Most North American birders don’t even know what a ‘wagtail’ is…it doesn’t really sound like a bird, but in Africa, the name wagtail is well known. These medium-sized relatives of our pipits are common throughout Eurasia and Africa. Within South Africa, there are six species in total. I was lucky enough to see three of these species; the Cape Wagtail, African Pied Wagtail, and Mountain Wagtail during my trip to Africa this winter.
The Cape Wagtail is by far the most common of southern Africa’s wagtails and is also one of Africa’s most commonly seen and most numerous species of bird. This species in particular is the one that has made wagtails famous in South Africa and is responsible for everyone knowing what they are, from small children to the elderly, birder or not. This species can be found in a variety of open habitats but is most often seen foraging in groomed yards and grasslands, where it slowly walks around, bobbing (or wagging?) it’s tail.
Another relatively common wagtail is the African Pied Wagtail. This species is slightly larger than the Cape Wagtail and is more boldly colored, with very striking black and white. This species can be seen foraging along estuaries, especially where they open up to the sea. I saw many African Pied Wagtails along the mouth of rivers within the Dwesa Nature Reserve feeding alongside Cape Wagtails.
The third wagtail I saw was the Mountain Wagtail. This species is uncommon and restricted to mountain streams. However, one morning I was hiking along a trail in the Cwebe Nature Reserve and as I was crossing over a small stream feeding in a coastal lagoon, spotted the Mountain Wagtail below foraging on the rocks. This particular individual is missing all the toes on its left foot, but seemed to be doing just fine and wasn’t anywhere to be found about a half hour later when I returned to check up on him.