Rare White Wagtail Makes Surprise Visit to Santa Cruz

White wagtail typically breeds in Alaska and Asia

A white wagtail, an extremely rare visitor to the Central Coast, makes an appearance at the San Lorenzo River mouth Dec. 10. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

A rare winged visitor has landed in Santa Cruz County. A small white wagtail, which typically breeds in Alaska and Asia, including Eastern Russia, was somehow blown off course or is on an exploratory mission to our county, including the San Lorenzo river mouth at Main Beach in Santa Cruz. 

About three weeks ago, area birders started reporting the black and white bird, slightly smaller than a robin, sifting through the shores of Corcoran Lagoon in Live Oak at 21st Avenue. Indeed, groups of birders equipped with spotting scopes and binoculars, bird books, notepads and even folding chairs gathered at times along the lagoon’s edge and then at the San Lorenzo river mouth in hopes of claiming a glimpse or a photograph of the extraordinary bird.

“Wagtails are extremely rare anywhere in the U.S.,” said local birder Clay Kemph, one of the founders of the Monterey Bay Birding Festival. “There have probably been less than five of any species of Wagtail anywhere in Santa Cruz County that have ever been seen. This particular bird has been very cooperative and hundreds of people have seen it now, which is great.” Kemph said he has spotted the white wagtail a few times.

According to the Audubon Society, the wagtail is “one of the most common birds of open country across Europe and Asia” but enters “North America only as a scarce and local summer resident of western Alaska.”

Besides its striking black and white plumage, another sure giveaway for recognizing the bird is in its name, wagtail: It commonly wags its 6-7 inch thin tail up and down (not back and forth, like a dog).

“For some reason, there have been more wagtails than ever before in the state this year, with something like seven birds reported,” Kemph said. “Typically, what happens is these Asiatic vagrants get lost, often while flying the Asian Peninsula. They can get disorientated—maybe a storm blew them off course—while they’re trying to fly south for winter.”    

Kemph compared birding to treasure hunting.

“Anybody can spot a rare bird,” he said. “Anytime I go out birding I tell myself that I’m happy to just be able to be out in nature and to enjoy a walk, a river or the sea. But once in a while you come upon a rarity, which is certainly a treasure.” 



  1. Claire Elliott

    December 21, 2020 at 9:22 am

    Haha–love the leafcutter story and the description fo their “craftsbeeship!”

  2. Lela Carney

    December 19, 2020 at 9:20 pm

    Glad I saw this article. I saw one of these birds in a window box on my deck near Neary Lagoon.
    Striking markings that didn’t match anything local I could find. Hope they find their way on safely.

    Btw, I have leafcutter bees taking all the leaves off the lobelia in those window boxes.
    I had to remove an outdoor mirror prior to painters coming this summer and found a leaf tube in one of the siding grooves underneath the mirror. Their craftsbeeship is exquisite; alternating light/dark sides of the leaves in a herringbone pattern. When I first saw it, I didn’t know what it was or how to protect the larvae inside. So glad they’re back decimating my lobelia. Go native bees!!

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