Wednesday, 23 March 2011

More Pipit headaches?

Montgomery birder Paul Leafe sent me pictures of a Pipit photographed at Llyn Coed y Dinas, Welshpool today. They had been sent to him labelled as a Rock Pipit for includion on his excellent Mongomery Bird Blog (see links on right).
The bird seems to have fine breast streaks, two toned yellow / dark bill, pale legs (bit too pink on photo 2?), white outer tail feathers, good supercilium and wing bars, rather plain brown mantle - is this a winter plumaged Water Pipit? However, one would expect some summer plumage features by now - no hint of pink flush, unmarked breast or grey head. Or are we talking 'littoralis' Rock Pipit here? I feel I'm missing something obvious - these pipits are starting to drive me mad!


  1. Interesting stuff! Always like to exercise the old grey matter. As you no doubt know, not all Rock and Water Pipits are identifiable from one or two pics, no matter how close! And when you throw in the littoralis idea, it just gets more interesting. For what it’s worth, the Montgomery bird I feel is prob correctly ID’d as Rock Pipit, presumably littoralis. Leaving plumage features aside, one feature which is not often mentioned is jizz, to me Water Pipits always look thrush-like, with a large size, pot belly, droopy wings and even a cocked tail. Me, Rob S and Rob H were at Porthmadog Cob a few years ago when a bird popped out of the saltmarsh which I certainly initially thought was Water. We couldn’t quite shoe-horn it in though, and then luckily the real thing popped out nearby, and the difference was striking. Littoralis can certainly resemble Water – there was a pipit wintering at the reserve about 8 years ago where the water gushes out across the dog walkers path into the estuary. Again, I initially thought this was a Water but as the weeks went by I started to have my doubts, and decided it was probably a well-marked littoralis. Another feature which is not often mentioned is the strong habitat separation between the two taxa. Water Pipts, though often coastal, are rarely if ever found on rocky seashores, and birds claimed as such usually turn out to be something else – a bird in Cornwall a few winters ago was a case in point. At Conwy RSPB for example, I felt that genuine Water Pipits used freshwater habitats (eg the islands or “the paddocks”) just as much as saltmarsh ones.

    As has been mentioned, littoralis are not generally safely separable from petrosus in winter. Spring on the other hand is when littoralis sometimes take on different plumage characters as have been described, making them more like Water, and is also the time when they are often claimed from inland reservoirs as they make their way back to Scandinavia and coastal NW Russia. Whether petrosus would also visit inland reservoirs would be hard to prove or disprove, though it’s perhaps less likely. Similarly, is it perhaps unlikely that a littoralis would be singing (ie, claiming a territory and advertising to potential mates) until it’s a bit nearer home? Would be a big waste of effort when, if it were a littoralis, it won’t be breeding there and should be fattening up for a long journey. Nonetheless, I’m sure that the majority of litt and pet aren’t separable, even in Spring. I’m sure many people have seen birds on territory (ie, petrosus) looking a bit “interesting”, and conversely I remember two Rock Pipits which wintered until April, on the grass triangle between the old Foel Fras Hide and the estuary track. These must surely have been litts, as all British birds would presumably be on territory by then. Plumage-wise however, although striking, they didn’t display a pinkish flush. Perhaps they were from the furthest, coldest part of the range in Arctic Russia and hadn’t started moulting yet? That would expain the late departure date. One other thing was that they had really long bills, would be interesting to know if bill length increases as you go further north and east within their range.

    There’s quite a lot of info and discussion about these taxa on the net, inc the Ribble, and London reservoirs if I remember rightly. But as always, there’s absolutely no substitute for going out and looking at the little brown jobs.

    While I’m typing – I remember chatting with you about that cormorant Marc; didn’t you have some video? One thing that struck me was its jizz – it initially struck me as Shag-like, and the fact that it turned up after some strong Westerly gales and stood exhausted a couple of feet from the hide did get me wondering about DCC…!
    Well that’s my two pennorth, feel free to tell me I’m talking bollox!

  2. I'd very much like to be able to tell you that you're talking bollox Mekiey, however, I can't as it's a cracking reply. You're certainly right in saying that even with good views this set of species / sub-species is tricky, let alone on a couple of fairly dodgy photos. I've decided that this weekedn I'm going out to look for Rock pipits, as I realise I don't know them very well!

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