by Jagath Gunawardana
The Forest Wagtail is a regular and common winter visitor that usually arrives in Sri Lanka during September and October.
It has already arrived in time in Sri Lanka for this season, and hence, can be seen now in shady areas of forests, parks and even in home gardens, wandering about at a slow, leisurely pace. Like other wagtails, it has a long, slim body that is kept in a horizontal stance.
However, it differs from all other wagtails because it wags the tail and the hindquarters from side to side unlike others who wag the tail up and down. This habit of wagging the tail is seen clearly not only when walking about but even at rest and when a bird is keeping still.
Wagging from side to side
It is easy to identify and unmistakable due to the double wing bars and the double breast bands across the breast and the habit of wagging the tail from side to side. The black and white markings of the bird in the dappled light of a shady place break up the outline of the body effectively and is well camouflaged, and hence, escapes attention when amongst the fallen leaves, twigs and shadows.
It is an agile bird that can walk fast, run away or fly quickly when necessary. Although all other wagtails can be seen usually on ground only, this species can be seen walking along the branches of trees in a nimble and steady manner, all the while wagging the tail. It feeds on a wide variety of small creatures such as insects and worms that are picked off from the ground and branches when on a tree. At times, it may jump or make a successful lunge at low-flying insects such as flies, mosquitoes or grasshoppers that try to flee its approach. It feeds throughout the day but is especially active during the mornings and evenings.
The call is a metallic ‘twink-twink’uttered both on ground and when in flight. It also has a harsh alarm call that sounds as a rasping ‘kraaa’, and this is made only when it is disturbed or when it senses a danger. The flight is undulating as in other wagtails, and is made up of several flaps of the wings and accompanied by a closure of the wings that forms a dip. It is an alert bird that, although not shy, does not usually allow a close approach.
Peaceful, solitary bird
During its stay in Sri Lanka, each bird maintains and keeps to a territory every day from morning to evening. It is usually solitary in the territory but at times has been observed in the company of up to four individually. It is peaceful and does not fight with others. An intruder of the same species is greeted with a harsh alarm call, which is sufficient to dissuade it from encroaching upon any further.
The Forest Wagtail always spends the night in a communal roost and all birds tend to fly off in the evening to these sites. In departing for the night roost, it has a habit of first ascending a favourite perch on a branch and calling repeatedly several times. Thereafter, it flies away to join others flying off to the roost to spend the night. In the morning, a bird arriving at its territory always remains at a favorite perch and keeps on calling continuously for a short time before descending to the ground. When disturbed, it invariably flies up to a nearby tree and keeps on calling. At times, it walks along the branch before coming down to the same area, or if the disturbance persists, to fly away.
The Forest Wagtail is found in the low country wet zone and dry zone and ascends the hills over 2,000 metres and can be seen in tea estates in Nuwara Eliya. It arrives during September and October and stays on till early or mid-April. It is interesting to note that G.M. Henry (1971) stated that it leaves Sri Lanka rather early for breeding but is not so anymore, and this change in habits may have been caused due to a change in climate conditions and seasons.
This bird is a common presence in home gardens, even in suitable localities in Colombo and other busy towns. It prefers quiet, shady areas and is seen in open forests and the fringes of thick forests, but not in very thickly forested areas. It has been observed that their numbers in the wet zone have shown a marked increase over the years and is now more common in the wet zone than in other areas of Sri Lanka.
* Wagtails and pipits belong to the family Motacillidae and are small, ground-dwelling birds.
*They have long bodies and long narrow tails, giving them a thin and graceful appearance.
* The wings are long. They are mainly insectivorous and can walk and fly well.
* Their feet are long, with three toes at the front and one behind.
*This family is represented in Sri Lanka by ten species, of which four are pipits and the other six are wagtails.
*Wagtails get their name due to the habit of wagging the posterior of the body and tail when walking and resting.
* Of the six species of wagtails that visit Sri Lanka, three are regular visitors, one is a rare migrant, another is a vagrant and the last is of uncertain status.
* The only wagtail that wags the tail from side to side is the Forest Wagtail (Dendronanthus indicus).
* The Forest Wagtail is known as the Wana halan-penda, Mookalan Halan-penda and Hela-penda in Sinhala.It is generally called Vaalaattikkuruvi in Tamil
* It is about 17cm (seven inches) long, or slightly larger than a House Sparrow.
*The head, hind neck and back are a greenish-brown (olive-brown). The black or brownish-black wings have two broad white or yellowish bands across the wing coverts. *It has a white or pale yellow eyebrow (supercilium) that joins with an eye-ring and a dark and narrow eye-stripe.
*The upper tail coverts are brown, followed by a brownish-black or black tail. The tail has a white border.
* There is a broad black or blackish-brown band across the upper-breast just below the throat and another broad broken band of similar colour on the breast.
*The under parts are dull white or grayish-white and sometimes show a pale yellow wash on the breast.
*The dark brown eyes look almost black in shade.
* The horny brown beak has a pink or yellowish pink base.
*Sexes are similar in size and appearance. courtesy: CeylonToday