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Meadow Pipit v Tree Pipit in Iceland

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Old Sunday 25th May 2003, 12:33   #1
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Meadow Pipit v Tree Pipit in Iceland

Last night on the way back from a failed Golden Oriole twitch (more about that at another time), I stopped at the small settlment of Skógar on the south coast of Iceland. It was about 9 o'clock in the evening, gloriously sunny, the ubiquitous Snipe, Whimbrel, Redshank, Meadow Pipit all around, a male Ptarmigan belching on the hillside. The scene, a small forestry plantation on a hillside, mixed conifer and birch. Walking behind the hotel I heard a very loud passerine song, full clear tones, repetitive, zi zi zi zi zi zi zi, no acceleration or deceleration, just the same tempo but very clear and pure of tone, much louder than the typically weak reedy Meadow Pipit which I am very familiar with. It was a while before I saw the singer, but it was an Anthus pipit sitting at the top of the tallest birch trees in the plantation c. 10 metres high. It flew into a display flight, not discernibly different to my eyes from a Meadow Pipit, except for the clear ringing tones. (MP were everywhere and this bird was much louder). It disappeared into the forest and then reappeared on one of the tallest trees and then two or three times, launched into a series of display flights landing on the nearest tall tree (but never the same). Is this normal MP behaviour or was this a Tree Pipit? MPs often sit in trees in Iceland but this repeated launching of song flights from high trees, landing on top of another is something I've never seen before.

here I must make an admission: I have never seen Tree Pipit, have no experience of it whatsoever. When I came home, I listened to my bird song disc and it did NOT sound like Tree Pipit on that disc but there again I always find it difficult with passerines to match up songs on disc to birds in the field. But it was different to the normal MPs, which were around in large numbers for comparison. However, Collins talks about MP repeating zi zi zi zi zi again and again but what about the tone of voice? I looked in BWP where it says that Tree Pipit is always much louder and always carries much further than Meadow. Yes, EXACTLY! That's what attracted me to it in the first place. How about the parachuting flight? Well this bird didn't dangle its legs until the last second to land on the branch. The bird itself? I didn't see the famous hind claw and the streaking seemed normalish but it's difficult to tell on a bird 50 metres away in a tree top. Comments in Collins such as the Meadow Pipit having a "kinder" expression are no good at all if you have never seen the other. No doubt someone with experience of both could have watched its song flight and told me one way or another but I just couldn't decide.

Of course MP is more likely, 1.5 million pairs in Iceland whereas Tree Pipit is a rare vagrant but which has bred. Are they being overlooked? With the appearence of more upland plantations there appears to be habitat for this species. Whatever happens I won't be submitting a record of Tree Pipit - unless I see it again (it's 150 km away and we in Reykjavik birders are the nearest birders to it) and can get a better look but it's occupying my thoughts a lot this morning.

Over to the experts.

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Old Sunday 25th May 2003, 14:02   #2
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It sounds like ideal T.Pipit country to me, the display is seen in both forms of pipit, although perching atop a tree is more indicative of tree pipit (hence the name) the two songs can be very similar but I think MP gets quicker as it sings, so it was probably a tree pipit. However I am rubbish with pipits, I never think Meadow pipits look like meadow pipits, the plumages vary so much.
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Old Sunday 25th May 2003, 14:39   #3
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Hi Edward,

Tripit typically ends its song with 3 or 4 (sometimes more) loud 'WEEEAP WEEEAP WEEEAP' notes. Otherwise, an even better distinction is the call note, a buzzing 'teeez', nothing like a Mipit at all.

Plumage wise, Tripit & Mipit are hard to tell - Tripit generally looks 'cleaner' and 'brighter'. And if you get a really good close view, the hind claw is diagnostic - long on Mipit, short on Tripit.

As for Tripits breeding - the ideal habitat is once the first rotation of trees is felled, or patches of windblown timber - that is classic Tripit breeding habitat, mainly from 1 to 5-10 years (depending on the growth rate of the new crop) after felling/blowing. They do need at least some bare soil between the grass, weeds, stumps and new trees, which is why you don't tend to get them in the first generation of trees.

BTW, Sitka Spruce (I presume your plantations are of this) clear-fells are ideal for them. A lot of ours nest in this.

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Old Sunday 25th May 2003, 14:52   #4
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The plumage distinctions are, at best, subtle. As is the stouter bill of tree pipit.
Unless you heard the distinctive zeee-a, zeee-a, zeee-a end to the song, just before landing, I don't think it would be safe to call the bird a tree pipit. Though the behaviour sounds more tree pipit like.
I saw them in the Highlands of Scotland, so I should imagine that a pine plantation in Iceland might be a fairly similar habitat?
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Old Tuesday 27th May 2003, 15:28   #5
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Many thanks for the replies.

Unless I go to Britain and see a definite Tree Pipit displaying then I'll find it difficult to make the call.

The likelihood is that this was a Meadow Pipit but it was good (I think) to hear that plumage characteristics are not easy even for people who've seen loads of each species. it makes my inability to judge whether those streaks on the sides are really fine or not a bit more excusable.
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