Beijing: The Capital Of White Wagtails?

April is THE month for seeing White Wagtails in Beijing and, with six of the nine recognised subspecies recorded in the capital, Beijing has a strong claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”.  

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise nine subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.  See map below to see the breeding ranges of the nine currently recognised subspecies.

The breeding ranges of the nine recognised subspecies of White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Reproduced from “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Alström, Mild and Zetterström and published by Helm.

Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).  Since moving to Beijing, it’s been a joy to become familiar with a few more subspecies.  Here, in order of abundance, are the subspecies that have been recorded in Beijing:

1 – “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba leucopsis)

On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, a familiar bird from late March until October and an abundant migrant in spring and autumn.

2014-04-15 White Wagtail ssp leucopsis male, Miyun
Amur Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis), the most common race of White Wagtail in Beijing, and the only breeder.  Note clean white face and black upperparts.
Presumed female White Wagtail ssp leucopsis, Beijing, 10 April 2020. Note more greyish upperparts.

2 – “Eye-striped White” or “Swinhoe’s White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba ocularis)

The striking ssp ocularis is very common on migration in spring (late March-April) and autumn (Sep-Oct).  With the prominent eyestripe and contrasting grey mantle, these birds are relatively easy to identify.  

White Wagtail (Motacialla alba ocularis), a common migrant in Spring and Autumn. Breeds in northern and eastern Siberia. Note the black eye-stripe and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape.  16 April 2016, Ma Chang, Beijing (Terry Townshend)

3 – “Transbaikalan Wagtail” (Motacilla alba baicalensis)

A regular, but much scarcer, migrant than ocularis, a few of the more subtle ssp baicalensis are often mixed with flocks of the more common subspecies.  With the clean white face, white chin and throat and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape, baicalensis is, to me at least, one of the more elegant White Wagtails.  The greyish wash to the flanks is also a good feature.  

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba baicalensis). A scarce migrant in Beijing. Breeds in central Siberia, N Mongolia.  Note pale throat, compared with alba, and the greyish wash on the flanks (Terry Townshend)

4 – “Black-backed” Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)

The next most frequently encountered is the “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital (October to April).  A few can often be found in winter along the Tonghui River in Tongzhou and it has also been recorded on passage at reservoirs in Beijing.

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens), male. A scarce winter visitor to Beijing (Terry Townshend).
Male 'lugens' White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.
Male ‘lugens’ White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.  The eyestripe combined with the black upperparts make this ssp distinctive (c.f. ocularis).  The significant white in the wing is also a very good feature if seen in flight.

5 – “Siberian White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba alba)

The fifth subspecies to have appeared in Beijing is the ‘eastern’ alba.  The first record of this subspecies in Beijing was found by local birder, Luo Qingqing, on 29 March 2015. Before that date ‘eastern’ alba had been recorded in northwest China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and was considered a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai.  It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm).  Luo Qingqing’s sighting from 29 March 2015 was not only a first for Beijing but a first that we are aware of in all of east China!

IMG_4401 (1)
The first record of M.a.alba in Beijing and, we think, eastern China, 29 March 2015. Note black chin compared with the similar baicalensis.  Photo by Luo Qingqing.

Since 2015, no doubt due to greater observer awareness and more coverage, alba has proved to be annual in small numbers in Spring. 

‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003).  This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.

6 – “Masked Wagtail” (Motacilla alba personata)

In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in the capital.

2012-04-14 White Wagtain ssp personata, Ma Chang, Beijing

M.a.personata at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 14 April 2012. The first record of this subspecies for the capital.  Up to March 2020 there have been a further six records of this Central Asian race in Beijing.

It wasn’t long before the second personata appeared, a stunning adult male found by Steve Bale in April 2015 along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring.

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The second “Masked Wagtail” (M.a.personata) for Beijing, found by Steve Bale on the Wenyu River.

Following a recent sighting at Miyun Reservoir on 26 and 30 March 2020, there are now at least seven records of personata in the capital.

White Wagtail ssp personata at Miyun Reservoir on 26 March 2020 (Terry Townshend)

To summarise, Beijing is a brilliant place to see White Wagtails.  Thanks to greater observer awareness and significantly increased coverage by a growing number of birders, the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing is six and at least five have been recorded every year since 2015.  And, of course, there is still the potential for alboides to occur, which could bring the total to seven. With statistics like that, Beijing has a justifiable claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”!  

 

Ref: “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Per Alström, Krister Mild and Dan Zetterström, published by Helm (2003).

This post was originally published in April 2015.  It has been updated to take into account post-2015 records in order to better reflect the status of each subspecies in Beijing.

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