Saturday, 30 November 2013

Birds of East Kent: Rock Pipit

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)
Dumpton Gap, November 2010

Many, many centuries ago, before the invention of paper and scissors, our ancestors used to settle disputes by playing a game of Rock Pipit, Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipit. The rules have long been lost in the mists of time (as there was nothing to write them down on), but they were believed to go something like this:

  • Rock Pipit chops down tree containing Tree Pipit
  • Tree Pipit craps on Meadow Pipit from overhanging branch
  • Meadow Pipit lures Rock Pipit into the long grass and kills it in a surprise attack

This already over-elaborate game was further complicated when some players tried to gain an unfair advantage by adding Water Pipits and Tawny Pipits to the line-up. In this expanded version, the Water Pipit drowns both the Rock Pipit and the Meadow Pipit, and as for a Tawny Pipit ... well no one could agree what the hell a Tawny Pipit does (although, at time of writing, it is the only member of the Pipit family to have a feature film named after it). At this point the game was usually abandoned and the dispute settled by actual fighting.

Of course, these days few people are aware of this unusual chapter in the Rock Pipit's history, and the bird itself is often overlooked as a small brown thing that frequents rocky coastlines. However, what it lacks in appearance it makes up for in character, and it can sometimes be surprisingly approachable, particularly along the undercliff promenade between Viking Bay and Dumpton Gap. This stretch is popular with dogwalkers, and so the birds are used to people walking by.

In some places (Foreness springs to mind) Rock Pipits can be found in close proximity to Meadow Pipits, though the latter tend to keep to the top of the cliff and the former at the bottom. Visually, Rock Pipits are distinguished from Meadow Pipits by their darker legs, slightly stockier build, and generally more smudged streaking in the breast. You may also notice a slight olive tint to the feathers.

If you're really observant (and you've got nothing better to do) you may be able to spot some foreign interlopers in the shape of the Scandinavian Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus littoralis), a subspecies of the regular Rock Pipit. The differences are subtle, particularly outside of the breeding season, but are generally told by a blue-grey tint to the back and a more prominent supercilium (eye-stripe). The photo at the top of this post may indeed be an example of the Scandinavian variety.

A Bug's Death
Broadstairs, September 2013

See also:
More of my Rock Pipit photos on Flickr
Rock Pipit (RSPB)
Rock Pipit (Birdforum)
Rock Pipit (Birdguides)