Alternative name Buff-bellied Pipit
- Anthus rubescens
Several features hold true for both Buff-bellied Pipit at any time of year. In size and structure, they fall between Meadow Pipit A. pratensis and the Water Pipit/Rock Pipit A. spinoletta/petrosus complex, although usually appear closer to Water and Rock Pipits. The bill is distinctly and diagnostically shorter and finer than both Water and Rock Pipits, and actually overlaps in size with Meadow Pipit. Larger individuals can overlap in length with Water Pipit, but do not show the often strong and even thrush-like bill that that species can show. The fineness of the bill contributes to the more delicate jizz of Buff-bellied Pipit compared to Water Pipit, and again, can recall Meadow Pipit.
The facial pattern of Buff-bellied Pipit usually differs noticeably from both Water and Rock Pipits. Buff-bellied Pipit always shows pale lores (although at certain angles they may look dark), and almost always shows a complete pale eye ring. In contrast, Water and Rock Pipits show dark lores (although this may be hard to detect on occasion) and a broken eye-ring. The dark lores and prominent supercillium combine to give Pipits quite an aggressive look, as opposed to the more open-faced and passive expression of Buff-bellied Pipit. In addition, the eye ring, lores and supercillium of Buff-bellied Pipit are often buff (usually so in rubescens), while the corresponding areas of Water Pipit are usually white, or off white. The exception to the rule is the eastern race of Water Pipit, blakistoni, which tends to show pale lores and a complete eye ring. This race can be identified as a Water Pipit by a combination of other factors (see below for details). The moustacial streak of Buff-bellied Pipit is invariably more prominent than on Water Pipit. It can form a thin but distinct blackish upper border to the submoustacial area, and may flare out slightly to the rear. It can also help to emphasise the “hollow” appearance of the sub-ocular area. These final two features can be very hard to see on a bird in the field, as movement and distance can render them all but invisible.
Identification of Different Races
The Buff-bellied Pipit is a polytypic species comprised of four main races. The two of these that have occurred in the Western Palearctic are A. r. rubescens that breeds over much of Canada and parts of western Greenland, and A. r. japonicus of north-east Russia (the other two occur between these two and are presumably intermediate in phenotype). All forms are migratory, with rubescens wintering in the southern USA and Central America, and japonicus wintering mainly in China, Japan and South Korea. Small numbers of japonicus regularly winter in the Middle East and there are also records from as far west as Italy and Sweden. Rubescens is also being identified with increasing regularity in Western Europe, and there are records from Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Germany and the Azores.
The base colour of the remiges and rectrices is distinctly darker than in Water Pipit. In a direct comparison, this may be surprisingly obvious. The blackish colour of the tertials and tail feathers especially contrasts with the rest of the upperparts. In contrast, the remiges and rectrices of Water Pipit are distinctly paler, and form much less of a contrast with the upperparts. This feature should not be used on its own to identify a potential Buff-bellied Pipit in Europe, but it does facilitate picking the bird out from the crowd. As a cautionary note, the tertials and tail of Rock Pipit may be as dark and contrasting as Buff-bellied Pipit, but other features should easily identify this species.
The tail pattern of Buff-bellied Pipit is distinct from Rock Pipit, and can be helpful in separating it from Water Pipit. The outer tail feathers have extensive areas of white, which immediately rules out Rock Pipits of both the nominate race petrosus and the Scandinavian littoralis. The amount of white on the outer tail feathers is hard to discern in the field, but may be apparent in good views or photographs of preening birds. The inner web of T6 (T6 being the outer most tail feather) shows a long wedge of white, as does the inner web of T5 (see diagram 1). On approximately 43% of birds (n=30), there is even a distinct white tip to T4
Identification of summer plumaged rubescens and japonicus
Anyone lucky enough to find a breeding plumaged Buff-bellied Pipit in the Western Palearctic should find it a quite distinctive bird. The crown and mantle are grey brown to greyish, with faint streaking. The mantle streaking may in fact be reduced to faint narrow spotting, as the dark feather centres may not reach the ends of the feathers. The nape is unstreaked, and may be distinctly greyer than the crown and mantle. The rump is also unstreaked, and is often colder in tone than the faintly streaked mantle. The underparts are fairly uniform buff, or varying shades of buff, although this may fade as the season progresses. The breast usually shows a gorget of short, fine, well-defined streaks that extend down the flanks. The underpart streaking varies in prominence, and on some individuals may actually be absent. The blackish malars are generally present, but again can vary in size and may be missing on some individuals.
In summer plumage, Buff-bellied Pipit can readily be told from Water Pipits of all races by the buff base colour to the entire underparts, as opposed to the more pinkish breast tones exhibited by Water Pipit that generally fades to off white on the belly. In addition, the buff lores and supercillium concolourous with the underparts, the dark malar and distinct streaking across the breast (not always present) and the almost plain upperparts with a distinct grey cast serve to make the identification generally straightforward. Water Pipits usually show more prominent streaking on the mantle (although in fresh plumage this may be quite faint) and tend to lack streaking on the breast (although some individuals do have limited streaking here) and lack malar patches.
Separation of rubescens and japonicus in breeding plumage may not be possible on current knowledge, but japonicus tends to show paler legs than rubescens. Indeed, some individuals show a similar leg colour to Meadow Pipit. Rubescens usually has dark, even blackish legs, but there is considerable variation within this race, and some birds show leg colour similar to japonicus. In addition, japonicus may always show distinct streaking below compared to the occasional instances of some unstreaked rubescens, but there is enough variation within each race to make racial identification unwise.
Separation of rubescens and japonicus in autumn and winter
Both rubescens and japonicus undergo a partial moult in the autumn (either a post-juvenile or post-breeding moult) and a pre-breeding moult in the late winter or spring. Juveniles replace their head and body feathers and a variable number of coverts (none to all median coverts and none to four greater coverts) (Pyle, 1997)). It may therefore be possible to age autumn and winter birds as 1st winters if there is a moult contrast present within the coverts, although this feature can be tricky enough to see on birds in the hand, let alone on a bird in the field. As adults and 1st winters are essentially similar in appearance, ageing of an individual is not necessary for identification.
Rubescens and japonicus are easier to separate in autumn and winter, but even then there is some overlap in features and not every bird will be identifiable with complete certainty. Many of these birds seem to occur in the Bering Sea region (Paul Lehman pers. comm.) and may be intergrades between the two populations. For the majority of potential vagrants to the Western Palearctic however, the following combination of features should be enough to clinch the identification.
Rubescens varies from being a plain-mantled bird with a distinct grey cast, to more brown-mantled birds with more distinct mantle streaking. Japonicus has similar upperparts, but may appear distinctly darker and browner above than rubescens. Japonicus tends to show a much whiter supercillium and eye ring than rubescens, and these are concolourous with the more whitish base colour to the breast, flanks and belly. In comparison, rubescens is more extensively buff underneath, with this colour extending to the buff supercillium and eye ring. Be aware however, that rubescens wears paler throughout the winter, so can appear whitish below in the latter part of the winter before the onset of the pre-breeding moult. Conversely, japonicus can be quite buff below when fresh, but usually wears very quickly to the whitish colour most often seen on the wintering grounds. Some observers have stated that the eye ring stands out more on japonicus due to the darker upperparts, but to my eyes, this is a very subjective, and even misleading characteristic on many occasions. The eye ring on many rubescens can be thick and obvious, and stand out more than on most japonicus.
The tips to the median and greater coverts often differ between the races. In rubescens, they are usually buff and diffusely demarcated, staying so throughout the winter. In japonicus, they quickly fade to whitish or even white, and are generally more clear cut and well defined (Alström et al 2003). By the time any vagrant turns up in the Western Palearctic, this difference should be noticeable.
The underpart streaking is usually distinctly different. On rubescens, the streaks are generally mid brown to dark brown, short and often slightly blurred, or diffuse. They are often blurred together on the breast and extend in thinner streaks down the flanks. There are individuals with stronger streaking, but they do not usually approach classic japonicus. The streaks on japonicus are dark brown, or even blackish. They are generally thicker, better defined and often even spot-like. They tend to contrast much more with the whitish underparts. These differences in streaking contribute to the more brown and white appearance of japonicus and olive and buff look of rubescens. The streaks on japonicus may also form a more obvious gorget across the upper breast, but care must be taken with this feature as rubescens can also show this. One other feature often quoted is the size of the malar patch. On japonicus, these often form large solid black triangles on the neck sides and are obvious when present. The sudden widening of the very thin malar stripe into the thick solid mass of black may indeed be characteristic of this race. Rubescens can show a large dark malar patch, but it is perhaps never as dark or as large as in a classic japonicus. The strength, colour and extent of streaking on a vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit may not be enough to positively identify it to race, as there is enough variability within each race to make this unwise, although a heavily marked japonicus should be relatively easy to distinguish.
The legs are usually distinctly different. Rubescens generally has blackish, greyish or at least red brown legs. On occasion, they are paler, and a flock of rubescens will often contain a pale-legged individual. Japonicus have pink or pale brown legs. Indeed, they may approach Meadow Pipit in colouration, but generally lack the glowing brightness that that species can show. Leg colour can be used as a strong supporting feature to racially identify a vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit, but given the variation in rubescens, it should only be used in conjunction with other features.
Perhaps surprisingly, the tail pattern also varies between the races. Rubescens shows, on average, more white on T5. Approximately 63% of rubescens show a white wedge on T5 longer than 15mm, as opposed to only 33% of japonicus showing this much white. Importantly, only 10% of rubescens show a white wedge on T5 shorter than 10mm, whereas around 46% of japonicus show this little amount of white. Another helpful feature exhibited by nearly half of all rubescens is a small but distinct white tip to T4. This is shown by only a quarter of japonicus. Even though these differences are small, and probably impossible to judge accurately in the field, they may prove useful with good quality photographs of preening birds.
When racially identifying a vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit, it would be wise to concentrate on correctly evaluating the base colour of the underparts and face pattern, the colour of the wingbars and the strength, extent and colour of the underpart streaking. Coupled with the colour of the legs, a positive identification should be possible in the majority of cases.
Winters on the Pacific coast and in the east from south-east USA to Central America. Rarely winters as far north as New York but common there in autumn. Main passage periods are September and May-early June. Asian population winters mainly from Pakistan to Japan and south to South-East Asia.
In the Western Palearctic the nominate race has been recorded as a vagrant in Iceland and the British Isles, on Heligoland in Germany, mainly in October-November but once in May. British Isles records (< 10) mostly on Northern Isles of Scotland, in south-west Ireland or Scilly Isles. The Asian race has been recorded in Italy and regularly in winter in small numbers in southern Israel. It probably also occurs elsewhere in the Middle East and has been recorded in Lebanon.
The nominate race breeds in North America, the darker and more heavily streaked race japonicus in northern Asia.
Four subspecies are recognized:
- A. r. japonicus:
- A. r. pacificus:
- A. r. rubescens:
- A. r. alticola:
An additional subspecies geophilus is not generally recognised2
Breeds on tundra but out of the breeding season found in a range of wet and dry habitats including sparsely vegetated fields and open beaches.
Erect posture when walking, bobs tail.
Feeds on insects and small seeds.
Flight call is diagnostically different to the highly similar calls of Water and Rock Pipits.
Instead of the familiar strident, slightly drawn out “seest” or “sreest” of these two species that is generally given singly, the call of Buff-bellied Pipit is more similar to Meadow Pipit. It is a short, clipped, sip or tsip that may be given in quick succession. Indeed, when flushed, the tsip notes may be strung out into a frantic sequence of notes.
In comparison to Meadow Pipit, the call of Buff-bellied is generally more explosive and shorter in duration, and although hard to convey on paper, is distinctive enough when heard.
- Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, S. M. Billerman, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2019. The eBird/Clements Checklist of Birds of the World: v2019. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
- Alström, P. & Mild, K. (2003) Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America. Identification and Systematics. Christopher Helm, London.
- Hendricks, P. and N. A. Verbeek (2012). American Pipit (Anthus rubescens), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.95
- Tyler, S. & Kirwan, G.M. (2020). Buff-bellied Pipit (Anthus rubescens). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from https://www.hbw.com/node/57806 on 28 February 2020).
- Pyle, P. (1997) Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part I: Columbidae to Ploceidae, Slate Creek Press.
- BirdForum Opus contributors. (2021) American Pipit. In: BirdForum, the forum for wild birds and birding. Retrieved 9 May 2021 from https://www.birdforum.net/wiki/American_Pipit