Mountain Pipit by Thinus van Staden
ABOVE: A pipit showing all the classic features of a Mountain Pipit: pink-based bill, strong facial markings, a necklace of dark streaks on the breast, dark mottling on the mantle and buff-coloured outer tail feathers. The only problem is that this photo was taken at Ezemvelo near Bronkhorstspruit on the outskirts of Gauteng – several hundred kilometres from the normal mountainous haunts of this species. What’s the story here? (Photo by Thinus van Staden)

Guest blog by Etienne Marais. Thanks for the contribution Etienne!

Pipit’s are undoubtedly one of the most challenging groups of terrestrial birds to identify. Only many hours of oft-frustrating field study equips one to master what is arguably the most important criterion for identifying pipits: a sense of their GIZZ. This term, (also known as giss or gestalt) is a birder’s acronym derived from the term ‘general impression of size and shape’ – that indefinable something that defines a species. An appraisal of a bird’s GIZZ is not like counting the bars on its tail, or differentiating the subtle tints of brown on its back, or any manner of ticking off field characters for that matter. It is more akin to birder’s intuition, being part conscious mental process and part unconscious ‘gut feel’. It is the composite of many things; far better observed in the vibrant, three dimensional world of reality, than on the shallow world of a computer screen. It is the same principle that allows you to pick out a familiar face in a crowd, even from a distance. However, it also works the other way around: once you’ve built up a familiarity with common birds, sometimes something about an individual bird just jumps out at you and says…this is worth a second glance!

On 10 October 2015, during a birding weekend at Ezemvelo Nature Reserve, north-east of Bronkhorstspruit in eastern Gauteng, I found myself scanning a large tract of day-old burnt veldt that had attracted a great variety of birds. Red-winged Francolin were aggressively digging for bulbs, Cape Longclaws were patrolling the sooty grass stubs for scorched insects, lapwings were keeping a wary eye on things, and assorted LBJs were singing intermittently – heralding the imminent arrival of the rains and the summer breeding season. Burnt grassland is a magnet for pipits, and provides one with the valuable opportunity of side-by-side comparisons of multiple species; in this case, the bulk of the pipit community was identified as African Pipits (no suprises there) with smaller numbers of Long-billed Pipits and Plain-backed Pipits also in attendance. The latter, in particular, are very much ‘after the fire specialists’ and seem to to be ready to head off to a distant column of smoke on the horizon at a moment’s notice.

A little later, along this same area of burnt grassland, we encountered three more pipits. But something about the GIZZ of these pipits was puzzling, and caused me to pause for that all important ‘second glance’ – an instinct birders should never ignore! Fortunately the double-cab bakkie provided an excellent mobile hide and the birds were unperturbed as they foraged among the charred grass tufts. For a start I noted that they looked stocky and heavy compared to all the pipits we had been seeing that day. Closer views afforded allowed us to note that the birds showed an overall yellowish-pink hue, heavily marked upperparts, clearly marked crowns, well-defined bold streaking on the breast and strong, distinct malar stripes. Most importantly, at least two of the three pipits had a prominent pink base to the lower mandible.

These were odd pipits, out of place, but not unfamiliar. Indeed they immediately kindled a memory in me of a cold breeze, the fresh smell of alpine heath and a constant background clicking of mountain frogs. It took me only a second to realise that my memory was trekking in the Lesotho Highlands, although my feet were still firmly planted in Gauteng.

In birding, there is a subtle ecstasy involved with finding something special and out of place…accompanied by an increase in pulse rate, a slight breathlessness and a drying of the mouth. Photographic evidence would have been gratifying, but the encounter was short-lived as the birds flushed into an unburnt area of taller grass to our right. Here they were far more difficult to locate, but did provide flight views: dark, heavy birds without the clear white outer tail feathers of African Pipits. This, and their non-territorial flocking behaviour strengthened my feeling that these were indeed Mountain Pipits on migration. Prompted by local birding stalwart Lisl van Deventer, I put out a very brief report on the Wider Gauteng (100K) Facebook Group, knowing that many birders would jump at the opportunity to tick this species within the 100 km birding zone (from the centres of Johannesburg and Pretoria). Returning next morning, we had to work much harder, but we were able to confirm the presence of at least one more Mountain Pipit. It was only a few days later that I realised that other birders had managed to capture excellent images of the Ezemvelo Mountain Pipits, which confirmed what we had recorded. In particular, thanks to Thinus van Staden for sharing the excellent photographs shown here.


Mountain Pipit by Thinus van Staden
ABOVE: Ecologically and morphologically, Mountain Pipits are very closely related to African Pipits. They appear somewhat larger and bulkier, and have a pink (not yellowish) base to the bill, plus buff (not white) outer tail feathers. This is one of the individuals photographed at Ezemvelo, Gauteng in October 2015. (Photo by Thinus van Staden)
Mountain Pipit by Thinus van Staden
ABOVE: One of the Ezemvelo Mountain Pipits, showing the strong breast markings. (Photo by Thinus van Staden)
Mountain Pipit breeding habitat in Lesotho by Etienne Marais
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.


SABAP2 map of Mountain Pipit range
ABOVE: The SABAP2 distribution map for Mountain Pipit. More information is available here.
Google Map showing Ezemvelo
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

So how does one go about finding and identifying Mountain Pipits outside of their high-lying breeding grounds? For starters, you’ll have to develop skills and perception in relation to the shape and size of different pipits. With practice, the human mind can become astute at detecting differences in weight or bulk between different birds – this is likely to be the first clue one gets that a pipit is worthy of a second glance. Nothing beats field experience and for Gautengers wanting to see Mountain Pipits, best is to head to their breeding grounds in Lesotho in summer. The shortest route is via Caledonspoort, into Lesotho, and up Motheng Pass. Searching suitable habitat near Butha-Buthe is a good strategy. This birding hotspot is covered on p. 346 in The Chamberlain Guide to Birding Gauteng. This really is a fantastic destination for a weekend birding trip, with a variety of montane specials on offer, including Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Barratt’s Warbler and Bearded Vulture. The smaller-billed race of Large billed Lark occurs in the area, and often in close proximity to Mountain Pipits. If you happen to confuse these larks for Mountain Pipit at first, feel re-assured that you are definitely not the first to make this mistake! In fact, there is even a published photograph of a Large-billed Lark titled as a Mountain Pipit.

Large-billed Lark by Etienne Marais


Large-billed Lark by Etienne Marais
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.


African Pipit by Etienne Marais
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).
African Pipit by Grant Peacock
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).
Mountain Pipit by Faansie 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).
Mountain Pipit 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.