What-a Pipit?

From the RSPB. Who don't have a sound clip for water pipit. I wonder why?...

The four pipits. Earth, fire, wind and – wait, that’s not quite right. I always think that the four pipits regularly found in Britain sound like superheroes, though ‘meadow’ doesn’t sound particularly dynamic as an environmental crime fighting force. And it’s a great shame there is no ‘earth-pipit’ as it would make a superb bird name. If you have no more than a casual interest in birds, it’s quite possible you’ve never really looked at a pipit. But I seriously recommend doing so. What’s not to like?

Well, mostly that they are archetypal ‘little brown jobs’, and so dismissed as unidentifiable and uninteresting. And why should you get into little brown jobs? Here’s an example: on one level, snipe are little brown jobs, in that they are small(ish) and brown(ish) and primarily in plumage terms streaky and camouflaged, yet who could deny their beauty on close inspection? Hints of royal gold and blue do help, in fairness, and whilst pipits, larks, buntings and their other passerine ilk don’t quite have such rich splashes of colour (with notable exceptions) I do find their subtle, intricate beauty almost matches that of our more bold and garish avian residents.

There’s also the potential of deep satisfaction in an identification job well done. Take an oystercatcher, for example: nobody could deny that it’s a striking bird, and entertaining to watch with its deft feeding motion and belligerent attitude. But an oystercatcher is an oystercatcher; there’s no mistaking it. Part of the appeal of bird listing is putting a name to things, and the trickier that is, the better the entertainment. So close is the water pipit to the rock pipit (named, sadly, for its habitat preferences rather than electric guitar prowess) that water was once considered a subspecies of rock. Since 1987, however, it’s been blazing a lone trail (2) and provided a welcome extra tick to Britain’s birding masses. Rock, water and buff-bellied pipits together now form a ‘super-species’ (finally, backup for my proposed pipit-patrol superhero franchise!) of closely related, but separable birds.

That’s the funny thing about species, though. They are not unchanging: evolutionary theory tells us that much. But as any good scientist will also tell you, our scientific laws are approximations which best explain what we observe about the world around us. So how we define species is in constant flux as well: since a species is a mere human construct we use to understand and categorise the natural world, even leading taxonomists are not in full agreement about the best way to do it. What does make a species? Is it genetic distance alone? Habitat niche, or range separation, breeding ecology or subtle differences in morphology? By DNA sequencing alone, the evidence for separation of rock and water pipits is ambiguous (1), but by the other measures it is much clearer, so the answer might be all or none of the above. In future, we may well find that advances in genetics make for many newly delimited species that are well beyond the identifying reach of all but lab-equipped scientists, at which point we’ll have to give up with ‘species lists’ altogether and just enjoy watching birds for birds’ sake. Or perhaps, more realistically, rename the concept as ‘super-species listing’. Many birders already twitch sub-species, another source of taxonomic trickery: water pipits themselves are divided into three (2).

Luckily for us (and I’m steering as rapidly as I can back to my point), water pipits in the UK remain readily separable from their cousins: with a careful eye and, allegedly, ear. I’m not going to mention Pagham again, because as you know I’m not a competitive birder and I don’t hold grudges…but my ears did prick up at Pennington Marshes last week when we were told that ‘not much’ was about, just ‘two spotted redshank, a ruff, and a water pipit working the flooded area behind the lagoon’. Just a water pipit! Whilst watching for waders from the lower bank (howling would be too kind a word for the wind), having already spent half an hour freezing looking at those snipe on the wrong lagoon, a few pipits zipped overhead. I heard meadow pipits calling, but if you would believe it, one indeed did sound different to my ears. A different quality of sound, maybe a little thinner and at a higher pitch, and more irregular single notes than offered by the ‘peep, peep-peep, peep-peep-peep’ alarm of the flying meadow pipit.

A water pipit in the breeding season would be a fine sight and a good bit easier to identify too (though watch out for pesky littoralis sbsp. rock pipits), with a lovely white-striped grey head and a pink-washed breast. In the winter, surprise surprise, it’s a more drab affair all round. But like rock pipits, they are somewhat larger than meadow. Two pipits took off together from the marshy grass, and clearly one was indeed slightly larger than the other. I missed out on a potential close, clear view as I was too slow fumbling with multiple optics in a tangle round my neck, but when I finally caught up with the bird, bobbing on the shoreline, I could make out a good-sized greyish brown pipit that was strikingly pale underneath. Higher authorities than I say that the underside is ‘generally whiter in water’ (than meadow) (3), and that the ‘ground colour of underparts is purer white (than rock) with more distinct streaks’ (4). This bird looked essentially pure white underneath. So there it was: emerging from a cloudy taxonomic past and tick-testing identification challenges, the water pipit Anthus spinoletta, my species of the week.

References for further reading/ viewing, if you are as geeky as I:

1) Arctander, P., Folmer, O. & Fjeldsa, J. (2008) The phylogenetic relationship of Berthelot’s Pipit Anthus berthelotii illustrated by DNA sequence data, with remarks on genetic distance between Rock and Water Pipits Anthus spinoletta. Ibis. 138. 263-272

2) Water Pipit on p. 6 of Birdwatch magazine, March 2011

3) Alstrom, P. & Mild, K. (2003) Water Pipit in Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America, Christopher Helm, London. Accessed via Google books.

4)Svensson, L., Mullarney, K. & Zetterstrom, D. (2009) Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edition, Harper Collins, London.

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