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British Isles pipits - how to tell them apart (1 Viewer)


Getting to grips with young gulls
Ok then, here's the chances for all you experienced birders to teach the less experienced amongst us how to tell the differences between the different pipit species found in the British Isles. They are a range of birds that I seem to struggle with.

What should we be looking out for - habitat, bill and leg colour, colour of feathers and markings, other distinguishing marks, habits?


Jane Turner

Well-known member
1. listen.

Meadow Pipits call is weak "sip sip sip"
Tree Pipit is a loud buzzinf "teazzzze"
Water and Rock pipit are subtly different but can both be described a loud "Zinc"

2. Behaviour. Meadow Pipits are hesitant on the ground and look like they can't fly. Though they often go on the ground, you can get them in trees.

Tree Pipits are quite sneaky looking on the ground - they are stronger flyers (with much less rounded wings) They do go on the ground.

Rock Pipits - are usually found on Rocky shores, but beware migrants that can turn up anywhere, but especially on water margins (Like water Pipits)

Meadow and tree are relative small, Water and Rock are relatively large.

This thread

will show the difference between Tree and Meadow

and this one

Rock and Water


black kite 1964

Well-known member
Learn the calls of the common pipits. Buy a macmillan field guide. Do lots of birding birding. Be prepared to make mistakes. Continue to go birding!! In time you will learn your pipits!



Ich bin ein Vogelbeobachter
Learn the calls of the common pipits. Buy a macmillan field guide. Do lots of birding birding. Be prepared to make mistakes. Continue to go birding!! In time you will learn your pipits!



I've gone down the route that I'll learn them eventually when I've worked out other birds. For the time being I just think of any pipit I see as a Meadow Pipit, it's most likely they are those anyway. ;)


Getting to grips with young gulls

For the time being I just think of any pipit I see as a Meadow Pipit, it's most likely they are those anyway. ;)

Seems to be my approach at the moment!! ;)

I remember the first time I came across a pipit - I took ages watching it and flicking thru my Collins fieldguide and finally agreed on Meadow Pipit. I've seen loads of them since and am familiar with its call and song, so I think I have Meadow Pipits. But whenever there's a pipit query on the Bird Identification ID board here I just end up getting confused again!

Will just have to take Black Kite's advice! :t:

And thanks Jane for the links


Bah humbug
If it's in a field in winter/moorland in summer - Meadow Pipit
If it's a nature reserve with wet grazing meadows - Meadow Pipit or possibly Water Pipit
If it's a rocky seashore - Meadow or Rock Pipit - usually Rock, especially in summer.
Beach in winter - Meadow or Rock Pipit
Scillies in Autumn - what are you doing here if you don't know? Ask the other twitchers. ;)

Meadow Pipits - smaller, pink legs, cleaner with well marked underparts
Rock Pipits - larger, dark legs, dusky greyish brown/charcoal, messy. Grey outer tail feathers (the others are white)
Water Pipit - larger, sleeker(?), smoother grey back and obvious eyestripe (and wingbars noticeable too)

That's a basic guide, appreciate some of these features can appear subjective ... study some birds and read the other better links for sure ;)
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Well-known member
Well, if it makes things any easier, the regular species of pipits in Britain fall into two groups: Meadow and Tree being smaller species with relatively streaked mantles and pale legs, and Rock and Water being slightly larger, often dark-legged and a little less streaked above. Of course, things aren't quite that simple, some summer Meadows being quite dark-legged, and some Rock, at least, being paler-legged than one would expect.
While anything is possible with birds, it helps to remember that Tree Pipits are summer visitors only, and Water Pipits occur on passage and in winter, therefore a smaller pipit from October onwards until April really ought to be a Meadow, and a slightly larger bird seen in summer should be a Rock.

Rock Pipits have rather long bills compared to those of the smaller species, messier flank streaking, grey on the outer tail feathers (as against white in the three other species, though beware the effects of strong light, making the grey look paler), and are usually found on rocky shorelines, docks, piers or, sometimes in winter, saltmarsh. The call typically given in flight is more forceful than that of Meadow Pipit, slightly more forceful (though not always reliably seperable) from that of Water, and completely different to that of Tree. They often look rather 'dingy', and tend not to be as white or as 'clean' below as the other three species.

Meadow Pipit really is the 'default' pipit, being the only species one is likely to see in some areas, and the most likely in most habitat types at any time...they even feed amongst washed-up seaweed with Rock Pipits. The bill of a Meadow Pipit is quite fine, thinner than that of Rock, the hindclaw is extremely long, the lores (the area in front of the bill) look quite plain and 'open', the streaking on the flanks is usually of a similar thickness to that on the breast (beware newly-fledged juveniles in summer before the post-juvenile moult, these often have very fine flank streaking), the breast streaking often coalesces to form a 'spot' at the centre of the breast, there is some streaking on the back. Legs are usually quite orangey, or orange-pink, sometimes darker. They tend to look very 'jerky' when walking, distinctive once learned, and the 'tsip-ip-ip' call (not always given as three syllables, of course, they may even use one) is quite thin and 'panicky' sounding, almost.

Tree Pipit is quite like Meadow in many respects, and I can remember, as a younger birder, looking long and hard at given Meadows in spring on Great Saltee, trying to look for a migrant Tree. In reality, however, the two species are quite different when seen well. Tree has a thicker-based and shorter, almost 'stubby', bill than Meadow, with the colour on the lower mandible being a purer pink than the orangey tones on Meadow. Likewise, the legs and feet are also a purer pale pink on Tree, and the hind claw is quite short. There's usually a marked contrast between the thicker breast streaking and the pencil-fine flank streaks, the breast often has a buffish ground colour which contrasts sharply with the whiter belly and flanks, the lores are usually slightly better marked than on Meadow, and there's often a faint dark and pale spot at the rear of the ear coverts. While Meadow Pipits will often perch in trees, when flushed or sometimes before launching into song flight, they tend to perch out in the open right at the top: Tree will often perch within the canopy, sing from a branch, and even walk along branches. They tend to creep about in a fluid motion, favouring longer vegetation than Meadow when on the ground, though migrants will make do with whatever they find. The flight call is a buzzy 'tzee', vaguely similar to Redwing's flight call but buzzier and less pure in tone.

Water Pipits are most like Rock, and, indeed, there is often heated debate on here as to whether certain birds are one or the other. That said, a classic Water Pipit in winter plumage tends to be much warmer brown above than on Rock, with a warm brown rump, in particular, being a strong pro-Water feature, and also much whiter below than Rock, often with thinner or fewer streaks on the flanks. There's often a good supercilium, the bill base is slightly thicker than on Rock and the facial pattern is somewhat 'sharper', the whole being vaguely reminiscent of the facial pattern of a Redwing, and the outer tail feathers, as already stated, are white, not grey. There's often a contrast between the brown mantle and a greyer nape: in summer plumage, this is enhanced, and some full summer Water Pipits, which can be met with in spring before they leave, are truly stunning creatures. That said, some Rock Pipits (of the race littoralis, which visits in winter) do attain a similar, though usually less distinct, summer plumage, so caution should always be observed. Birds tend to favour freshwater or brackish habitats, but also are often met with feeding on seaweed washed up on beaches. They tend to be more nervous than Rock, often flushing at distance and flying a long way before landing again, though, of course, this is by no means diagnostic.
I would finish by urging you to study the pipits that you encounter in the field, and always to refine your own impressions of them. I'm still learning myself...
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