A vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit (aka known as American Pipit or confusingly Water Pipit here in the US) is being seen at a coastal marsh in the north-western part of the UK. Buff-bellied Pipits, of the race japonicus, also occur in Asia and winter in the Middle East and this race and the Nearctic race rubescens show a great deal of variation and so separating these two in a vagrancy context may be difficult with some individuals.
While Buff-bellied Pipit, of the Nearctic race rubescens (American Buff-bellied Pipit) has occurred several times in Britain and Ireland, the Siberian race japonicus (Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit) has not, so it is worth noting the plumage features of any vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit to determine race.
Basically, the dumb-down cliff notes are that Siberian birds are:
- rather pale below with a noticeable eyering
- large, club-ended malar and streaked blackish below with rather tear-shaped spots/streaks.
American birds are:
- rather plainer above,
- being less streaked, more buff-below with rather more brownish, blurry streaking.
However, individual variation and wear and geographical variation across their ranges makes the “simple” criteria just mentioned somewhat useless in a vagrancy context, and identification is often easier if you are standing in Israel or Connecticut respectively!
The individual in Cheshire can be seen at (scroll down for the images if necessary) :
Initially, on a comment I posted on Martin Garner’s Birding Frontiers site I had thought the bird seemed fine for American Buff-bellied Pipit, but further photos seemed to show a bird with rather contrasting upper wingbar, rather large blobby malar and well-defined dark streaks on the underparts. I was cautious and wondered if the bird could be a Siberian Buff-bellied, but having no field experience of that race, I was in unchartered waters and wanted to add some caution to my initial support of the bird.
So, I dug up some pictures I had taken of a bird here in New Haven for comparison (see below) and also a link to Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit here:
All three images, American Buff-bellied Pipit (rubescens), New Haven, CT, January 14th 2008.
Based on Pyle et al., 1987, the pointed centres to the median coverts and the blurry, non-indented edges to the greater coverts makes this bird a first-winter (HY). The Cheshire bird is a first-winter by the same features.
Overall a buff-brown bird, with non-contrasting wingbars and dull buff underparts. Underpart streaking is brown, not blackish and there is no pale contrasting eyering or large, dark, ‘blobby’ malar. Note the dark brown, not pale legs.
After reviewing images, and taking into consideration variability, with all things considered, the Cheshire bird is more likely American based on the overall plumage tones, plainer mantle and underpart color but it is certainly not straightforward. If the bird had been the rather white-below, heavily streaked Siberian birds, perhaps it would be easier, but since they vary so much, a vagrant may often be hard to assign to race.
American Buff-bellied’s have a distinctive, di-syllabic “pip-it”, “pip-it” calls that may help distinguish it from Siberian birds but I have no experience with that race.
A great educational bird that has generated some insightful discussions in the UK for those that want to read more on this bird: