Alaska Science Center

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla tschutschensis

High-Priority Species List

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail is the highest ranking bird for early detection of the Asian H5N1 virus in North America. It overwinters in the epicenter of Asian H5N1 outbreaks in southeast Asia and Indonesia where it uses open areas with water, is often associated with agriculture and domestic animals, and congregates into flocks of thousands of birds at evening roots. Eastern Yellow Wagtails are thus likely to become infected with Asian H5N1 through direct contact with both wild and domestic birds in Asia and carry it to Alaska where an estimated 1,400,000 individuals of the species breeds.
In Alaska, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail is a common breeder on the coastal uplands of western Alaska and the northern foothills of the Brooks Range where they co-occur with other Paleotropic migrants that rank high for surveillance of Asian H5N1, most notably Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) and Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe). One location with high densities and a successful history of capture work on Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Bluethroat, and Northern Wheatear is Cape Romanzof in the Askinuk Mountains. Moore (2000) monitored at this site an average of 26 nesting pairs of Eastern Yellow Wagtails annually from 1996-1999 and captured and banded most nesting adults in 1997 and 1998. Also, McCaffery et al. (1998) captured 43 juvenile Eastern Yellow Wagtails that were staging during fall migration in the same area in 1997. Each of these studies was conducted with a crew of 3-4 people. Thus two crews of four people could capture a total of 100 adults and 100 juveniles of Eastern Yellow Wagtail in the Askinuk Mountains to contribute to surveillance of Asian H5N1 in North America in 2006. Based on past work at the site (McCaffery et al. 1998, Guzy and McCaffery 2002), up to 50 adult and 60 juvenile Bluethroats and 30 adult and 30 juvenile Northern Wheatears could be captured incidental to the work on Eastern Yellow Wagtails in 2006 at little to no additional cost in field sampling.
We will capture a target sample of Eastern Yellow Wagtails at the western- and eastern-most ends of the Askinuk Mountains at Cape Romanzof and Kawialik Lake, respectively. The emphasis of this study will be on Eastern Yellow Wagtail due to high breeding densities of this species in the area (Moore 2000); however, both Bluethroats and Northern Wheatears will be captured and sampled incidentally to work on wagtails. One field crew of four will be stationed at Cape Romanzof Long Range Radar Site and work out of the residential facilities there. A second field crew of four will be stationed at a remote field camp at Kawialik Lake, part of the Yukon Delta NWR. We will conduct field work beginning on about 21 May, as wagtails arrive on breeding territories, through 15 August, near the end of the autumn migration of wagtails through the Askinuk Mountains (McCaffery et al. 1998). Capture efforts will be directed towards two separate periods of the wagtails’ annual cycle, nesting and fall migration which will sample adults and juveniles, respectively.

During the nesting season, which lasts from late May to mid-July, we will search for territorial wagtails and follow them back to their nests at both Cape Romanzof and Kawialik Lake. We will temporarily position 2-3 mist nets around each nest to capture both adult male and female wagtails visiting the nest to incubate eggs or feed young. During fall migration, which lasts from mid-July to mid-August, we will work solely out of Cape Romanzof and operate two mist-net arrays of 15 mist nets each at the mouths of Nilumat and South creeks. These are locations where staging wagtails have been previously captured during fall migration (McCaffery et al. 1998). Nets will be operated daily for 8-10 hours beginning at local sunrise. During nesting and migration, all captured wagtails and other target species will be aged, sexed, swabbed for actively shedding avian influenza virus, measured, banded, and released. A 50 µl of blood will be collected from the brachial vein of each bird upon request by the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC). Additionally, all other non-target species of birds captured in mist nets incidentally to capture of wagtails will be similarly handled and sampled. Personnel will follow the protocols of the NWHC to protect themselves from Asian H5N1 and to collect, store, and ship samples. Cloacal swabs will be sent to the NWHC through Anchorage or Bethel for screening for Asian H5N1. Cloacal swabs from non-target species will be stored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage and will be made available to the NWHC for screening upon request.

To obtain samples representative of wagtails from across the Asian wintering range of this species, sampling should also be conducted at additional sites in Alaska where the species reaches high breeding densities. Thus, work on Eastern Yellow Wagtails using the same methods as in the Askinuk Mountains will be conducted off of the road system on the Seward Peninsula in 2006. Additional surveillance among Eastern Yellow Wagtails will be considered for 2007 at Cape Pierce, Togiak National Wildlife Refuge; Kotzebue Sound; and the northern foothills of the Brooks Range along the Colville River. For the latter of these sites, EasternYellow Wagtail, Bluethroat, and Northern Wheatear may be captured incidental to sampling of Arctic Warbler in 2006 (see Arctic Warbler protocol).

No. of samples: 100 adult and 100 juvenile Eastern Yellow Wagtails
Sampling locations: Askinuk Mountains, Alaska. Cape Romanzof (1st preference) and Kawialik Lake (2nd preference).
Sampling timeframe: 21 May-15 August
Sample demographics: Adults and juveniles, males and females.
Methods of capture: Live capture, release.
Other targeted species: Bluethroat; Northern Wheatear; Wilson’s Warbler; Savannah and Golden-crowned sparrows; Common and Hoary redpolls.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Migratory Bird Management
Contact: Steven M. Matsuoka

Yukon Delta NWR
Contact: Brian J. McCaffery

U.S Geological Survey
Alaska Science Center
Contact: Colleen M. Handel

U.S. Air Force.
Contact: Gene Augustine
GUZY, M. J., AND B. J. MCCAFFERY. 2002. Bluethroat (Luscinia sveccica). In The Birds of North America, No. 670 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

MCCAFFERY, B.J., C.M. HARWOOD, AND H. MOORE. 1998. Results of the 1997 avifaunal inventory, Cape Romanzof Long Range Radar Site, Alaska. Final report for Department of Defense Legacy project 97611CES001. Prepared for U.S. Air Force, 611th Air Support Group, Civil Engineer Squadron/Enironmental Flight, Elemendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Report, Bethel, Alaska.

MOORE, H. 2000. Nesting biology and population ecology of Yellow Wagtails breeding at Cape Romanzof, Alaska. Thesis. Cornell University, New York.

Distribution map of Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Ranking Score: 17.5

Asian H5N1 ranking criteria for Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla tschutschensis.

Total of partial
contact with Asia1
Contact with
known "hot spot"2
Habitat used in
Pop. in Alaska4
Can samples be
Winters in Taiwan, Indonesia, Sunda Isles, and Moluccas
s.e. Asia and Indonesia
Terrestrial. Open areas with water, sugarcane fields, rice fields, sparse grasslands, cassava plots; usually in assoc. with wild and domestic grazing mammals
Approximately 1,400,000
Breeding concentrations identified. Easy to capture during breeding and migration
Image of Eastern Yellow Wagtail, photo by B. McCaffery