American Pipit-a wonderful and rare find...
Five years ago, rain loomed in the forecast for our first Oceanside/Carlsbad/Vista Christmas Bird Count. My rain gear and waterproof binoculars stood at the ready in the car. I asked others in our group what fun or interesting birds we might see. All agreed on the huge flock of American Pipits typically found at our second stop, Rancho Guajome Adobe. That’d be a life bird for me, so I made a mental note. By the second stop, though, the deluge was full on. The grassy field where the pipits would have been? A waterlogged swamp, not a bird to be seen or heard anywhere. Only a small group of crazy, sodden, soggy birders.
As a bird of the West, the American Pipit is an inconspicuous, slender, migratory songbird that occurs throughout North America and south to El Salvador. One of the few species of ground-inhabiting birds to breed at high altitudes, even in Arctic tundra and alpine meadows, it keeps company there with Horned Larks, the various Rosy-Finches, and White-tailed Ptarmigan.
American Pipits appear in San Diego County only as winter visitors, occasionally arriving as early as mid-September and in greater numbers starting in early October. At 11,499 feet, the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain in the San Bernardino Mountains provides our nearest breeding sites for American Pipits. In winter, they become birds of open county, gregariously gathering on pastures, lawns, school playgrounds, and expanses of short grass or bare dirt in flocks occasionally numbering in the hundreds.
A cryptically colored ground-forager, an American Pipit seems to melt into the earth where it lands. Although its plumage resembles a native sparrow, its overall shape is longer and more svelte. When foraging, its tail is slightly up-cocked. Non-breeding plumage is gray-brown above, with faint streaking on the back and shoulder blades (scapulars);wingbars and underparts show whitish to rich brownish-buff. A pale mustache and eye-line bracket the face. The eye-line kicks up a bit in the back, almost encircling the plain darker cap. The leg color ranges from dark brown to blackish and the nail of the hind claw (the hallux)is very long. This latter adaptation probably helps when walking and foraging on unstable groundsuch as snowfields. All plumages look fairly muted, with a pattern that often shrugs off both color and contrast. Pipits can be differentiated from other ground-dwelling passerines in similar habitat by their thin bills and bobbing tails that flash white tail edges when the birds fly.
Year-round, pipits eat primarily insects, adding plant seeds to their diet in autumn and winter. They gather in loose, scattered flocks during migration and winter. Foraging birds walk quickly, scampering and constantly shifting direction as they inspect the ground and low vegetation for food. The persistent head-bobbing and frequent directional changes give the birds’ movements a jerkiness that recalls a flickering old-time movie. Although they’re found in the open and are not especially shy, these slight birds can be surprisingly inconspicuous as they walk briskly across agricultural or short-cropped grassy fields.
Anthusrubescens (the American Pipit’s scientific name) derives from both Greek and Latin. Anthus arises from Greek Anthos, a kind of bird. The mythological human Anthus was killed and eaten (eeewww!) by his father’s horses, after which the gods changed him into a bird. (Why a bird, you ask? Just those wacky gods having fun, I guess.) Rubescens, Latin for “to become red,” refers in a rather overstated way to the buffy orange that can appear in summer plumage. “Pipit”—the French name for this type of bird—comes from Latin pipio, “to peep.”The name “pipit” also echoes this bird’s two-noted flight calls heard year-round. Finally, “American” differentiates this pipit from the other 40+ pipit species found on all continents except Antarctica.
A long-time friend, and one of Colorado’s best-known birders, stayed with us in late December 2017, when a wandering Red-throated Pipit was hanging out with American Pipits at Berry Park down in San Diego. So we made the trek. Pipits of any species are pretty plain in non-breeding plumage; as a result, we spent more than an hour peering through spotting scopes and sorting out large, perpetually shifting flocks of drabness. Finally, he spotted some lighter-colored legs and aboldly striped back. A photo confirmed the Red-throated Pipit. It’s not often extraordinary birders can add a life bird on U.S. soil—and we got to provide the transportation for that exciting accomplishment. Plus we got a lifer ourselves. Not too shabby.