There are six pipits (Anthus spp.) on the Malaysian list. Of these, only Paddyfield Pipit is resident. The others are either more or less regular but localised non-breeding visitors (Olive-backed Pipit and Red-throated Pipit), scarce migrants (Pechora Pipit – Bornean Malaysia only – and Richard’s Pipit) or vagrants (Blyth’s Pipit – Peninsular Malaysia only).
The pipits can be fairly reliably grouped according to their preferred habitat in Malaysia: Paddyfield, Richard’s, Blyth’s and Red-throated are lowland open country birds; Olive-backed occurs mostly at montane and submontane altitudes and in more forested habitats; and Pechora has a predominantly coastal distribution in northern Borneo, preferring coastal scrub.
In this article, I will focus on differentiating the three ‘larger’ species – Paddyfield, Richard’s and Blyth’s (in fact, size differences are small, and there is overlap in length with the so-called ‘smaller pipit’species, but ‘larger pipits’ differ in having proportionally longer legs and a stockier structure).
Paddyfield Pipit is the default pipit species in Malaysia, being extremely common in a range of open country habitats.
Richard’s Pipit is at best a scarce non-breeding visitor. Because the resident Paddyfield Pipit was formerly lumped with Richard’s Pipit, the historical status of the species is unclear. In Peninsular Malaysia, the first acceptable record was at Chuping, Perlis, as recently as 2013. Since then, it has been recorded annually at the site between Nov and Feb, but nowhere else in the Peninsula. On Borneo, it is probably a scarce migrant, but well-documented records are few and far between.
Blyth’s Pipit has been recorded just twice; once at Chuping, Perlis, in Jan 2010, and once at Malim Nawar, in Jan/Feb 2017.
Paddyfield Pipits frequent open grass fields, roadside verges and sandy tracks, and cleared ground with little or no vegetation.
Richard’s Pipits at Chuping prefer much longer grass and more overgrown fallow fields than Paddyfield Pipits. They are rarely flushed from the roadsides there, and are very difficult to see on the ground because of the thicker ground cover they frequent.
Both Blyth’s Pipits were originally observed on sandy tracks, and subsequently fed on short grassy verges, frequently associating with Paddyfield Pipits, and apparently sharing their preferred habitat.
It may seem strange to talk about what the larger pipits sound like before what they look like, but, more often than not, it is the call which gives the first clue that we are dealing with something other than a Paddyfield Pipit.
Pipits are generally rather vocal, particularly when flushed or in flight. It is also true that the larger pipits use more than one type of vocalisation, so it is well worth paying attention to the full range of calls made.
As is so often the case, the key to finding a rare species is to make every effort to become familiar with the common ones. Recording and noting down the various calls uttered by Paddyfield Pipits is essential foundational work for anyone with an interest in locating Richard’s or Blyth’s Pipits. Xeno-Canto Asia has an excellent library of bird sounds where you can gen up on the vocalisations of all three species.
Richard’s Pipits commonly utter an explosive “schreep“(listen here), which is very different from any Paddyfield Pipit call (be careful not to confuse it with the softer, thinner “tseep” of Eastern Yellow Wagtail). I’ve quite often seen Richard’s Pipits near dusk at Chuping as they’ve flown overhead going to roost, calling loudly.
Both Malaysian Blyth’s Pipits were initially located by call. Neither time did I recognise the call as Blyth’s, but both times I knew it was something different and worth investigating. It sounds more buzzy and ‘jangly’ than Paddyfield or Richard’s. Listen here. However, some of the calls sound more Paddyfield-like (such as this one), so don’t be too quick to discount a funny pipit which sounds like a Paddyfield!
PLUMAGE AND STRUCTURE
Some of these trickier individuals show that identification is not always straightforward, based purely on plumage features. It is always worth taking time to make a thorough appraisal of atypical birds, getting as many photos as possible, and recording the call if this is possible.
There’s lots more to learn about plumage variation in the larger pipits, so this is certainly not the last word on the matter, particularly as for the latter two species, my observations are limited to a small number of individuals.
Nevertheless, I hope this article will encourage you to take a closer look at pipits next time you have the opportunity to observe them, and that it will give you some idea of what you should be looking and listening out for.
A final plea – when you do positively identify pipits (or any other birds for that matter) – please do submit your observations to eBird Malaysia; doing so regularly will be of immense benefit in adding to our understanding of the true status of Malaysia’s beautiful birds.