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?

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