February ID tips: winter Rock and Water Pipits

Rock Pipt. Photo by Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).
Rock Pipt. Photo by Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).

Pipits are notoriously one of the most difficult groups to identify, and the various forms of Water and Rock Pipit are possibly the hardest by reputation. This situation arises due to the close evolutionary relationship between the two species, as well as the similarity between the two subspecies of Rock Pipit found wintering in Britain and Ireland, the Scandinavian littoralis and the mostly British petrosus.

The prized discovery for the majority of patch-watchers is undoubtedly a winter Water Pipit. This species is locally distributed mainly around the southern half of England in small numbers, mostly between October and March, often originating from central Europe. While it has a general predilection for the margins of freshwater bodies or grassy marshland, it can also occur in brackish habitats such as saltmarsh. However, Rock Pipit can also be found in the first and last environments.

Water Pipit by Ole Krogh
Water Pipit (Nordjylland, Denmark, 3 February 2003).
This species has a plainer mantle and finer underpart
streaking than Rock Pipit; the outer tail feathers
are lighter than on Rock, though the latter may appear
similar. Photo by Ole Krogh.

Water Pipit is a smart and relatively clearly marked bird in all plumages. It has grey-brown upperparts with a shadow of streaking on the mantle, a warm brown rump and prominently white supercilia, double wing-bars and outer tail feathers. The underparts are whitish, though all white parts can have a sullied look on occasion. The legs are dark brown, but can vary to dull yellow or pink, and winter birds of both species develop a yellowish base to the lower mandible. There is thick but distinct streaking on the chest, with finer flank streaking, reminiscent of Tree Pipit.

The narrow grey malar stripe broadens to form a patch on either side of the base of the neck, usually more extensive than in Rock.

The call is effectively indistinguishable from Rock Pipit’s, with both species slightly sharper and more metallic and drawn out than Meadow Pipit’s familiar tsip note. Behaviourally, Water Pipit often flushes at a greater distance and flies further than Rock.

In February and March, Water Pipit begins to show the blue-grey head and cheeks and pale pink throat and breast of its breeding plumage. This is when it can also be confused with some Rock Pipits of the Scandinavian subspecies littoralis, which also develops a similar but duller plumage, with more chest-streaking.

Rock Pipit by Andrew Moon
Presumed 'Scandinavian' Rock Pipit (Wilstone
Reservoir, Hertfordshire, 15 March 2009). Note
the greyer tones, paler underparts and more
prominent supercilium of this spring littoralis.
Photo by Andrew Moon.

A winter Rock Pipit usually has an overall tone of olive-brown to its plumage, with a poorly marked supercilium, grey-brown rump and grey tail sides. The legs, bill and lores are dark like Water Pipit. The underparts, including the flanks, are heavily streaked olive-brown on a dull yellow ground colour, giving a ‘blurred’ effect. In many littoralis individuals, the supercilium is more distinct, but less so than in Water. The blue-grey-tinged head and mantle of more well-marked littoralis birds can show by mid-winter, but there is much overlap with petrosus, which also takes on a grey wash as spring approaches.

Some autumn littoralis birds are potentially ‘doable’, but it is only extreme individuals that can be assigned to form with confidence. The Scandinavian subspecies is often paler overall than British birds. However, beware lighting conditions combined with a dark background such as mud or seaweed, which can affect the appreciation of plumage tone. Littoralis also tends to have a stronger supercilium in winter, as well as paler tail sides and less ‘smudgy’ underparts. A strong littoralis candidate is often a halfway house between Water and Rock, sometimes even leading to misidentification as Water by the unwary.

Further reading

Pipits and Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America by Per Alström and Krister Mild (Christopher Helm, £60).

Rock Pipit by Steve Young
Nominate Rock Pipit (Scilly, 21 October 2012). The British form can be almost uniformly olive toned,
with smudged underpart streaking, though winter littoralis overlaps extensively.
Photo by Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).