Buff-bellied Pipits

“It’s a pity that the pipits have

No diagnostic features,

Specifically they are the least

Distinctive of God’s creatures.”

So opens a 1961 poem by British ornithologist, Beryl Patricia Hall.

Thankfully, our appreciation of pipits has matured a little since then and, in Beijing, we have 10 species on the official list: Blyth’s, Buff-belliedMeadow, Olive-backedPechora, Red-throated, Richard’s, Rosy, Tree and Water.   Rosy and Richard’s are scarce breeders and passage migrants; Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Olive-backed, Pechora and Red-throated are all passage birds; Water Pipit is a winter visitor; and Meadow (three records) and Tree Pipit (one record, photographed in the UK Ambassador’s garden in May 2013!) are vagrants.

In mid-April the passage of pipits is in full swing and, last weekend, I encountered large flocks of Buff-bellied Pipits (ssp japonicus) at Miyun Reservoir.  With a few late Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni) mixed in, it was an ideal opportunity to get to grips with this subtle and underrated species.

Here are some photos that show typical japonicus Buff-bellied Pipits in breeding plumage.

2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun8
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015. Note the buffy colour of the underparts, lacking a contrasting white belly, wing bars, complete eye-ring and relatively pale legs (compared with Water Pipit).
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun6
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus. Note the dark spotting, not streaking, on the mantle.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun4
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015. On this bird the streaking on the underparts extends onto the flanks. Also note the fine bill.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun3
Fine crown streaking is also a feature of Buff-bellied.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun
The eye-ring is at least as prominent as the supercilium, a good feature of Buff-bellied vs Water Pipit.
2014-11-30 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus2, Shidu
Buff-bellied is scarce in winter in Beijing. This one was at Shidu in late November. At this season, more heavily streaked and lacking the buff underparts but eye-ring still prominent.
2012-10-17 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Ma Chang
This is a bird from October. Note, in particular, the prominence of the eye-ring compared with the supercilium.

And here are a few Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni), the most likely confusion species.

2012-02-11 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni
Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Shidu, February 2012. Note the relative prominence of the supercilium vs the eye-ring. Also much less streaked underparts and dark legs.
2012-04-21 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Ma Chang7
This bird from 21 April 2012. Relatively unstreaked underparts, greyish head, relatively prominent supercilium and dark legs all point to Water Pipit.
2012-04-21 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Ma Chang
A very clean breeding plumage Water Pipit from April 2012. Even without taking into account the very clean underparts (almost never shown on japonicus Buff-bellied), it shows a greyish-tinged head, prominent supercilium and dark legs.

Of course, another good indicator of ID is call.  The calls of Water and Buff-bellied Pipits are similar but with practice can be differentiated.  To my ears Buff-bellied sounds slightly down-slurred compared with Water Pipit’s slightly up-slurred call note.  You can hear the calls of Buff-bellied Pipit here and Water Pipit here.  What do YOU think?

Blyth’s Pipits and more…

On Tuesday I spent the day at Miyun Reservoir with Paul Holt (fresh back from leading tours to Bhutan and Taiwan).  We started at Houbajia Zhuangcun on the eastern side (the best place to view any cranes lingering in the area) and then visited the north-west side near Bulaotun where the water levels are providing some good habitat for waders.

Our first surprise was on the walk down to the reservoir from the village at Houbajia Zhuangcun as every field seemed to be full of pipits.  It was immediately obvious that there were many Richard’s Pipits around along with good numbers of Buff-bellied and Red-throated with the occasional Olive-backed flying overhead.  No sooner as Paul said he thought there must be a Blyth’s on site, we turned a corner and flushed four largish pipits that called as they took to the air revealing themselves to be Blyth’s!  They circled and landed again, allowing us to secure some wonderful views of these scarce pipits on the deck.  Seeing them alongside Richard’s Pipits was very instructive and, although I would hesitate to identify a silent Blyth’s unless I had extremely good views, Paul was able to give me some very good insights into how to separate Blyth’s from Richard’s on the ground.  The shorter bill, more heavily streaked mantle, shorter tail and, of course, the shape of the dark centres to the tertials if seen well enough, are all features to look for but, for me, the most obvious difference is structural, particularly noticeable in flight.  Blyth’s look noticeably shorter-tailed in flight and can even recall a smaller pipit at times.  We spent a long time watching these pipits and it probably took us an hour and a half to get to the reservoir, a walk that usually takes about 10 minutes!

I only managed a couple of images of Blyth’s in flight…  I won’t apologise for spending most of my time studying them through my telescope rather than stalking them for photographs!  Below is a comparison of Blyth’s and Richard’s.

Blyth’s (upper) and Richard’s (lower) Pipits in flight. In this direct comparison, one can see the slightly shorter tail and shorter bill of Blyth’s. The much-superior Richard’s Pipit image is by Graham Catley.

Of course, call is one of the ways to separate these two; you can hear the calls of Blyth’s and Richard’s Pipits on Xeno Canto Asia.  The Pipit frenzy also included good numbers of Red-throated and Buff-bellied and I was able to capture these images of these good-looking species.

Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus in breeding plumage, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Red-throated Pipit, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012

In the damper fields near to the reservoir we encountered several Eastern Yellow Wagtails, mostly of the subspecies macronyx, and a few stunning Citrine Wagtails, including one with a very dark back (on close inspection it was a very dark grey back with some black speckling), recalling the subspecies calcarata.  Possibly an intergrade?  A male Bluethroat then appeared and began to sing from an exposed perch in a small reedbed.

As we were enjoying the pipits and wagtails, a corvid flew by us and headed south..  with the naked eye it looked as if it had a pale neck and a quick lift of the binoculars confirmed it was a Collared Crow!  This species is now rare in Beijing and yet, after seeing my first only two days before, here I was watching a second!  It was Paul’s first sighting in the capital for around 10 years…  It is almost certainly a different individual to that seen by Colm Moore and me at the Ming Tombs, so maybe there has been a mini-influx.  It reappeared a few minutes later in the company of a pair of Carrion Crows.

Collared Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Collared Crow with Carrion Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012.

When we eventually reached the reservoir, we checked the stubbly area frequented by cranes this winter and counted 5 White-naped Cranes and 4 Common Cranes but there was no sign of the single immature Siberian Crane that had been present from mid-March.  After an hour or so watching from here we moved on to the north-western side to check out the wader site near Bulaotun.  As we arrived, we were greeted with huge numbers of Little Buntings… they were everywhere: in the fields, in the bushes, on the tracks and, occasionally, if spooked by a raptor or a local farmer, the air would be filled with clouds of Little Buntings.. an awesome sight.  Many were singing, providing a wonderful soundtrack as we scanned through the flocks.  A single male Yellow-breasted Bunting was with the group and it, too, sang on occasion.  We estimated around 700 Little Buntings along one hedgerow but the real number on site was certainly much higher – many were hidden feeding in the crops.

A short recording of the cacophony can be heard here:

Little Buntings

Waders on site included over 150 Black-winged Stilts, 80+  Wood Sandpipers, 30+ Common Snipe, a few Marsh Sandpipers, a couple of Spotted Redshank, a single Common Redshank, 10 Common Sandpipers, 6 Black-tailed Godwits and 30 Little Ringed Plovers. 2 Eurasian Spoonbills, 6 Great Egrets and 2 Little Egrets added a splash of white and an Osprey, several Eastern Marsh Harriers, a couple of Common Kestrels and a handful of Amur Falcons provided the raptor interest.

A quick look at another site at Bulaotun rewarded us with a stunning male Pied Harrier, a single Hobby (chasing Little Buntings), 5 Greater Short-toed Larks, 14 Siberian Stonechats and 20 Oriental Pratincoles.

Oriental Pratincole, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012. Note lack of a white trailing edge to the wing (the best feature with which to distinguish Oriental from Collared Pratincole).

It was another fantastic day’s birding in the Chinese capital and I am indebted to Paul for his pipit masterclass…!

Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus and White Wagtail ssp ocularis

Yesterday morning I spent a couple of hours at Shahe Reservoir.  No sign of the Baer’s Pochard from 25 March but there was a nice cross-section of wildfowl on site and some light raptor passage.  Buff-bellied Pipits are beginning to come through now and, here in Beijing, we see the subspecies japonicus.  One smart individual – albeit not so buff-bellied  – dropped in as I was scanning the duck on the reservoir and proceeded to jerk its way along the edge of the reservoir, providing a good opportunity to study it closely.

Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Shahe Reservoir, 3 April 2012.
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 3 April 2012. Note the relatively heavy streaking on the underparts reaching the flanks, the relatively long, thin bill, plain face and fleshy-coloured legs.
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 3 April 2012.

The call of this bird reminded me of Meadow Pipits from back home in the UK.

As I was watching this pipit, a small flock of White Wagtails dropped in, mostly of the ssp leucopsis but including this smart male of the ocularis subspecies.

Adult male White Wagtail ssp ocularis. Note the black cap/nape contrasting with the grey back and the thin black eye-stripe extending in front of, and behind, the eye. Apologies for the dead fish backdrop!

Along the reedy edges of the reservoir there were a few Pallas’s Reed Buntings.  This individual caused me some confusion at first, being much brighter and more rufous than the very pale and frosty Pallas’s I have been used to seeing all winter.  I suspected Japanese Reed Bunting.  But after looking at images on the Oriental Bird Club image database and consulting with my bunting guru, Tom Beeke, I realised that this is indeed a Pallas’s.  Japanese should show a much darker cap and darker ear coverts.  Always learning!

Pallas's Reed Bunting (female?), Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 3 April 2012. Looking quite smart now it's spring..

Full species list:

Swan Goose – 2 (asleep on the island)
Ruddy Shelduck – 4
Gadwall – 8
Falcated Duck – 28
Mallard – 345
Spot-billed Duck – 12
Shoveler – 16
Garganey – 3
Eurasian Teal – 33
Common Pochard – 13
Goldeneye – 64
Little Grebe – 40
Great Crested Grebe – 32
Grey Heron – 29
Little Egret – 3
Great Cormorant – 6
Black-eared Kite – 2 migr north-east
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 2
Eastern Buzzard – 15 (12 migr north-east and 3 hunting on the southern shore of the reservoir)
Upland Buzzard – 2 migr north-east
Common Coot – 4
Mongolian Gull – 23 (18 migrating west, 5 on the water)
Black-headed Gull – 10 on the reservoir
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 235 (in 4 groups, migrating north – apparently mostly immature birds)
Carrion Crow – 8
Corvid sp (Carrion/Large-billed Crow/Rook) – 23
Barn Swallow – 1
Dusky Thrush – 1
Tree Sparrow – 28
Grey Wagtail – 2
White Wagtail – 22 (20 of the ssp leucopsis and 2 ocularis)
Buff-bellied Pipit – 5
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 5