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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 https://www.xeno-canto.org/630366
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.