No prize for guessing what the Willy Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) owes its name to: the habit of wagging its tail from side to side when foraging on the ground. This best known of Australian fantails is the bold and cheeky subject of our #55 Bird Photography Challenge.
What does it look like?
The largest of Australian fantails the Willy Wagtail is about 18 to 22 cms in length. The head, throat, back, wings and upper parts are black, and the belly is white, making it look like it is wearing a smart evening suit. It has prominent white eyebrows and whiskers. The eyebrows are raised as a display of aggression, and lowered as a sign of submission, particularly when two males meet during breeding season.
How does it behave?
It is an active feeder and can be seen darting around grassy areas as it hunts for insects on the ground such as beetles, spiders or in the air such as moths or flies. When foraging on the ground, the tail is wagged from side to side and the wings are flashed, possibly to flush out its insect prey. It can also be seen following large animals like cattle and sheep, often perching on their backs to catch insects they disturb.
It is fiercely territorial. It can be quite fearless in the defense of its territory and will harass much bigger birds such as magpies, ravens, eagles, kookaburras if they approach the nest too closely.
The nest is a neatly woven cup of grasses, covered with spider webs on the outside and lined internally with soft grasses, hair or fur. I was lucky enough to spot the nest shown here first, then waited patiently for its owner to return. It turned out to be a willy wagtail. It was surprisingly very tolerant of my presence. Eggs are incubated by both sexes and if conditions are favourable they may raise up to four successive clutches in one season.
The Willy Wagtail is very chatty and has a number of distinct calls in his repertoire, some melodious and others like its alarm call sounding a bit like a child’s rattle. It may explain its aboriginal name: Jitta Jitta.
Did you know?
Many Aboriginal people consider the Willy Wagtail a gossip-monger and bringer of bad news, especially in Victoria. This belief has filtered into Australian myth; those in the bush regard him with suspicion and displeasure. In Aboriginal lore, if anything is being discussed he will be shooed away so he is out of hearing range before any business or conversation is resumed. Respect and discretion should always be practised in Jitta Jitta’s presence.
Another belief is if this little character makes a clicking sound, you will know there is important news coming your way; and in some tribes it was believed this bird was a direct messenger for the Great Spirit. Should this bird be harmed or killed, thus angering the Great Spirit, destructive storms would arise as revenge.
Where is it found?
Found throughout the mainland, the Willy Wagtail is however absent from Tasmania. It inhabits open forests and woodlands. It is almost always on the move.
The photos were taken in a variety of spots in Victoria, including Connawarre, Lake Borrie, the Serendip Sanctuary, the Gippsland Lakes and Point Cook reserve with a Canon 7dII and EF 100-400 mm lens, hand held. Click on any image in the gallery to display in full screen.