WATER PIPIT (Anthus spinoletta)

Pipit spioncelle

 

In Switzerland the Water Pipit is found throughout the alps and in the Jura, it can be found above 1400m but is most common around 2000m. Like the very similar Meadow Pipit it is a bird of high altitude grasslands and rocky scrub. This means it is generally found at higher altitudes than Meadow Pipit but they can occur alongside each other in the Jura and the pre-alps where confusion between the two is easy. Meadow Pipits are not found in the high alps. At one time the Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) was considered the same species but has now been separated.

The basic song can be delivered from a  perch or in flight. The perched song is a repeated "chirrup" delivered in phrases of different length, it has a sort of rattling quality to it unlike the clearer notes of the Meadow Pipit :

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The rattling quality of the sound comes from the series of elements that make up each note, there are 3 that are delivered in about 0.2s :

Whilst these three elements clearly show as three separate sounds (see the diagram on the right) human ears cannot distinguish things at that speed but instead we can detect a sort of rattling that shows it is not just one note. Compare this with the Meadow Pipit where there are two elements to each note which our ears perceive as one. So this small rattle is one way to separate the two species when singing.

Like the Meadow Pipit the Water Pipit also has a parachute song which I think tends to have more variation in the notes:

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The main body of the parachute song seems to the the same notes delivered when perched:

But as you can hear these notes change a lot as the delivery goes on:

Frequently the bird will start with a few perched deliveries before springing up into flight, singing before it reaches the top and then parachuting down, often circling and often returning to the same point of departure. Here is one giving two perched deliveries followed by a song flight:

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HOW CAN I TELL A WATER PIPIT FROM A MEADOW PIPIT ?

A key point is the the "cleaner" sounds of the Meadow Pipit . You would be forgiven for thinking the perched Water Pipit song could be a very loud grasshopper or cricket chirruping away. Here is the perched song of it compared with a Meadow Pipit . Water Pipit comes first in the three pairs in this sequence:

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and as a sonogram:

You can hear and see that the stridulating lower tone of the Water Pipit is indeed quite different from the higher pitched, clearer and brighter note of the Meadow Pipit .

Finally to help separate the two here are the parachute/ flight songs compared, Water Pipit first followed by Meadow Pipit and repeated twice:

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The grasshopper-type of stridulations and slower delivery of the Water Pipit can be told from the more metallic, brighter and faster "tink tink tink" of the Meadow Pipit .Hard to remember this when out in the field though I admit !

I hope this helps to distinguish these two rather confusing species.

MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis)

Pipit farlouse

 

In Switzerland the Meadow Pipit is essentially a bird of upland areas in the north of the country, found mainly in the Jura and the northern slopes of the pre-alps. I encounter it from about 800m and upwards to about 1600m. It strongly favours the rough pasturelands that can be found around 1000-1200m where it breeds. Found year-round in Switzerland it is also a migrant in Europe, so birds that are passing through, and birds moving to lower altitudes in cold weather also account for sightings in the valleys.

The dull grey-brown speckled colouration means that although you may hear the sounds it is not always easy to spot the caller. In appearance and sound it is also easily confused with the Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta) and so I will examine the sounds in some detail to help work out how they differ.

The basic song can be delivered from a perch and also in flight; here is a bird perched on a fence post, (the small hum in the background comes from the generator of a distant farm):

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The sound is fairly bright and clear with a slightly "ringing" metallic feel to my ears. If we look at the sonogram we can see that the notes are somewhat complex, each one has two elements to it, starting with one which descends quickly from about 6 Khz to 3 Khz, followed immediately (about 0.02 s later !) by another that is shaped like a hockey stick and descends from about 7 Khz leveling off at about 6 Khz:

These two notes can be clearly seen in the sonogram and show up in the graph of sound intensity (the upper blue area in the figure below) but human ears cannot work that fast so we hear just one note.

At its best (in my opinion !) the song is delivered in flight, this is used to attract mates and advertise territory, since its favoured grassland breeding habitat contains few trees this is an effective way of getting your song and up and out there to advertise (see also Skylark which does the same). The bird starts to sing as it flies upwards, then turns and spreads its wings and tail like a parachute and will circle slowly back down to the ground. The song accelerates as it develops and then slows again towards the end. Here are two deliveries of the song flight, you can hear the sound getting louder and quieter as the bird circles away from my microphone:

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(Excuse the cows in the background - I told you they like pastureland !).As the song flight finishes they can also sometimes fly along horizontal to the ground with wings quivering rapidly and then the song changes into a series of rattling "tsisp" notes which tail off - listen again to the end of the second of the sequences above where this happens:

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Frequently the song flight follows a series of songs delivered from a perch and the bird then flies up and sings again as in this sequence:

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Now the parachuting song flight sounds pretty much the same as the perched song we examined at the start of this page, but remember the "hockey-stick" note? Well if we look at the sonogram of the flight dsipaly it appears that note has been turned upside-down - the handle of the hockey-stick now points downwards and it levels off at about 4.5 Khz slightly lower than in the perched call:

In fact the whole song shape seems upside down. Our ears cannot pick out these subtleties of course, but presumably it conveys information to other Meadow Pipits, we can only speculate as to what it might mean - maybe one for territory and one for a mate ? Who knows ? From that sonogram you can also see how the notes gain in tempo during the delivery as well.

To keep contact with other birds (or maybe a flock on migration) they also have a short contact call:

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This same note is used as an anxiety or alarm call especially near the nest, it is delivered more rapidly and seems to become even more rapid the more anxious the bird becomes, there are two sequences in the following the second showing a higher state of alarm:

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Have a look at the Water Pipit page where I put the sounds of the two species side by side so that you can learn the difference.

 

TREE PIPIT (Anthus trivialis)

Pipit des arbres

Pipits are a group of birds generally difficult to identify. They are various shade of tawny -brown, with a speckled breast and a rather upright posture. In particular the Tree Pipit is not easy to tell on sight from a Meadow Pipit. In Switzerland even their distribution is quite similar being found from about 800m altitude and upwards, most common at at about 1200m. However both song and behaviour make the two immediately identifiable. As the name implies the Tree Pipit ONLY ever sings perched high in a tree or in flight, and its song, whilst complex is very distinct.

Here is a bird recorded in April and not yet in full song, maybe this is "spring song" before the full voice develops ? The birds was perched in a tree and you can hear that the phrase has two elements to it - "tsip-tsip-tsip chup-chup-chup":

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Full voice results in a longer more complex song, usually given from a high perch near the top of a tree:

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There are elements in here which could be confused with a Chaffinch, like this phrase:

Whilst others have quite distinct tones, in the following you can see that each phrase begins with the "chup-chup-chup" that sounds like a Chaffinch, but then it breaks into more ringing tones "choweep-chooweep-chooweep" which are much brighter, note also that the first phrase has a third element - two clear whistles with an upward inflection (these are important) - but now its getting complicated :

That whistle at the end of the first phrase is also used in the song flight which is the Tree Pipit in its full magnificence. The song flight can also involve strange chatterings and vibrations almost like a canary, listen to these two phrases which were actually made by a perched bird:

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and look at the first phrase in a sonogram:

You can also hear that distinctive upward inflected whistle in the second phrase, this is a real key to identifying the Tree Pipit:

So let's put all these elements together and see what it sounds like on a warm summer day. When "in season" the song can be made static from a high perch in which case it is usually in a simpler format, but it is also delivered in flight - here the bird flies upwards and outwards from its tree at an angle of about 60 degrees, rising to height perhaps twice that of the tree. It often does not start to sing until at the apex of the flight, it then curves its wings and spreads its tail to form a "parachute" and with legs extended floats slowly back to the original perching spot, usually making the churring sounds or whistles as it glides back down.

Here is a bird in late June (hear the cows bells and hover flies) which starts with a flight song, then does two phrases at a static perch, then does one more flight song - you can hear how much more extended and complex those two songs in flight are - the first one gets louder as the bird floats back to my microphone:

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and here is another which does the reverse, a perched song, then two flight songs and finally one perched song:

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In all cases that whistled "tcheu-tcheu-tcheu" is very distinctive, carries a long way and tells you there are Tree Pipits about.

 

 

WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba)

Bergeronnette grise

The White Wagtail is found throughout the lowlands of Switzerland up to about 2000m but mostly below 1000m. Living largely on or near the ground it is fond of large flies which it catches by running about and making short leaps into the air. Clearly farms and animal pastures are interesting for this bird which is where it is usually found. But a newly cut lawn or meadow is also interesting, as is a warm roof-top in the sun where it may be seen running along the ridge tiles. As its English name implies it really does wag its tail, why is a bit of a mystery but is probably an adaptation that scares insects into moving and so makes them more visible and hence helps the Wagtail to hunt.

Vocally this is not the most fascinating bird in the world, most of its sounds are barely more than a call - often characterised as a rapid "tchi-ssik" but so rapid it is barely distinguishable as two syllables:

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Although if you look at the spectrogram the two syllables are just about separable:

Here is one bird that I recorded quite close whose call was a little slower and the spectrogram shows that it is quite a complex note which accounts for why it sounds a bit "fuzzy":

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Some authors write that they have heard a "song" where the calls I have described are spun out into a longer sound on warbles. These descriptions (that I have read !) are mostly from the UK where a different sub-species exists and it is called a Pied Wagtail, so whether this is a sub-species difference or whether I need to do more work on this rather common species I am not sure.

I have recorded a pair very close to their nest where one bird gave off a much shorter call, definitely only one syllable, which may be an anxiety call as it was well aware that I was present and interested in it - but I did not stay long so that it could get on with its own business !

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