An expert birder told me about a year ago that he’d seen Pipits in the park, and that they looked at first like sparrows. Ever since, I’ve been taking pictures of little brown and grey birds on the ground whenever I saw one, but always came up with sparrows. I was filming a sparrow this time, a juvenile White-Crowned, who was browsing along the new shoots of grass early in the morning, with a drop of dew at the top of each blade. It made for an ever so pretty sight, and I will post that video separately.
As I was following that sparrow, another bird crossed its path, and I chose to follow that bird with my lens, thinking it was another sparrow. It seemed like a sparrow at first glance, but as my lens got in tight, I could see that it was not. It did not have the beak of a sparrow, it did not have the cheeks of a sparrow, it did not have the breast of a sparrow. I did not know what it was. When I got the images home I had to browse the bird families on the Cornell bird lab website alphabetically, and was getting pretty frustrated. I got all the way down to “Wagtails and Pipits” before I struck gold. There it was! My bird is an American Pipit. A nonbreeding or juvenile individual. They breed in the tundra far north or at high elevations above the tree line, and come to coastal places like the park in winter. They’re said to congregate in flocks, but this is the only one of its kind that I saw this morning. It’s rather a pretty bird, and I hope I see more of them. And I did. The following week, a Pipit hopped on a rock below the Open Circle Viewpoint and allowed me to get a few seconds of video before it flew off.
For this bird, Wikipedia has the most comprehensive commentary. The bird is known elsewhere as the Buff-bellied Pipit, and has cousins. In eastern Asia, there’s the Japanese or Siberian Pipit; then there’s the Eurasian Rock Pipit, and the Water Pipit.
The commentary isn’t very kind; it says, this bird “is an undistinguished-looking species which usually can be seen to run around on the ground.” Is it?
They’re found widely in North America and may winter as far north as northern Ohio, which is not really toasty in December, even with global warming. They are accustomed to mating and breeding in patches of ground where the snow has just melted. The Wikipedia writer says:
“The first thing buff-bellied pipits do when they arrive on the breeding site, during snowmelt, is pairing. Indeed, males will start to fight one on one to win over the female and pair with it during the entire breeding season. They also fight for the snow-free sites that would be better for nesting. The moment is also very important because the melting snow implies an increase in arthropods abundance, which constitute the main food source for these birds. After the fight and the pairing, nesting is the next step. Nests are most often found on the ground in dry or wet meadows, always with a helpful protection, but they are never placed in shrubs or trees. The composition of the ideal nest depends on whatever is around the nesting area, but it is usually made of sedge, remains or new fine grass, and sometimes some horse hairs. The final issue buff-bellied pipits have to deal with is nest success. The nest is indeed the target for numerous predators such as ants or hawks. If this step is successful, an egg can be produced. The female will not lay an egg if the conditions, such as temperature and nesting site, are not optimal. If the first attempt fails, her time to lay an egg is reduced. In general, buff-bellied pipits continuously lay eggs over a period of 4 to 5 days after snow-melt (in April–May) until mid-July. After this period, the male testes decrease in size and the female refuses any copulation. The clutch size is usually 5 eggs but it can vary according to snowfalls, the parents’ reproductive ability and predation. Eggs are incubated for 13–14 days. During this time, the female does not leave the nest, but is still very reactive to any movement around her. She communicates by singing to the male that brings her food and defends their territory. Four or five days after hatching, the young is skinny, blue-gray in color, and only has its secondary feathers. For a week, the female will brood the clutch, but both parents will feed them. After these 7 days, the birds are ready for fledging but they will still be fed by their parents for 14 days after their departure. Finally, immature birds will form little flocks with other immature birds and wander off.“
So there it runs around on the ground, this undistinguished creature. But in its lifetime it has survived conditions that no human baby could endure. It has run and fluttered in places where no human feet have stepped (much). It has seen snowy meadows, forests, and mountains that few humans ever experience. It has flown thousands of miles over land and water, without the help of Alaska Airlines, to get here. It really is a brilliant little miracle, and we ourselves are the undistinguished species running around on the ground.