ABOVE: One of the Ezemvelo Mountain Pipits, showing the strong breast markings. (Photo by Thinus van Staden)
ABOVE: Typical Mountain Pipit breeding habitat in the Lesotho Highlands.
(Photo by Etienne Marais)
But first some background on the enigmatic Mountain Pipit…
Probably more than any other southern African bird, the Mountain Pipit has a confusingly complex taxonomic history. Believe it or not, but the species was not first discovered in its high-altitude breeding grounds, but was instead described from two specimens collected in northern Namibia. These were given the name Anthus hoeschi by Stresemann in 1938. A few years later, different birds were collected in north-western Zambia and were described by White in 1946 as a new subspecies (namely lwenarum) of the African Pipit, then Anthus richardi, now A. cinnamomeus. Only in 1951 were specimens collected in the Lesotho highlands and these described as yet another subpecies of African Pipit (namely editus) by Vincent in 1951.
Were these three disparate taxa related? After examining the various specimens, Clancey proposed in 1978 that specimens of editus collected in the summer breeding season in the Lesotho highlands, and specimens of lwenarum collected during the winter non-breeding season in Zambia, were the same species. And a few years later in 1984, Clancey put forth that all three these independently described taxa (hoeschi, lwenarum and editus) belong together, and should receive the earliest name, A. hoeschi. The puzzle was not yet complete, and the Mountain Pipit was initially considered synonymous with the African Pipit, until John Mendelsohn and Ian Sinclair collected Mountain Pipits alongside African Pipits in the Eastern Cape, and observed the differences in voice between the two taxa.
As currently understood, the Mountain Pipit has a very restricted breeding range across the high mountains (mainly >2,000 m) of the Lesotho Highlands, which is home to the bulk of the global population. However, a substantial population extends into high-lying areas of the adjacent Drakensberg in South Africa, particularly around Rhodes, Mount Fletcher, Naudesnek, Barkly Pass and Elliot in the Eastern Cape. However, it is possible that its range is much more extensive in this under-birded province, as it has also recently been recorded near Queenstown. Elsewhere it is known to occur locally at Matatiele in KwaZulu-Natal and Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Free State.
ABOVE: The SABAP2 distribution map for Mountain Pipit. More information is available here.
ABOVE: The location of Ezemvelo Nature Reserve is shown by the red marker. Quite a distance from Lesotho!
As with many birds inhabiting Lesotho’s highest areas, the extreme winter weather forces the birds to depart their their high breeding grounds from about early April. They return again in the second half of October. Where they go in the intervening months is one of the enduring mysteries of southern African ornithology. As mentioned above, studies of museum specimens have suggested that skins of odd pipits from as far afield as southern DRC, western Zambia and north-eastern Angola might be Mountain Pipits, and the conventional wisdom is that the species winters in south-central Africa. But does it really? It seems that the evidence to support this hypothesis is scant – clearly, we still have a huge blank space to fill in terms of our knowledge on the movements of this mysterious pipit. Perhaps a study involving geo-locator technology will provide the answers.
Nevertheless, the discovery of these pipits at Ezemvelo in north-eastern Gauteng does provide a tantalising clue and a piece of the puzzle. The Mountain Pipit is known to arrive in the second half of October on its breeding grounds. Given that related pipits are resident or short-distance nomadic migrants in the South African winter, it seems plausible that the Mountain Pipit is merely an altitudinal migrant. Various other Lesotho specials, such as the Fairy Flycatcher, Sickle-winged Chat and Sentinel Rock Thrush show an altitudinal migratory pattern – but these all are easy to identify in the field, unlike the pipits. Adding further to the challenge is the question of plumage wear, which can radically change the appearance of a bird. Initial observations suggest that Mountain Pipits breed in fresh plumage in spring in contrast to African Pipits, which are in fresh plumage in winter and already quite worn when breeding commences in spring (suggesting different moult and migration strategies in these two species). Thinus’ excellent photos show that the Ezemvelo pipits are in immaculate fresh plumage, which is further evidence that they are indeed Mountain Pipit.
The challenge: finding Mountain Pipits
TWO ABOVE: The smaller-billed version of Large-billed Lark that often co-occurs with Mountain Pipits in Lesotho. These larks are easily confused with Mountain Pipits, particularly if one is suffereing from a mild case of ‘passport fever’ (wishful thinking). However, the bright yellow base to the bill is particularly distinctive in this lark, and its squeaky gate voice is unmistakable (photos by Etienne Marais).
And in terms of identification? Mountain Pipit is noticeably bulkier than African Pipit, with a bull-necked look, and a less dainty, slender feel about it. As compared to Plain-backed/Buffy or Long-billed Pipits, Mountain Pipit appears slightly short-tailed. Once one is onto a suspicious pipit, the second feature to look for is the absence of broad white outer tail feathers (which is a characteristic feature of African Pipit). Next, look for the well-defined markings on the bird, especially obvious on the crown and around the supercilium, but the facial features in general are striking, and the necklace of dark streaks on the chest is eye-catching. The upperparts are darkly mottled. At least in fresh plumage, Mountain Pipits often show a very distinctive, broad, off-white supercilium accentuated by crisp darker lines above and below. The base of the bill is pinkish, and the bill itself often appears to be slightly shorter and more angular than that of African Pipit. Overall the birds often seem suffused with a rich pinkish buffy wash. The best time to find them is probably in from about mid-October, when they will still be in classic fresh plumage, and will appear crisp and boldly marked compared to the African Pipits at slightly lower altitudes.
ABOVE: An African Pipit photographed near Wakkerstroom. Note the yellowish base to the bill and the clear white panels on the outer tail feathers. The bird looks more dainty and fragile than the Mountain Pipit – a distinction that will become more obvious with field experience of both species (photo by Etienne Marais).
ABOVE: An African Pipit photographed near Pretoria in July. This bird is completing its post-breeding moult into fresh plumage. This is typically similar to what Mountain Pipits would look like in September-November (when Africans would be more worn again). Note the weak bill and dull yellowish base to the bill (photo by Grant Peacock).
ABOVE: A Mountain Pipit photographed in Thaba-Tseka, Lesotho in December. This bird is already showing signs of feather wear and is looking a little paler than it would have appeared two months earlier. The dark lores of this bird are clearly visible as a short stripe in front of the eye – this is usually slightly more pronounced than in African Pipit (photo by Faansie Peacock).
ABOVE: A Mountain Pipit photographed in Thaba-Tseka, Lesotho in December. Notice the rather thickset body and shortish neck – in African Pipit the neck usually appears longer and the the head smaller and more pointed. The bill also appears slightly shorter in proportion to the head, but the pink (not yellow) lower mandible distinguishes this as a Mountain Pipit. The forked tail suggests that this bird is undergoing tail moult, and may have bred already (photo by Faansie Peacock).
Eight years of SABAP2 have not produced records of Mountain Pipit from outside of their breeding range, other than one record from Queenstown. An interesting footnote to the Ezemvelo Mountain Pipit discovery: based on reports by Rob Geddes, the pipits were present in the same area for at least 6 days, which suggests they spend a lot more time in South Africa than has previously been thought. In addition, a trip to Lesotho about 10 days later failed to deliver any Mountain Pipits, suggesting that they may still have been en route. Where do these birds go in the non-breeding winter season? What migration routes do they follow? Where can birders expect to bump into them outside of their normal range? By working on greater mastery of pipit ID and participating in SABAP2, birders can help to unravel the mystery of the Mountain Pipit further. We would be very interested to hear about any further records – let us know in the comments section below.