White Wagtail Breeding in Teller, Alaska
by Bryce W. Robinson
Working again in Nome this summer, although for a relatively short time, provided me with the opportunity to attempt to see some of the birds of the region that I had missed in previous years. One such bird was the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Before traveling to Nome, my friend Luke had informed me that he had already seen the species in a lagoon near the Red Knot camp, so my chances were promising.
Red Knot work was in full swing when I reached Nome, which limited the chance to try for the wagtails. In the meantime came a report of a White Wagtail AND a Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) in Teller some 40 miles from our camp. On 5 July, a day of rain and weather, we took advantage of the inability to work with Knots and headed to Teller to try for both birds.
When we reached Teller we began the search, more focused on the plover than the wagtail as the bird was a lifer for most in the group and the wagtail was not. After 20 minutes of fruitless plover searching Luke spotted our other target, a wagtail at the north end of the village. Luke and I both set out to photograph and film the bird and soon realized it was carrying food. Another adult appeared, also with food, and our minds tipped to the possibility that these birds bred in the area. Jim (head of the Red Knot project) watched the food carrying adult and followed it back to an electricity box on the side of a nearby building. The bird entered the utility box, and exited without the food. We quickly backed the truck up below the box to gain access and check for nestlings. Sure enough a grass nest sat in the corner of the box containing small nestlings.
After quickly documenting the nesting situation we left and let the adults return to provisioning the young. At the end of the day we left Teller with an excellent experience with White Wagtail, but unfortunately no Common Ringed Plover. Such is birding.
A few weeks later on 22 July, Luke and I returned to Teller on another poor weather day to check on the success of the brood. We soon found multiple juvenile wagtails chasing the adults, begging for food. Luke mentioned that White Wagtail had bred in Teller in years past, but I was left feeling like I had just struck oil – My first White Wagtails, breeding at that!
The experienced left me excited. I’ve found that the best way to deal with the hangover excitement of a great birding experience is to illustrate, so after the initial sighting of the adults in early July I took advantage of the next day of weather and painted a White Wagtail on the inset of my Nome 2016 sketch journal.
Seeing a bird species for the first time, and one that is quite uncommon in North America at that, is the best of birding. Especially if it feels like its been a long time coming. To see the bird and gain a first hand account of its breeding habits, well that is something else. It has a context, and context is what makes my experiences fruitful. I love life histories of birds, especially regarding breeding. I consider this experience to be the example of the what I seek when I step out the door aimed at observing birdlife.
July 2016 in Nome, Alaska had some magic, or something. But it seems that it was a continuation of a theme that started in early May. I bet that if you were to ask anyone that traveled to Nome, AK in the summer of 2016 they would agree. It was special summer, and I can’t wait to hear reports of what the fall brings in the region.
Hey B, was the call in the video the wagtail’s song, or it’s alarm call? Or an even better question- how does one know the difference? Btw- it’s cool that you call red knots “knots”. Never heard that before. Hope all is well. M.
Hey there Mr. Mike. Thanks for always asking excellent questions. The bird in the video is alarm calling, though it is quite similar to the calls you might hear from a bird flying overhead. I’m not going to try and explain the difference between their song and call in words other than saying the song is more wandering, smooth, and musical rather than the choppy quick quality of their call. Here is a resource that will properly answer your question: http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Motacilla-alba