After not seeing a single wagtail at Brandon Hill all Summer, I was glad to see the greys and pieds start to return in the Autumn and white wags bouncing past overhead from Cabot Tower, during the Autumn migration watches. Most of the greys and all of the whites were just passing through, but the pieds had returned to stay for the Winter, after a busy breeding season, mainly in the northern uplands. All of a sudden, Bristol was alive with small black and white birds, dashing around by the Floating Harbour, bobbing around the rooftops, wagging their tails or announcing their prescence with a loud, but sprightly ‘chizzick’! These mainly British and Irish birds are the darker and slightly more sedentary race of the white wagtail, which occurs across the continent and parts of Asia and Africa, and have become quite closely associated with towns and cities in the UK. Urban areas are the perfect habitat for pied wagtails, as they are often built up around water-ways and are usually a few degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside, which means that there are lots of insects for them to eat and plenty of cosy places to shelter. During the Winter, for extra protection against the elements, pied wagtails will gather together at dusk to form large communal roosts – sometimes containing thousands of birds, which return year upon year to established sites. Roosting communally also has other benefits for the birds – those struggling to find food can follow birds in good condition to richer feeding sites and extra pairs of eyes are better for looking out for predators, particularly under the glowing artificial lights of the city.
This Winter I have been watching the pied wagtails all over the city and aware of their roosting behaviour, I have been keeping an eye on their direction of flight as dusk approaches as I was convinced that there must be a sizeable roost somewhere in Bristol. The birds around the Harbour all seemed to be flying north or north-east, roughly in the direction of Castle Park and after many nights of following them, I could tell roughly which area they were using. I first came across the tell-tale sign of the roost-site shortly after, whilst walking through the centre of town one morning – two London plane trees on the central reservation of a busy main road, with fresh droppings on the floor surrounding them and large buildings on either side. That night, I came back and found the birds, and I have been returning frequently during the last few weeks to watch the goings on. In total there are around 500 wagtails, which gather on the rooftops surrounding the roost each night – some nights it’s quite uneventful, with the birds filing in shortly after arrival, but other nights, they mill about and gather in massive groups which often attracts the attention of a local sparrowhawk. I have seen the sparrowhawk on a number of occasions now, but the peregrines from Castle Park are roosting and feeding on Castlemead quite regularly at the moment, and they always chase it off and don’t seem too interested in the wags.
At Brandon Hill this weekend, the Friends of Brandon Hill and Tree Bristol planted the orchard with a little help from the kids from St. George’s and QEH. We all had a great time and I’m looking forward to watching and helping the saplings develop into mature trees, which will provide some great wildlife habitat and plenty of fruit for the local community. Not sure that many people will know what to do with the medlars though!