By Dominic Couzens
Have you seen an Alpine Accentor in Britain recently? No? Thought not; almost nobody has. What about a Wallcreeper? No, it hasn’t been recorded in Britain for more than 30 years. So, what about two other birds of the European mountains, the White-winged Snowfinch and the Alpine Chough? Despite breeding within a long day’s drive of our shores, neither has ever reliably been recorded on our islands, ever.
It is, therefore, quite something that one bird of the European high tops, which breeds in the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Carpathians among various other mountain ranges, is a regular visitor here. That bird is the Water Pipit, arguably one of the lowest-profile of all British birds. Lots of birdwatchers have seen one, but very few seem to know what an extraordinary character it is.
Its appearance in Britain, between late September and late March, is an example of a neat migratory quirk. When the nights begin to close in and the trees begin to lose their leaves, the Water Pipit flies… north! It isn’t the routine migrant, going south in the winter to find a warmer climate, then returning in the spring when conditions improve. Instead, the Water Pipit is an ‘altitudinal migrant’, sweeping downhill rather than down the latitudes. A primarily insectivorous bird would not wish to be caught up in the harsh, snowbound, icebound conditions of the montane winter. Anything is better than that – even a wet, sludgy field in England. So, to a Water Pipit, a move north can make sense.
As an aside, altitudinal migration is one of nature’s secrets. Around the world, many species of birds and other animals make movements up and down mountains. British birds such as Grey Wagtails move away from upland areas in the autumn. In North America, some grouse species (e.g. the Dusky Grouse) move just a few miles downhill, the world’s shortest bird migrations.
Some Water Pipits, then, fly north to England to avoid the mountaintops, but which mountains they are is still a mystery. It might be the Alps, but we simply don’t yet know. What we do know is that about 100 individuals winter on British coasts and river valleys, usually settling near to freshwater meadows, watercress beds and fields. There is some evidence, too, to suggest that most, if not all our winter visitors are males. Since the Water Pipit also winters in southern Europe, along the Mediterranean coast, for instance, this opens up the possibility that some males and females go in opposite directions in the autumn, which is also intriguing.
It is often difficult to get a good view of a Water Pipit. It is notoriously easy to flush, and once disturbed, it flies right away, almost out of sight. This is in contrast to Meadow Pipits and Rock Pipits, which often allow a close approach and casually concentrate on feeding. The feeding technique of all these species is so simple that, if you ever woke up and realised that a wicked witch had turned you into a pipit, you could cope perfectly well. They simply walk around and take morsels at their feet. Studies have shown that Water Pipits in the breeding season prefer short grass to long grass, because it takes longer to find food in long grass – so that’s a useful tip. Water Pipits are among a guild of mountain birds that regularly feed on the edge of snowfields, fielding insects that have been blown on to the snow or adapted to this extreme habitat. One such insect is known as the Glacier Flea, even though it is in a group called the Springtails.
The Water Pipit brings its simple foraging skills to its winter home, wandering over the pasture and feeding beside the puddles. So long as the water isn’t frozen, individuals have plenty to eat, and, in fact, subsist on a surprising variety of different foodstuffs. You would expect them to eat flies and their larvae and other small invertebrates, but it seems that they are particularly partial to snails and, apparently, the remains of dead fish.
Another anomaly is that some populations eat freshwater algae, too, which is quite unusual for a small bird, so far as is known.
Once the birds return to the high tops in the spring, the fresh air ushers them into breeding action. The males perform song-flights in typical pipit style, with a rising-up and falling, parachute-style, accompanied by the song, which is astonishing in its sheer repetitive dullness.
It makes a Meadow Pipit sound like a Nightingale, just a series of notes endlessly repeated before a slight change, sometimes spiced up by accelerating a little.
It is the kind of song that would drive you mad if played repeatedly over the loudspeaker in a supermarket, or for that matter, if you had to listen to it while climbing up an Alpine slope.
Notwithstanding its inherent dullness, the Water Pipit’s song, uttered only by the males, contains a very simple code. There is a particular type of song-element called a ‘Snarr’, found in all repertoires. Quite simply, the highest-quality males, based purely on their body condition, produce the most ‘Snarr’ notes. Birds with the highest Snarr scores don’t have any other qualities – they aren’t older or more experienced, nor do they have better territories, nor do they produce a strong effort at parenting. They are simply healthier and that, presumably, is all that matters to female Water Pipits.
One thing that is evidently equally important is the nest site. The nest itself is simply an open grass cup placed in long grass or in a hollow, but it is most important that the slope that it is on faces anywhere from north-west to north-east. Studies have shown that the orientation is irrelevant to nestling success, but it simply makes the female, the sole incubator, more comfortable, and less prone to the extremes of cold and heat. It is also important that Prosecco is available nearby.
Water Pipits are usually monogamous, but sometimes the eggs within a nest are the product of extra-pair liaisons. More rarely, females will ‘dump’ their eggs into the nests of their neighbours, with the same result, that the precise genetic material of the clutch doesn’t entirely match the pair looking after them.
Fascinatingly, instances or both extra-pair copulation and egg-dumping seem to be confined to nests with particular characteristics, such as being placed near a well-used ‘communal’ foraging area, or by being sited within the borders of neighbouring territories. It seems as though it simply occurs almost by accident, rather than being a specific strategy to increase paternity or maternity. Apparently, a male goes to feed and, seeing that it is in close proximity to a female nesting nearby, it jumps in for some opportunistic nookie.
Similarly, a broody female spots a vacant nest on its daily routine and thinks, “Hey, I might just lay an extra egg here.” This ‘accidental’ brood meddling is highly unusual.
So, you can see that the Water Pipit is a pretty cool species – migrating the wrong way, consuming algae, luxuriating on its nest and living the high life. So why, then, is it not better known?
It is partly because it is still pretty scarce in Britain, and it is a quintessential streaky brown bird that can be extremely difficult to identify in autumn (albeit handsome in spring, with flushes of pink and grey). But the main reason is that, before 1988, it was considered to be the same species as the Rock Pipit, so its very distinctive natural history was overlooked by British birders.
Hopefully, that won’t be the case these days. That bird in the winter sludge is more remarkable than you think.
Water Pipit fact-file
Scientific name: Anthus spinoletta
UK numbers: 190 UK wintering birds
Habitat: Lowland areas at freshwater marshes, ponds, watercress beds and flooded fields etc
Diet: Insects and larvae