“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-bellied, Meadow, Olive-backed, Pechora, 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.
And here are a few Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni), the most likely confusion species.
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?