Towards the end of last year I took a series of photos of a confiding American Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens. Pipits can be a very confusing bunch of birds to separate in non-breeding plumages, and for a long time the northern hemisphere group that includes Rock, Water, and Buff-bellied Pipits were considered almost inseparable in the field in winter (indeed they were considered conspecific until the 1990s). Modern birders have of course pushed through the ID boundaries for many “tricky” species groups, and with good views most large pipits are easy enough to identify. In this short photo-spot I’m going to have a quick look at the European Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus, a bird confined in the UK at least to rocky coastlines and adjacent seaweed strewn strand (the latter a habitat often favoured by wintering Buff-bellieds), with reference to the American Buff-bellied I saw last year. Both species show almost unmarked buffy throats, not much of a facial pattern, and are roughly the same size – but there are differences when you know what to look for.
If you put aside id’ing these birds by their calls (which needs quite a bit of observer experience in the first place) the key to separating unfamiliar pipits in the field lies in quickly gathering a suite of plumage and soft part features before the birds fly off!
- What is the overall colour of your bird: predominantly dark, grey, buffy etc?
- Is it heavily or lightly streaked?
- Where is the streaking found?
- Does your bird have a clearly-defined eye-ring?
- Does it have obviously marked lores (the area between the eye and the bill)?
- What colour is its legs?
Rock Pipits and American Buff-bellied Pipits are closely related but they are clearly different birds. Looking at the two images that follow it’s possible to refer back to the questions above and make the correct identifications:
Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus, Portland, Dorset, UK. Jan 2008
Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens rubescens, California, USA. Dec 2007
On a quick glance the two birds do look very similar, but use the key above and the differences between them become apparent.
- Overall colour. The Rock Pipit looks dark grey, compared with the buff colouration of the Buff-bellied. Note how the paler colouring of the Buff-bellied causes the dark tertials and retrices to stand out while those of the Rock don’t especially: in actual fact they’re no more dark than those of the Rock Pipit, but the Rock‘s don’t stand out as they’re more or less the same overall colour of the bird’s upperparts.
- Streaking. Rock Pipits are heavily streaked birds, with thick, coalesced underpart streaking and dark lines along the mantle – they are much more heavily marked than Buff-bellieds (particularly on the rear flanks).
- Eye-ring. Though both birds do show an eye-ring the Rock Pipit‘s looks more like two semi-circles which stand out as chalk white against a dark background, the Buff-bellied‘s eyering is complete and do not stand out particularly (at times it’s hardly visible at all).
- Lores. Rock Pipits always show a dark line between the eye and the bill (the lores), the Buff-bellied sometimes does depending on the angle of the bird’s head to the observer but on good views the lores are clearly pale.
- Leg colour. In this instance leg colour is not very useful as both species can look to have “dirty-red” legs (particularly when the birds have been feeding in wet areas), but leg colour is useful in separating eg Water Pipit from either Rock or Buff-bellied in winter when it has generally greyer or paler-red legs than either of its close relatives.
So if faced with an unfamiliar pipit picking over seaweed on the coast, there are quick ways to establish if you’re probably looking at either a Rock or a Buff-bellied – which outcome is preferred depends on where you are of course! (NB: there are other features useful for separating the pipits in this group – the Water Pipit has white outer tail-feathers compared with the Rock’s greyish-buff outers – but that’s outside the scope of this short note.)
Here for the benefit of birders who don’t see either species regularly are some more photos of Rock Pipit. For more Buff-bellieds photos please click right here.
All photos copyright Charlie Moores