It should never have been called grey. Such a stylish species. More stylish than most, in fact – the grey wagtail deploys its splashes of colour artfully. That brick yellow rump is meant as a signal, flashing over the cool grey pebbles of a bubbling stream or a town centre rooftop. Whenever I see one far from the high country of the north and west they seem to be carrying a spark of those wild places with them.
On Thursday afternoon I was desperate for some autumnal air to clear my head, so set out to see where my feet would take me. I crossed campus in a wide arc, ending up at the corner of Whiteknights Lake. Here a pumping station and a weir cordon off an area of still water, and on the concrete barrier separating this from the main lake sat the most confiding grey wagtail I’ve ever seen.
It was pristine in every detail. Primary yellow, intense like a child’s colouring pen. A slate grey white-pinstripe suit so sharp you’d cut yourself on it. He – for it was a male – seemed full of the joy of being alive. He stalked back and forth and made skittering leaps into the air to snap at small flies, pumping his tail vigorously when he alighted again in time-honoured wagtail fashion. Most charmingly of all, he sang to himself between jumps, repeating a hurried cheerful warble again and again to nobody in particular.
I watched from a few metres away and whether the wagtail saw me or not I can’t say. The beauty of a view through binoculars is the way your field of vision is cut down to just the essentials. I enjoy the sensation of being afforded a privileged glimpse of one bird’s private life without disturbing it. Eventually a great tit broke the spell. The two birds jostled for position and then with a single shrill call the wagtail was gone along the lake shore. I moved on, too, but the bright yellow flash on my retina and on my heart took some hours to fade.