subspecies of the White Wagtail (Banks et al. 2005). As a result, all previous separated records are now placed under the category of White Wagtail records. The more widespread subspecies of White Wagtail (M. a. ocularis) breeds from Yenisei River in central Russia east to Siberia, south to areas around the Sea of Okhotsk, the northern end of the Kamchatka Peninsula and sparingly into western coastal regions of Alaska, but is a rare vagrant anywhere in the state away from the Bering Sea region (Alstrom and Mild 2003, Brazil 2009). The other subspecies of White Wagtail (M. a. lugens) is more restricted in its breeding range, and is found on the Kamchatka Peninsula, Kuril Islands, most of Japan, southern coastal regions of Russia around the Sea of Okhotsk, northeastern Korean Islands to the Amur Estuary, Sakhalin Island and northern China (Alstrom and Mild 2003, Brazil 2009). This subspecies is a casual vagrant in North America, but has bred in Alaska on occasion, and even with birds of the (M. a. ocularis) subspecies (Kessel 1989, Lehman 2005, Hamilton et al. 2007, Dunn and Alderfer 2011). For purposes of simplicity, the rest of the section discussing range and occurrence will not separate the occurrence of the two subspecies of White Wagtail.

South of Alaska, the White Wagtail is a casually occurring vagrant along the entire western coast of North America. In Washington State, there are 9 accepted records (Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2013). In Oregon, there are 7 accepted records (OFO 2012). In California, there are 29 accepted records (Hamilton et al. 2007, Tietz and McCaskie 2014). There are 2 records for Mexico, both from the southern end of the Baja Peninsula (Morlan 1981, Howell and Webb 2010). There is also an accepted October record for Arizona (Rosenburg and Witzeman 1999) In British Columbia, there are 12 Provincial records (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1).

Occurrence and Documentation

The White Wagtail is an accidental vagrant to British Columbia with 12 Provincial records (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). Incredibly, three records of White Wagtail were recorded in British Columbia during the fall of 2014 with an incredible photographed record from Salmon Arm which is the first record for the interior of the Province (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). There are 5 fall records for the Province: 3 in the month of September and 2 in the month of November (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). This pattern of vagrancy mirrors California where there are 19 accepted fall records that have been found from the latter half of July through late November, with the peak numbers occurring from September through November (Hamilton et al. 2007). In Washington, there are 2 fall records both of which are from the month of November (Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2013). In Oregon, there are also 2 fall records both from the month of November (OFO 2012). In California, there are at least 10 winter records, sometimes involving returning birds that successfully wintered for a couple of years in a row (Hamilton et al. 2007, Tietz and McCaskie 2014). This pattern is repeated in Oregon where there are an incredible 3 accepted winter records (OFO 2012). In Washington State, there is 1 accepted record of a wintering bird (Wahl et al. 2005, WRBC 2013). In British Columbia, there is a record from the month of March of an individual that was present for an extended period of time which likely refers to a wintering bird (Shepard and Weber 1975). Incredibly, even Alaska has had a White Wagtail successfully winter on 2 known occasions with 1 found on the Alaska Peninsula at King Cove December 16, 2000 – March 7, 2001 (Tobish 2001), and in Ketchikan from November 2005 – March 1, 2006 (Heinl and Piston 2009). The White Wagtail is an odd vagrant species along the west coast of North America, south of Alaska because there are many records for the spring migration period from California to British Columbia (Hamilton et al. 2007). Many birds must come down the coast in the fall and winter successfully somewhere in the south, maybe in Mexico which does have 2 records, for there to be so many spring records (Howell and Webb 2010). It is not likely these birds overshot from Asia at this time of year, resulting in the only logical explanation: the arrival in the fall and successfully winter in the New World. The large number of winter records from California would tend to back up this idea, but only over time, as more records are accumulated, will a definitive pattern develop. In British Columbia there are 3 records for the month of April and 3 records for the month of May (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). All these records come from coastal locations (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). This pattern is mirrored by California where there are 4 accepted spring records for the State with 1 April record and 3 May records (Hamilton et al. 2007). There are no spring records for Oregon, but there is an amazing record for the month of June (OFO 2012). In Washington State, there are 6 spring records with 2 occurring in the month of April and 4 occurring in the month of May (Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2013). These records make up the majority of the state’s records, and incredibly out number fall records which is when species would be more expected to be found (Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2013).

There have been 2 subspecies of White Wagtail that have been confirmed along the West Coast south of Alaska (Dunn and Alderfer 2011). These are (M. a. ocularis) and (M. a. lugens) (Dunn and Alderfer 2011). There are 2 photographed records of White Wagtail for Oregon that claim to be of the subspecies (Motacilla alba leucopsis) which occur in southeastern Russia, eastern China, Korea, Southeast Asia and small areas of Japan (Hamilton et al. 2007, OFO 2012), but re-examination of these records has questioned the validity of this subspecies being involved, and it has been argued that both birds were actually Black-backed Wagtail (M. a. lugens) (Mashall et al. 2003).

In British Columbia, White Wagtails have been found both alone and in the company of migrating American Pipits (Anthus rubescens) (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). The habitat preferences of vagrant birds have varied from agricultural areas, to rocky shorelines, mudflats, sewage ponds and fresh water river outlets (Toochin et al. 2014). Now that White Wagtail and the former species, Black-backed Wagtail are lumped, all birds found, no matter the time of year, can be recorded as a White Wagtail, which has greatly simplified both the identification and listing of records across North America. It is highly likely more White Wagtails will be found along the west coast of British Columbia in the future. The recent Salmon Arm record has set the precedent that the White Wagtail could show up anywhere in the province and interior birders should keep a close eye on migrating flocks of American Pipits for this little Asian gem.

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeSNAAccidentalNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

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General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2023-10-02 3:22:44 PM]
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