Autumn had arrived. The blistering heat of the previous week had been replaced by more seasonal temperatures, although it was still warm and a little muggy with the cloud cover. At Cranwich the monotonous grey sky, occasionally broke to reveal patches of pastel blue and the occasional ray of pale gold sunshine. The smell of a BBQ gently wafted on the breeze, the annual get together for all those who have worked at the site through the year. Tummies were full, the BBQ having been topped off with a delicious Pavlova. In a small triangle section of reeds we had set two nets. We have to rewind two days to understand why, as the afternoon was drawing on, we were setting nets. It was as Lee was leaving the site two days ago at dusk that he had noticed a number of Pied Wagtails coming into this patch of reeds to roost. At this time of year we often get Pied Wagtails, Starlings and Swallows coming into various patches of the reeds to roost. While the Swallows move on quickly, leaving our shores for the heat of Africa, the Pied Wagtails and Starlings remain and will often roost in the reeds throughout the winter months, making the most of the safety in numbers. We have often attempted catching at roosts over the years, with varying degrees of success. The key at this site is figuring out where the birds are roosting on any given night.
So here we were, the sun setting behind a bank of clouds, tinging the very edges of the broken cloud a soft pink, opening our nets in the patch of reeds where Lee had seen the birds diving into only two days before.
No sooner had we opened the nets when the distinctive ‘chiszick’ call of a Pied Wagtail comes from overhead. One, two, three birds come over with their distinctive bounding flight. They dive into the tall trees next to the reed bed, gathering together. Soon more birds arrive, we watch as they circle overhead, dropping into the tree and then from there into the reed bed, others take the direct route heading straight for the reeds. With dusk drawing in, the light draining from the surrounding landscape, finally no more birds come in and we return to the nets to see what we have caught. This time it is definitely success! As the light disappears, the trees and reeds become black silhouettes against the dark sky, Tawny Owls begin to call (for them the business of establishing territories for breeding starts now) and 34 Pied Wagtails are carefully removed from the two nets.
With everything packed up we got down to the business of ringing and processing these birds, quickly becoming familiar with the ageing characteristics. Most are young birds of the year, but there are a couple of really stonking adult males, their plumage fresh and glossy, the black contrasting with the white. But in my mind these birds shouldn’t be called Pied Wagtails, or even White Wagtails (it is the same species across Continental Europe, Iceland and the Faroes Island but they are pale grey on the back and flanks rather than black), I think they should be called Smokey Wagtails. The combination of whites, blacks and soft greys gives me the distinct impression of smoke and soot.
This collection of birds are safely roosted overnight in secure bags before being released into the dawn light the following morning.