Tree Pipit: Some notes on identification

Of the smaller pipits that are common migrants through Korea, Olive-backed Pipit and Red-throated Pipit are the most common in that order. In breeding plumage they are unmistakable and easily distinguished from each other. Buff-bellied and Pechora Pipits are less common the previous two, however they don’t pose a serious identification challenge since each of them have some distinct characteristics that are easily picked up in the field in almost first glance. Tree Pipit is however more challenging to pick out and after several false starts, I was finally successful in locating one on Gageo Island on April 26th after a weather system accompanied by strong winds from the west.

In this post, I will discuss about some of the pointers that helped me locate the bird amongst large numbers of Olive-backed Pipits present that day. Pipits are normally found feeding on the ground and takes off with a sharp call when flushed. Even though the calls of different species start to sound different after having spent a few days in the field, it’s still not easy to figure them out just by ear. Since Tree Pipit is fairly rare in Korea (classified as PV1 – Passage Migrant, Vagrant), it might be helpful to be aware of what to look for in pipits in order to detect one.

Tree Pipit can be easily confused with less well marked individual of Olive-backed Pipit and especially with a non-breeding plumaged Red-throated Pipit. But there are some distinct markers, that makes it possible to pick out the species and distinguish from the other two. My rule of thumb is that whenever you find an interesting small pipit in the field, look for (or better still try to photograph) the 3 most effective markers – the color of the bill base, the extent of streaking on the mantle and the face pattern (supercilium and ear coverts in particular). The following table summarizes the key differences for each of the species.

MarkerOlive-backed PipitRed-throated PipitTree Pipit
Bill base colorPinkishYellowishPinkish
Mantle streakingFaint or indistinctProminentProminent
SuperciliumProminentProminentLess prominent
What to look for in pipits?

Let’s take a look at some photos to illustrate these differences more clearly.

Red-throated Pipit in breeding plumage.

A Red-throated Pipit in breeding plumage is unmistakable. However, we often ignore some features of the bird that it retains in its non-breeding plumage that is very useful in distinguishing it from Tree Pipit. The bill base is the most important feature to look for.

Few years back, I came across a pipit on Socheong Island that I was almost sure was a Tree Pipit. It was early May and I was expecting Red-throated Pipits to be in breeding but the bird in the following picture threw a curveball at me. When looking through the bill base coloration, I realized (pointed out by Dr. Nial Moores) that it was a non-breeding plumaged Red-throated Pipit.

Red-throated Pipit retains the yellow bill base in its non-breeding plumage.

Also note, that the supercilium is quite prominent.

Now moving to Olive-backed Pipit, there are 2 key points of difference with Tree Pipit. The streaking on the mantle and the face pattern.

Olive-backed Pipit – Note the prominent supercilium and faint streaking on the mantle. (Even though its perched on a tree, it’s not a Tree Pipit!)

The supercilium is immediately apparent, as is the spots on the ear covert. The mantle is also faintly streaked but the difference is streaking is relative, so we will talk about it later.

The face pattern (especially the ear covert spot can be sometimes confusing). I once encountered a bird on Baekyreong Island that didn’t show this feature. However, it still had a prominent supercilium that helped in identifying the bird more confidently.

Olive-backed Pipit – Even though the ear covert spots can be faint, the supercilium is still very prominent

Looking from behind, it’s possible to get a better idea of the extent of streaking on the mantle.

Olive-backed Pipit – Streaking on the mantle

I encountered this bird on Gageo Island on the same day, a few meters away from the Tree Pipit. The extent of streaking on the back, helped me reinforce the identity.

Finally, let’s take a look at the Tree Pipit itself. Luckily, the bird seemed rather approachable and was busy feeding by the road size. It allowed me to look and photograph it from various angles. It ticked all the features that I was looking for.

Tree Pipit – Weak face pattern and pinkish bill base. Seems promising!
Tree Pipit – Prominent streaking on the mantle

As the bird came down from the perch and started feeding, I got a view of the streaks on the mantle. They seemed quite different from other Olive-backed Pipits that I’ve been seeing for last few days. Voila!!

While looking through the photographs, it also seemed that the Red-throated Pipit has a slightly more fine bill compared to the Tree Pipit. While this was not apparent to me in the field, close up of the photos revealed that.

Tree Pipit (Left), Red-throated Pipit (Right) – Note the subtly finer bill in case of Red-throated Pipit and the yellowish bill base.
Tree Pipit (Left), Olive-backed Pipit (Right) – Note the difference in mantle streaking and the prominence of the supercilium.

To summarize, when looking at pipits, carefully note the mantle streaking, strength of supercilium and the bill base coloration. Happy Birding 🙂

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