Saturday, 27 January 2018

Winter Water Pipit ID

The inspiration for this post came from the superb mixed flock of Water and Rock Pipits currently on Colyford Common, but also due to the number of occasions I've been asked to assist in the ID of one or more of these birds. I really hope this helps.

The first tip of my Winter Water Pipit ID post is; Are you sure it's not a Meadow Pipit?

Meadow Pipit is the commonest and most widespread species of Pipit in the UK during the winter (well the whole year actually) and you can get them anywhere that Rock or Water Pipits occur. Hopefully this superb Meadow Pipit photo from Stephen Burch, which I've labelled, helps with this.

Meadow Pipit (c) Stephen Burch

1. Relatively small mostly pale bill.
2. Supercilium diffuse, particularly behind eye.
3. Well marked streaked mantle.
4. Green edging to flight feathers.
5. Very pale pink legs.
6. Fairly heavily streaked underparts, bold black streaks on white or buff-white underparts.

And now let's compare Meadow Pipit and Water Pipit side by side, thanks to a couple of photos I took way back in 2007 when the Axe Estuary Ringing Group caught these two birds together on Colyford Common.  Try and apply points 1-6 above to the Meadow Pipit in these pics, and then look at the same parts of the Water Pipit and check out the differences.

Water Pipit on the left

Just look at the difference in leg colour!

Plumage aside, once you've seen a few Water or Rock Pipits you'll soon notice how different they walk and feed to Meadow Pipits. The smaller Meadow Pipit usually makes a lot of fast jerky movements, unlike the often lumbered approach Water and Rock Pipits have to life.

Once you have ruled out Meadow Pipit by one or more of the above features, the next question is, is it a Water Pipit or a Rock Pipit? The books all talk about superciliums, wing-bars, outer tail feathers, habitat, etc. But in reality identifying whether you have a winter plumaged Rock Pipit or Water Pipit comes down to just one yes or no answer...

And the question; Does it have a white belly?

 Yes = Water Pipit.

No = Rock Pipit.

And I do mean white, clean Daz-white. Any olive/grey/dullness, well anything that isn't white, isn't white, so it isn't a Water Pipit. Let's try this out with a few more photos...

White = Water Pipit

White = Water Pipit

White = Water Pipit (x2)

It's pale, but it isn't white = Rock Pipit

No white-bellies here = Rock Pipit (x2)

One of each here, even out of focus white is still white!

Can't see most of this bird, but you can see enough, White = Water Pipit.

Even this shockingly shoddy photo taken during foggy weather shows how simple it can be...

I don't need to tell you which dot is a Water Pipit!

Obviously there is far more to a Water Pipit than a white belly, and these are some of the other features to look out for;

A nice grey nape contrasting with a brown mantle, so much so that they often remind me of mini-Fieldfares...

Water Pipits often also show noticeably paler rumps, whereas Rock Pipits tend to be basically one colour across the whole of their upperparts, usually olive-grey, with no/little contrast anywhere.

The underpart streaking is finer and sparser in Water Pipit. Rock Pipits usually have rounder more 'blob-like' streaks, densely packed, whereas Water Pipits, especially along the flanks, show long and narrow streaks.

Water Pipit above, Rock Pipit below.

There are other features, but be wary of some that are cited by books and other websites, because in my opinion they can be misleading. Here's a few things you may read regarding Water and Rock Pipit identification;

"Only Water Pipits show white outer tail feathers". Incorrect. Rock Pipits can show white outer-tail feathers, presumably birds of the Scandinavian littoralis race. Water Pipits should show more white in the tail though that is true.

"Two clear white-wing bars makes it a Water Pipit". Incorrect. It's surprising how vivid the wing bars can look on some Rock Pipits. They may not be as white as Water Pipits, but they can be almost as pale.

"Water Pipits live on marshes, Rock Pipits live on beaches". Incorrect. Just look at Colyford Common for starters! In winter Rock Pipits often inhabit marshes and estuaries, but also Water Pipits will overwinter on beaches.

"Water Pipits have pale legs, Rock Pipits have dark legs". Incorrect. Both species often show pale legs. Same goes for their bills, both species bills can be as pale as each other.

"Water Pipits have striking white supercilium". True, but not always. A classic Water Pipit does have wonderfully striking white super's, but not all are as extensive as others. And now and then you will come across a Rock Pipit with really impressive super's that would look just fine on any Water Pipit.

Actually the last paragraph makes a very good point. Water and Rock Pipits are a bit like first-winter Herring Gulls...they vary greatly! Often two of the same species look different, as the degree of streaking on the underparts, size of the supercilium, and often even the tone of the upperparts vary. For example some Water Pipits just look grey and white, whereas you'll come across some with really warm brown mantles, not far off Meadow Pipit colour.  That's why I think it's good to focus on the one most striking and consistent feature, does it have a white belly?

Both Water Pipits and Scandinavian Rock Pipits moult into summer plumage from late Feb/early March.  This is when identification can get a bit trickier, but even though the streaking on a Rock Pipits breast becomes much reduced, they still don't really ever look white breasted. Plus, as a Water Pipits breast turns pink, they are often completely streak free making them look more like Wagtails than Pipits! If you've never seen a summer plumage Water Pipit before, make the effort because they are absolutely worth it. Stunning birds.

And there we are.  If this post helps just one person to get to grips with Water and Rock Pipit ID, then I'm glad I took the time to compose it. Thanks for reading and happy hunting!


  1. Very interesting and informative blog Steve

    1. Thanks Spencer, glad you found it interesting. Cant be many Exmouth records of Water Pipit?

    2. No there isn’t. I’ve only birders here for 8 years but in that time I’ve seen 0 in Exmouth. I normally hope for one at at Topsham (which I missed this year) or the Otter.

  2. Thanks Steve. These posts are always useful.

    1. Thanks Rob, very kind of you to say this. All the best, Steve.

  3. Very interesting Steve.

    in Hong Kong we look hard at Buff-bellied Pipits to pick out the extremely rare Water Pipit (less than five records, and one I still need). The link suggests Buff-bellied as a possible target for you . . .

    1. Hi Mike. Yes always hoping for a Buff-bellied here, be a first for the County as well. Guess there's more chance of it being a rubescens bird seeing as we are down in the south west. Hope you get a Water Pipit soon! Best wishes, Steve.

  4. Steve, this is brilliant! Totally clear. Very useful. Thanks for sharing your knowledge in such a generous manner.

    1. Hi John. Many thanks for the kind comments, really hope it comes in useful. Best wishes, Steve.

  5. Thank you Steve have cut through the waffle on all the other ID's on Water/Rock/Meadow Pipits I have read. I've recently photographed what I believe to be a Water Pipit and your blog is going to be a great help.

  6. Interesting reading but, certainly in NE England, many of our Rock Pipits look closer to your Water Pipites than your example of Rock. I'm trying to put together a photospot that shows definite Water, nominate Rock & littoralis to try and make sense of several shoreline claims up here. If you email me at I will send you some photos