March target bird: Water Pipit

Water Pipit, Ouessant, France, 25 March 2008. Photo: Aurelien Audevard.
Water Pipit, Ouessant, France, 25 March 2008. Photo: Aurelien Audevard.
Although often regarded as difficult-to-identify ‘little brown jobs’, pipits are always worth checking for unusual species. As well as vagrant birds, there are some which regularly migrate to Britain, and a fine spring-plumaged Water Pipit is perhaps the most beautiful of these.

The taxonomy of pipits has long been a subject of debate, and the genus Anthus may have as many as 40 species, making it the largest single bird genus. Water Pipit was for a long time regarded as a subspecies of Rock Pipit. However, because of differences in habitat preference and behaviour, especially song, it was split as a full species by the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1987 and now forms a ‘superspecies’ with Rock and Buff-bellied Pipits.

Water Pipit’s breeding populations are fragmented, confined to mountainous areas of Europe and Asia. It comprises three subspecies: spinoletta, which breeds in southern and central Europe, extending east into Turkey; coutellii, which breeds in Asia Minor; and blakistoni, which breeds in Central Asia. Its European breeding population is estimated at 640,000-2,000,000 pairs.

The species is unusual in that some southern European breeders migrate north to spend the winter in Britain, mainly in southern England and East Anglia. The species’ nearest breeding grounds are in the Spanish and French mountains, and birds vacate these areas from mid-September. Some will only move altitudinally to nearby lowlands, while others migrate further.

Most British birds probably come from the Pyrenees, Massif Central, Alps, Jura, Appenines and Carpathians. They arrive from mid-October to late November, staying until the end of April. At some sites there are peak numbers in January, and again in April, when birds may be passing through on their way to their breeding grounds.

In Britain the largest numbers are found in the southern counties of England, especially those on the coast. Smaller numbers are found across the Midlands and into the North-West, and there are annual records from Wales. Water Pipit is rare in Scotland, with only one or two records each year, the first being in 1968, and it is a very rare visitor to Ireland. Birds are usually located on flooded and damp meadows, watercress beds, sewage works, rivers, lakes and coastal marshes.

While birds are usually seen individually, small groups can occur at regular sites. Larger flocks have also been recorded, with 40 counted at Cley, Norfolk, in January 1993 and 38 on the Lower Test Marshes, Hampshire, in January 1991. The total winter population may be as few as 100 birds, sometimes more.

Closely related to wagtails, pipits will also wag their tails up and down, although usually more slowly. The exact reason for this is unclear.

It is possible to age Water Pipits. For a useful online article on doing this go to www.ibercajalav.net/img/315_WaterPipitAspinoletta.pdf.

How to watch
Water Pipits spend most of their time on the ground, and any likely areas should be checked carefully over a period of time, as birds can easily be obscured behind vegetation. In coastal regions where birds are regular in spring, it is best to visit on one of the huge spring tides in March. Look up the best date and find a good vantage point – a day either side may be just as good.

Water Pipits will gather in roosts with other pipits, especially Rock, and locating one of these sites may provide a good opportunity. Beware confusion with Scandinavian Rock Pipit in some plumages (see the February 2011 edition of Birdwatch, page 7).

Check county bird reports for possible locations, as well as www.rarebirdalert.co.uk or www.birdguides.com for the latest sightings.