Richard’s Pipit

Back in January 2021, I accidentally discovered a roosting site of pipits and larks at Mae Faek (San Sai district, Chiang Mai). It’s a large abandoned area of dry land that was piled up and surrounded by rice fields. I heard that it was supposed to become a longan-drying factory, but that never happened. After visiting the regular spot where I normally went to observe the long-staying Tickell’s/Alpine Leaf Warbler which I found on the first day of 2021, I decided to check this large abandoned area which is nearby, just to see how it’s like. To my surprise, I flushed more than 40 pipits from the short dry grass. I didn’t expect to find anything like that at all, as the grass was very short, but it appeared that many birds were hiding inside. I was even more surprised to find at least 3 Sykes’s Short-toed Larks, a rare bird in Thailand, roosting together with the pipits.

Since the discovery, I have been regularly visiting this site in the evening and continued to find more interesting species. However, in this post, I’d like to share my thoughts about the Richard’s Pipits (Anthus richardi) that were coming to roost here. It was the most abundant pipit that came to roost at this site. The number fluctuated between 20-50 individuals between late January to early April. The number then dropped to around 10 individuals in mid April. It’s quite surprising how numerous they could be in the evening, but I barely see any in the morning, even when I visited the site at daybreak. These birds seemed to leave the roost very early in the morning, even before sunrise, and only returned to the roost around 5 PM, just before sunset.

Richard’s Pipits resting and preening on mimosa trees before going to roost (with Doi Chiang Dao in the background) (Date 10 February 2021)
Classic stance and structure of Richard’s Pipit (Date 19 April 2021)

Because Richard’s Pipit was the most abundant species, I got to observe such a wide range of plumage and structure variation among them. It’s quite mind-boggling how different each bird can look and still identifies as the same species. I honestly don’t know what causes such a huge variation. It could be the different subspecies, or just simply individual variations. Total of 5 subspecies (richardi, dauricus, centralasiae, ussuriensis and sinensis) are recognised by The Cornell’s Birds of the World database, but the description of each subspecies is too simple to be used as a reference for identification. So far, only one subspecies (sinensis) is described to winter in Thailand, but I’m sure that there are more.

In this post, I will discuss about the variation of Richard’s Pipits that I’ve observed, both at the Mae Faek roost and elsewhere.

(Date 12 April 2021)

Let’s start with the “classic” look of the Richard’s Pipit. Generally, it appears as a large and bulky pipit with pot belly and long tail. The head often seems smallish compared to the body. The tail often appears long and loosely attached, especially while running or in flight. The legs are long with very long hind claws. The bill, which I find to be one of the most diagnostic features, is usually thick with curved culmen which creates a blunt-tipped look unlike other similar species (Paddyfield and Blyth’s Pipit). I find the bill length to be highly variable, but the curved culmen is usually consistent.

Classic structure of Richard’s Pipit while perching on a tree. Note the thick and rather long bill with curved culmen creating a blunt-tipped look. (Date 18 March 2021)
Some individuals have slightly thinner and narrower bill, but the curved culmen is still noticeable. (Date 29 January 2021)
The curved culmen can be very obvious in some individuals making the bill tip look almost slightly down curved. (Date 23 February 2021)
Some individuals can have very thick and blunt bill tip like this. (Date 15 April 2021)
On the other end of the spectrum, there are individuals with very short bill like this, which might slightly resemble Blyth’s Pipit. However, the overall structure of this bird is typical for Richard’s Pipit. The bill is also too thick (though I’ve seen photos of some Blyth’s Pipits with unusually thick bill too), and the legs are too long. (Date 20 September 2018)
Another individual with short and smallish bill. Note the curved culmen, especially near bill tip. This individual is particularly interesting because it appeared very small when I saw it, and the hind claws are also very short for Richard’s Pipit. I think it fits perfectly with the description of the race sinensis which is said to be the smallest race with relatively short tail and hind claw. (Date 18 May 2020)
This individual probably has the smallest bill that I’ve seen for Richard’s Pipit. The bill is about the same size as in Blyth’s Pipit. However, the curved culmen is still present and creates the blunt-tipped look diagnostic to Richard’s Pipit. (Date 3 March 2021)
I suspect that this individual is also the race sinensis because of its small size, short tail and short hind claws, but it has a much finer bill than the previous two birds, looking almost like a Paddyfield Pipit. (Date 16 April 2021)

Not only the bill shape and length that are variable, the bill colour of each bird can also be very different from one another. The colour ranges from pale pink to pinkish-orange and ochre-yellow. I still can’t find the consistency in bill shape and bill colour. At the moment, these bird just seem randomly variable to me.

A very bulky individual with ochre-yellow thick bill (Date 12 April 2021)
Another individual with similar structure and bill shape, but with pink bill (Date 12 April 2021)

The overall plumage colour and markings on the upperparts are also very variable in Richard’s Pipits. I understand that the adult in fresh plumage would appear more rufous overall, while the juvenile is more whitish-buff and worn birds appear greyish-brown. However, what I don’t understand is what causes the variation of black markings on the crown, mantle and breast.

This individual has rather plain upperparts with very faint streaking on the crown and mantle. (Date 10 April 2021)
Another bird with plain upperparts (Date 16 April 2021)
While this individual has more prominent black streaking on the crown, malar stripe and mantle (Date 29 January 2021)
Another strongly marked individual; the bill seems dark overall probably because it was covered with mud (Date 11 April 2021)
This individual is among the weirdest Richard’s Pipits that I’ve seen. The overall structure is so different. The tail is short but the hind claws are very long. Overall plumage is very warm buffish-brown, especially on the underparts. The bill shape, however, looks rather typical for Richard’s Pipit. (Date 23 February 2021)
Another individual with similarly warm buffish-brown plumage, plain upperparts and short tail, but with a much narrower bill (Date 22 March 2021)
Before going to roost, many birds liked to perch on the dry mimosa trees to rest and preen as the sun set. While perching on trees, the hind claws can be seen clearly. This juvenile shows the typical hind claw length for Richard’s Pipit. (Date 26 January 2021)
The hind claws of this bird, however, are much shorter than in most Richard’s Pipits that I’ve photographed. (Date 18 May 2020)
The typical tail pattern of Richard’s Pipit has extensive white on the 2 outermost pairs of tail feathers. The second outermost pair has nearly all white inner web with dark base (much smaller white area in Blyth’s Pipit). (Date 4 December 2018)
Temperature can also strongly affect how the bird looks. In hot weather, the birds can appear very slender and thin, while in cool temperature, they can seem larger and bulkier because of the puffed feathers. (Date 21 April 2021)
In cooler temperature, the feathers are more relaxed and the bird can appear larger and bulkier than when in hot weather. Note the overall structure of this bird; large, bulky body with pot belly, long tail, small head, long thick bill with curved culmen, all the classic features of Richard’s Pipit. (Date 10 November 2018)

When flushed, Richard’s Pipits almost always make a flight call which is another useful way to identify them. The call is a loud, explosive “schreep”, much harsher than the call of both Paddyfield and Blyth’s Pipit. The typical flight call of Richard’s Pipit can be listened here

As April is coming to an end, most of the birds are now gone from the roost and migrated northward to their breeding grounds. It would be interesting to learn, in the future, where all these different-looking birds breed. It’s amazing how little we know about this common and widespread migrant that can be found throughout Asia. Hopefully, this area where they come to roost will still remain undisturbed throughout the next wintering season. I’m looking forward to seeing them again when the next winter arrives.

6 thoughts on “Richard’s Pipit

Add yours

  1. Thanks for blogging again. Always a good read and highly educational. I don’t think this level of detail can be found anywhere else.
    Keep up the great work.

  2. Delighted to see you blogging again Ayuwat! Looking forward to future posts and learning more.

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